Pundits, at least pundits of a certain stripe, have long decried the fact that the United States has no energy strategy. Without a strategy, the argument goes, we are left at the whim of forces we cannot control and that will whipsaw the economy and the nation.

And so, one has to be a bit surprised, and pleased, that Washington State now has an energy strategy. Mandated by the 2010 Legislature in E2SHB 2658, on December 9, 2011, the Washington Department of Commerce submitted it to Governor Gregoire and the Legislature.

The Strategy is directed at three goals: to maintain competitive energy prices, foster a clean energy economy and jobs, and meet obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emission. It then goes on to say that it is also based on nine principles.  Meaning no disrespect – but three goals and nine principles may be more words about motherhood and apple pie than are particularly useful. But turning to the Strategy itself, it focuses on three areas: transportation, buildings and distributed energy.

The choice of transportation is obvious. Transportation accounts for about half of the energy used in the state. The transportation strategy is a three-part strategy – encouraging the conversion to better vehicles, building urban and suburban areas to reduce travel, and better pricing of trips.

The most concrete and achievable part of that strategy is promoting the conversion to better vehicles. With its abundant hydropower available to charge cars all night, when the water still has to flow over the dam even if demand for electricity is greatly reduced, Washington is uniquely able to power electric cars at very little cost. The biggest deterrent to electric cars is what their makers call “battery anxiety.” Knowing that if you “run out of battery,” you can’t walk to the nearest filling station and come back with a gallon of gasoline to solve the problem seems to terrify too many people. Until people know that they can plug in their car and recharge at their destination, that fear will continue to be a major reason to stick with gasoline-powered cars. And so, Washington can make a material difference in how quickly electric cars are adopted by increasing the availability of public charging stations.

Building cities and suburbs to reduce travel demand is a longer-term and more difficult problem. It involves encouraging greater density, which is essential to making transit viable, building bike and pedestrian facilities so that there are alternatives to getting in a car for a lot of trips, pricing parking to make walking, biking or transit more attractive, increasing brownfield redevelopment rather than sending new development outward, and developing integrated multi-modal systems, so that it is easier to take transit when you need to switch between modes of travel.

“Better pricing of trips” is in part code for tolls. It also starts to get at a central problem of our transportation financing system in Washington, which is that it relies very heavily on the gas tax, which is collected by the gallon. As vehicles become more fuel efficient, they travel further per gallon. The whole point of electric cars is that they don’t use any gallons at all. And yet the demands on the roadways are the same whether a mile of travel used a tenth of a gallon of gas or a fiftieth of a gallon of gas, or no gas at all. Ultimately the state will have to develop a revenue source based on how much its roads are used, rather than how much gasoline was used by the traveling public.

Turning to buildings, residential buildings are the second largest user of energy in the state. The Strategy focuses on three issues. The first is to attempt to get people to value energy efficiency. One way to do that is to make energy efficiency of a building visible to buyers, tenants and lenders, all of whom presumably will not attach value to energy efficiency if they have no way of understanding it when they are making purchase, loan and rental decisions. That strategy would broaden the scope and reach of requirements such as the City of Seattle adopted that require building owners to perform energy audits of their buildings and disclose the outcome of the audits to buyers, lenders and tenants (Oct 27, 2011 post). The building strategy also recognizes, however, that even when a building owner knows that energy improvements could be made, without financing it is less likely that the improvements will be made. Finally, it recognizes that low-income dwellings are both likely to have the greatest potential for energy improvement and least likely to actually have those improvements made. Thus it seeks to elevate the priority of low-income weatherization programs and subsidies.

Finally, the Strategy discusses distributed energy. As explained in two earlier posts (Nov 28, 2011 post and Dec 2, 2011 post), distributed energy is both potentially a huge source of energy, and mind-numbingly difficult to implement on a broad scale because it collides with a wide variety of entrenched competing interests. The Strategy promises to address the complexities, but for obvious reasons, doesn’t do so at this point.

What to say about Washington’s Energy Strategy? First, there is a pretty good argument that having a strategy is like starting a journey with a map in hand – if you just start the journey without a map, you will end up somewhere; but you are more likely to end up where you wanted to be if you have a map. So, in that sense, the Energy Strategy is good to have. But, the journey to a sensible and sustainable energy future is not like most journeys. It has a lot more bumps in the road; it is a lot more like a maze than a highway, and will depend on the consistent political will to follow the roadmap over a longer period than the political process can usually remain focused. Thus it is good to have the Strategy in place. But its ultimate utility will be determined by how consistently it is used over the next several decades.