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Event recap

On Wednesday, April 7, the Atlantic Council hosted a virtual conversation on Washington state’s push to become a US climate leader. Governor Jay Inslee provided keynote remarks, setting the stage for discussion of Washington’s clean energy model. The following panel featured Brian Janous, Microsoft’s general manager for energy and renewables, Kerry Meade, executive director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council, Debra Smith, general manager and chief executive officer at Seattle City Light, and Washington State Senator Reuven Carlyle. The event was moderated by Julia Pyper, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, with Daniel T. Schwartz, director for the Clean Energy Institute and Boeing-Sutter professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, and Frederick Kempe, president & chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council, providing opening remarks.

The governor reflected on the historic mission the climate crisis confers upon his state and humanity. Surveying a technological revolution electrifying transport and decarbonizing diverse industries, Inslee underscored states’ urgent need “to be pushing the electric pedal to the metal” to accelerate clean energy transformations. Detailing Washington’s vibrant clean energy industry, robust efficiency standards, and move towards a carbon-free grid, Inslee emphasized that the state is “realizing the job creation opportunity” of the green transition.

“We’re not done yet,” the governor continued. On Olympia’s legislative agenda remain clean fuel standards, a cap-and-invest emissions program, and binding climate commitments. Pyper asked Inslee about his mandate for bold action; the governor recalled that the “undeniable daily reality” of extreme weather events and green job creation has bolstered public support. Inslee also expressed to Pyper his delight to now have a “good federal partner,” though admitting states continuously “need to be ahead of the federal government” in pushing climate ambition.

Senator Carlyle echoed the governor’s argument that “the role of the states is to be a forcing function for change.” The Evergreen State has done so, he elaborated, through a sector-by-sector approach, tackling electricity first via grid decarbonization. Washington’s bill was the first to be supported by state utilities, Carlyle noted, because policymakers considered and addressed their concerns. This stakeholder engagement, he predicted, will continue as Olympia decarbonizes the state’s agriculture, timber, maritime and aviation sectors, vital industries for the country’s most trade-dependent state.

Smith expanded on utilities’ role as “climate warriors.” Recalling Seattle City Light’s use of early pandemic downtime to plan for forthcoming stimulus monies, Smith elucidated their two-pronged strategy. Seattle City Light formulated a transportation electrification blueprint to ensure “everything that moves—people, goods and services—in and around the city is electrified.” To modernize the grid in support of this goal, Seattle City Light also crafted a strategic investment plan, prioritizing certain public projects while incentivizing private investment elsewhere. This innovation mindset, said Smith, is transforming Seattle City Light into “utility next 2.0.”

Extending the innovation theme, Janous presented Microsoft’s three-point clean energy strategy. The first, integrating new technology into Microsoft’s power infrastructure, is underwrote by Microsoft’s billion-dollar climate fund, which accelerates and markets cleantech advancements. A second, leveraging Microsoft’s substantial purchasing power to “vote with our wallet,” noted Janous, allows the tech giant to demand cleaner power from utilities. Finally, Microsoft advocates for policies to “evolve markets and regulation” towards greener solutions.

Concluding with a non-profit advocacy perspective, Meade spoke on how the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council goes “behind the meter” to spotlight building improvements that curtail energy use. Harnessing the built environment to accelerate Washington’s climate ambitions, Meade promoted “breaking-down some of the silos” in that field, like those separating efficiency, on-site generation, and energy storage regulations. In so doing, planners can “stack” resources to maximize building and grid performance.

Pyper lead a question-and-answer segment exploring energy reliability, regulation, and innovation. Senator Carlyle insisted reliability concerns were “embedded” in Washington’s clean power legislation, being “absolutely essential” in the wake of Texas’s winter debacle. Regarding the merits of a carbon tax versus Washington’s planned emissions trading system, the senator admitted a preference for the former, but conceded voters’ and legislators’ repeated rejections of that idea necessitated a more politically viable solution. Looking ahead, panelists discussed the technological progress that would hasten Washington’s climate objectives, including household distributed generation, clean energy microgrids, and hydrogen-fueled transportation. With the final word, Carlyle lauded Washington as a “light among the nation,” leading by example in the United States’ fight against climate change.

Paddy Ryan is a Spring 2021 Intern at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.


Opening by

Frederick Kempe
Chief Executive Officer
Atlantic Council

Daniel T. Schwartz
Director, Clean Energy Institute; Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering
University of Washington

Keynote remarks by

The Hon. Jay Inslee
Washington State

A conversation with

The Hon. Reuven Carlyle
Washington State Senator (D)
Washington’s 36th District

Brian Janous
General Manager, Energy & Renewables

Kerry Meade
Executive Director
Northwest Energy Efficiency Council

Debra Smith
General Manager & Chief Executive Officer
Seattle City Light

Moderated by

Julia Pyper
Nonresident Senior Fellow
Atlantic Council Global Energy Center