Low-Carbon Grid, High-Carbon Highways
September 28, 2016

Washington and Oregon have long been recognized for having two of the cleanest electricity grids in the nation. This recognition is owed, in part, to smart policies in each state, such as I-937, that have augmented the Northwest’s abundance of hydro resources by requiring new renewable energy and efficiency resources to be deployed across the region for the past 10 years. Today, over 50% of the electricity consumed in both Washington and Oregon comes from a mix of hydro and renewable energy sources.  And with Oregon's recently passed Coal to Clean legislation, that percentage will grow to over 80% by 2040.

Unfortunately, this clean recognition does not extend to other sectors of the economy. With such a low-carbon power sector—which is typically the single largest source of emissions in most other states—the bulk of Washington and Oregon’s carbon pollution comes from transportation, representing over a third of total greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and almost half of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington.

The good news: there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce vehicle pollution by tapping into our low-carbon electricity grid vis-a-vis developing and incentivizing more electrified transportation options.

The bad news: with little to no progress in state legislatures, we have been slow to capitalize on this lucrative synergy. The reason? Opponents of climate action actually use our clean grid to justify blocking important new policies and programs—arguing that with an already low-carbon electricity grid, there is no reason to reduce emissions in other sectors, or simply put: “we have done our part, so why do more?”

The real question is: why wouldn’t we want to do more?

Moral imperative aside, the luck of the draw having an abundance of hydro resources nearby does not exonerate us from reducing carbon pollution. And justifying complacency on the grounds that we have already done more than others appears to be an unsubstantiated claim given our transportation sector emissions.

So, to find out if this justification for inaction is, in fact, justified, we analyzed emissions data from all 50 States and the District of Columbia between 2000 and 2014, looking at emissions from the highest-polluting sectors and then ranking each state from least emitting to most emitting in each sector. Specifically, we wanted to find out how Washington and Oregon compare to the rest of the nation in carbon pollution from other sectors of the economy outside of the electric-power sector.

The results were even more surprising than we anticipated. We found that Washington and Oregon are historically absent from the top 10 rankings in multiple categories: most significantly in the transportation and industrial sector emissions.

Looking at the transportation sector (Figure 1) Oregon ranks 20th and Washington ranks 26th in per capita emissions in 2014. In fact, both states are bested by California with its famous traffic jams; North Carolina; and Michigan—the birthplace of the car.

In spite of our low-carbon electricity grid we fare only marginally better in the industrial sector: Washington in 17th and Oregon in 14th for state GDP to industrial emissions in 2014 (Figure 2).

And what about our emission reduction progress made over the past 15 years? According to the percent change in state energy-related emissions since 2000 (Figure 3)1over half the nation leads Washington and Oregon on curbing emissions: Washington sits in 26th and Oregon in 32nd place.

Even our rankings in per capita electric power emissions (Figure 4)—the basis for the opposition’s justification for inaction—were worse than expected. Both Washington and Oregon have dropped four places in recent years, surpassed almost exclusively by California and other states with comprehensive climate policies (AB32, RGGI).

To improve these standings and, more importantly, to protect the health of their communities, Washington and Oregon need to hold policymakers accountable for reducing carbon pollution across all sectors of the economy, starting with transportation. Vehicle pollution does not only pose a profound climate challenge, but also results directly in dangerous co-pollutants that lead to asthma and lung disease, particularly in communities next to highways and major roadways that are most often low-income and communities of color.

Oregon and Washington, however, are at much different points in the process. Oregon is a step ahead with its low-carbon fuels standard driving emission reductions in the transportation sector—a similar standard was halted in the Washington legislature in 2015 when opponents of climate action pitted it against transportation funding. The Beaver State will also likely improve in the electric-power emissions rankings with help from the recently passed Coal-to-Clean package and increasing renewable portfolio standard target to 50% by 2040. Washington benefits from a greater share of hydro resources than its neighbor. Initiative 937 has contributed to billions of dollars invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, helping avoid emissions equal to nearly 1 million cars, but it’s set to plateau in 2020.  To maintain Washington’s leadership, the legislature will need to take urgent, ambitious action.

In advance of the 2017 legislative sessions, Climate Solutions is working hard to expand support for transportation electrification in both states. In Washington, voters will have the chance to significantly expand energy-efficient mass transit by approving Sound Transit’s ST3. The project, the largest public investment in the state’s history and the largest proposed public transit expansion in the country, will build out on the existing Link Light Rail network to provide more critical low-carbon transit options that connect communities from Everett to Tacoma. ST3 will also expand affordable housing by prioritizing excess land near stations for affordable housing and nonprofit developers for mixed-use residential and commercial development.

In Oregon, the 2017 session will offer an opportunity to build upon recent climate successes by passing a new transportation funding package that supports the development of a modern transportation system that provides safe, reliable, and clean transit options for all, including electrification of cars, trucks, and even buses. Oregon also has a tremendous opportunity to reduce residential and commercial greenhouse gas emissions by upgrading building codes. Setting higher efficiency standards for new buildings will significantly reduce energy consumption and ultimately set Oregon down the same net-zero energy pathway for buildings that Washington is already on.

Our analysis made it clear that the climate crisis demands collective action above and beyond what is deemed our “fair share.” To do this, the Northwest needs to urgently address its largest source of carbon pollution by incentivizing and developing electrified transportation options that harness our region’s low-carbon resources.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4


Energy-related CO2 emissions are defined by the EIA as “emissions related to the combustion of fossil fuels (liquid fuels, natural gas, and coal) and emissions associated with petroleum feedstocks. Emissions from the flaring of natural gas are not included.” “International Energy Outlook 2016.” U.S. Energy Information Administration.


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Author Bio

A recent graduate from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, Caleb was an intern with Climate Solutions’ Strategic Innovation Team in summer 2015, then served as our Washington Policy Associate. While his academic background is in international development, his passion is clean energy technologies.

Outside of Climate Solutions, Caleb is an active board member with New Dawn Guatemala, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to foster ecological sustainability, economic vitality, and educational advancement in rural Guatemalan communities.

While at the University of Washington, Caleb participated in a task force that published a report outlining steps to end extreme poverty by 2030. His section of the report evaluated how development practices could be transformed to improve various environmental and economic situations in South Asia.

During his junior year, Caleb spent a semester abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied multilateral diplomacy and worked with the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health. While there, he researched Swiss renewable energy systems and Social Entrepreneurship. 

Caleb is an avid traveler, hiker, chef, and handyman. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Jenny.