Rely on natural gas? WA lawmakers don’t care. The state’s ‘phaseout’ will cost you

The following op-ed was published in the The (Tacoma) News Tribune April 5, 2024.

Opinion By Sen. Chris Gildon

Did the Washington Legislature just pass a ban on natural gas that will force about 900,000 Puget Sound area customers to convert from gas to electric? That is the topic of much debate these days, and the facts should be known.

Proponents of House Bill 1589, particularly Puget Sound Energy, claim the conversation is loaded with misinformation. They say the new law does not include a ban on natural gas, suggesting instead that the legislation is simply designed to help them “thoughtfully plan for the electric and natural gas choices of our customers.”

Are they correct? Somewhat.

The 38-page law requires PSE to submit a plan to the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) by 2027 for combining its gas and electric businesses. PSE’s customers would see increased rates to pay for the additional infrastructure required to expand the current electrical grid while PSE simultaneously discontinues natural gas service. Of course, the plan would have to be approved by the UTC. That should not be a problem, however, as every member of the UTC is appointed by the bill’s biggest cheerleader — Gov. Jay Inslee.

So is it a ban, or is it a legislative directive to develop and implement a plan to discontinue usage of natural gas?

Semantics don’t matter. However the law is described, natural gas is going away.

What’s important is the impact the bill will have on people all across the Puget Sound region. PSE estimates the cost of electricity will increase 37% and natural gas will increase as much as 151% until it is phased out, one community at a time. Additionally, PSE’s gas customers will face enormous costs to convert to electricity. About 800,000 PSE customers are residential. They will all need to replace furnaces, water heaters and gas stoves. They’ll also be faced with upgrading electrical panels and fully re-wiring older homes with knobs and tubes.

The Building Industry Association of Washington estimates this will cost about $40,000 per home. All these costs will be borne not only by homeowners, but also by renters, because housing providers must recoup their costs. In the form of higher rates or exorbitant conversion costs, this will undoubtedly increase the cost of housing in our area. As an aside, I encourage everyone to research which legislators voted for this bill yet simultaneously claims to support affordable housing. You can pick one or the other, not both. Intellectual honesty should count for something in politics.

The effect on business will be just as harsh. In addition to higher monthly energy rates, the cost of adding the additional electrical lines required can be around $90,000 per business. Restaurants will be particularly hard hit. Many require natural gas. It doesn’t stop there. Think about the increased operating costs for schools and public buildings in the form of higher monthly rates alone. Will additional taxes be levied to pay for these increased operating costs? Time will tell.

The final question is whether our electric grid can handle the increased demand once clean natural gas is gone. The answer is unknown. I can say, however, that Senate Republicans offered an amendment during debate on this bill that would have required the electric grid be sufficient to prevent brownouts before shutting off the gas. That amendment was not adopted.

If clean energy were a sport, Washington state would already be a champion — and that is something to be proud of. Our state produces two-tenths of one percent of world carbon. This bill reduces that by a minuscule amount while increasing costs greatly.

Supporters of this bill seem to be saying there is no cost too great and no benefit too small while trying to confuse the public with a semantic debate about bans.

Washington’s new — supposedly designed to lead the state to its “clean, affordable and reliable energy future — leaves many questions unanswered. It will be a cause for uncertainty in the marketplace for quite some time.

The Legislature should address those concerns in the next legislative session.

Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, represents the 25th Legislative District and serves as deputy leader of the Senate Republican Caucus.