Driving is far and away the biggest source of climate-warming emissions in the Pacific Northwest.  Together, motor gasoline and highway diesel account for about 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels in BC, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  (In Washington, the figure is 36 percent—click on the graph for details.) Nothing else we do comes close to matching the amount of CO2 that we emit when we drive.

Which would make one think that reducing emissions from driving is the highest priority for reducing our impact on the global climate.  Given the disproportionate amount of CO2 from driving, that sounds reasonable, right?

Only I’m not sure that it’s true.  In fact, if I had to choose one area of the northwest’s energy system to focus on, I’d probably choose the one that is, comparatively speaking, the most climate-friendly:  electricity.

  • Most of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity comes from hydropower dams.  Now, obviously, the dams that staple the region’s streams and rivers have their problems; they’re largely responsible for the decline of the region’s iconic salmon runs.  However, while hydropower isn’t always climate friendly, the dams in the northwest are fairly climate-benign, as energy sources go.

    But we’ve pretty much hit the limit on hydropower generation in the Northwest.  Annual hydropower generation varies with the weather, but the long-term average has been roughly stagnant for a couple decades. There simply haven’t been many new additions to hydropower capacity recently: all of the good sites already have dams on them. So these days, new production comes from other sources; and while a few new wind farms have gotten a lot of press, we’ve been largely meeting rising demand for electricity by burning more natural gas and coal.

    And coal is a real problem.  Coal emits more CO2 per unit of usable energy than anything else the nation’s energy portfolio.  At this stage, anything we can do to keep coal in the ground has got to count as one of the best ways to help stem the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels. 

    Now, the thing is that there’s very little coal-fired electricity in the Pacific Northwest itself; the Centralia power plant in Washington is the only major coal-to-electric plant In the region.  But there are quite a few large coal-fired plants Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah—plants that also power growing demand throughout the US West.  Arguably, the most climate-friendly policies we could pursue in the Northwest would…

    1. help us use electricity more efficiently—which would reduce the demand for imported coal-fired electricity; and
    2. help us generate more electricity renewably—which could help us export more electricity outside the region, offsetting electricity generation from coal-fired plants.

    Of course, I think this line of thinking poses something of a dilemma: is it really possible to convince people that the best thing to do for the climate is to use less of the one energy source that—in this region, anyway—poses the least threat to the climate?