Seattle City Light has become the nation's first major utility to cut its net greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, courtesy of plentiful hydropower...

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Seattle City Light has become the nation’s first major utility to cut its net greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, courtesy of plentiful hydropower, conservation and payments to companies to cut their emissions when City Light couldn’t, city officials announced Wednesday.

The achievement for a utility with 370,000 customers was trumpeted by Mayor Greg Nickels, who has made global warming a priority issue.

“We have a fundamental belief that we can power the city without toasting the planet,” Nickels said at a news conference at City Light’s control center in Ballard.

Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, are thought to be an important factor in climate change because they trap heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere.

The reductions achieved by City Light since 2000 represent the equivalent of taking nearly 140,000 cars off the road.

Global warming can affect snowpack that feeds water to dams, the chief source of the city’s energy, Nickels said. That reliance on hydropower means the utility was not a major emitter of greenhouse gases. But the achievement might offer an example to other utilities, said City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco.

Clark Williams-Derry, a research director for the Seattle think tank Northwest Environment Watch, agreed.

“It may not be that every utility everywhere in the country can reach this goal,” he said. “But what they show is you can do better, you can make some progress.” In 2000, the utility’s operations, such as the trucks it uses, and the power it purchased, generated the equivalent of 636,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to City Light.

By 2005, that had fallen to 200,000 metric tons, due almost entirely to the city selling its share in a coal-fueled power plant in Centralia, Lewis County. To eliminate that last 200,000 tons, the city paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to other companies and agencies to act as surrogates by cutting their emissions.

For example, City Light is helping to pay for low-emission biodiesel fuel for garbage trucks in South Seattle, city government diesel vehicles and King County Metro buses. The utility also helped pay to enable Princess Cruises ships to shut off their diesel engines and plug into the city electrical grid while docked in Seattle.

All those measures cost roughly $600,000, said Lynn Best, City Light’s director of environmental affairs.

The city also recently reached a deal with Delaware-based DuPont Fluorochemicals to cut that company’s emissions for a payment from the city. Seattle City Light officials Wednesday declined to say how much the utility paid DuPont, saying the contract prohibits releasing its terms. In all, the utility budgeted $756,000 per year for 2005 and 2006 to pay others to cut emissions. That breaks down to about $2 per customer annually, according to the utility.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311