Opinion

Washington Legislature should fix renewable energy law

In their successful initiative campaign two years ago, I-937 proponents told voters their goal was to replace carbon-based electricity with renewable energy — a concept we all support within reason.

But the fine print of I-937 makes it virtually impossible to meet that goal. Even so, some lawmakers want to raise the bar even higher next year.

It’s time for legislators and the Governor to revisit I-937 to make it more workable and protect Washington ratepayers from skyrocketing electricity costs.

It is also time for our elected officials to ensure that reasonably priced, reliable electricity continues to be available to those businesses and industries that locate in our state because of low cost power.

Washington is a high cost state for business and industry, and the offsetting trump card has been abundant low cost electricity.

I-937 mandates that utilities with more than 25,000 customers get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 or pay stiff fines and penalties.

Raising that mandate to 25 percent by 2025, as some lawmakers are expected to propose next January, only digs into our family budgets and impacts employers’ ability to provide jobs.

The irony is that I-937 expressly excludes most hydropower, an affordable renewable energy source that provides 70 percent of our state’s power needs.

That exclusion forces utilities to sell our affordable hydropower to other states and buy more expensive forms of renewable energy to meet I-937’s mandates.

The result: Ever higher utility bills for Washington families.

While I-937 purports to encourage the use of wind power and solar energy, the initiative handcuffs utilities by prohibiting them from purchasing power produced outside the boundaries of the Bonneville Power Administration.

By broadening our reach to the area covered by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC), we could get wind power from eastern Montana, biomass energy from Canada and solar energy from Nevada.

WECC is an organization of bulk power producers and electrical transmission operators. WECC’s service territory includes all or portions of 14 Western states and the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

This reach and diversity provides efficiency, reliability and economy of scale in a competitive marketplace that will benefit Washington ratepayers with lower electricity rates.

If lawmakers and the governor really want to be creative, they would allow utilities to buy renewable power from anywhere.

For example, that would allow utilities to compete for all the new wind generation in Texas, North and South Dakota and other Plains states where the new investments are going.

It was clear from the beginning that I-937 stacked the deck against coal-fired plants, even though clean coal technology all but eliminates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

I-937 also deters construction of new natural gas turbines even though they are the quickest power source to bring on line to meet our immediate family and work needs at more reasonable costs.

But by unreasonably restricting the availability of renewable energy, I-937 puts our state at a competitive disadvantage. It hamstrings utilities and increases costs for ratepayers.

The bottom line question for the initiative backers is this:

Are they willing to change their mandates so we will have reasonably priced, reliable power?

If they aren’t, are the governor and Legislature willing to take them on and change the law for Washington families, the employers who provide jobs for those families, and for hospitals, schools and Internet server farms?

A better approach is to count hydropower as renewable energy, allow our utilities to purchase renewable power in a competitive marketplace, encourage continued development of alternatives such as clean coal, and replace mandates with a series of incentives that help expedite our transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon based energy.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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