Our Voice: Fixing state's Energy Independence Act requires action, not words

September 25, 2013 

Last week's state Senate hearing in Richland on Washington's Energy Independence Act was a welcome step but left us less than optimistic about the prospects for a sane energy policy anytime soon.

The act is based on Initiative 937, which was approved by about 52 percent of state voters in 2006, and legislators are unlikely to oppose that mandate.

In addition, the Energy Independence Act sounds "green," which can be as good as being green when it comes to appealing to environmental voters. Don't look for many lawmakers representing Western Washington districts to challenge the act.

It's too bad because the state could do a lot better than follow the provisions of I-937. The initiative adds needless energy costs for consumers and forces utilities to take actions that aren't the best choice for the environment.

About 85 people attended the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee's hearing last week, pointing out unintended consequences of the act.

Utilities with at least 25,000 customers are required under the act to buy at least 3 percent of their power from eligible renewable resources, such as wind and solar, and increase that to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020 -- or purchase renewable energy credits.

The act has encouraged investment in windmills, which any road trip around Eastern Washington will verify. That might sound like an environmentally friendly development, but it's not. Because utilities are being forced to invest in "green" generating systems that they don't need, the environment loses.

Benton Public Utility District, for example, has enough power under contract to serve its customers until 2020, said General Manager Chad Bartram but must spend more to comply with the act.

Forcing utilities to buy energy they don't need to meet arbitrary mandates doesn't make sense. The cheaper, clean hydropower Washington utilities could be using will be sold elsewhere, probably California.

The result will be a hit to consumers, as utilities have to buy the more expensive green energy from wind turbines and other sources. In one recent example, wind energy cost Benton PUD $57 per megawatt hour, while hydroelectric energy cost $27 per megawatt hour.

Based on current forecasts, between 2016 and 2022, Benton PUD's customers are estimated to spend an additional $11 million on renewable energy credits, Bartram said.

The poor will suffer in particular, Judith Gidley, the executive director of the Benton Franklin Community Action Connections, told the Senate panel. She described the act as "green versus the poor."

But it turns out to be a poor trade. When companies build wind farms that we don't need -- wasting land and resources in the process -- just to meet the demands of this initiative, it's bad for the environment.

It makes no sense from an environmental perspective to build facilities we don't need. The big trucks needed to haul those wind turbine blades down the road leave a carbon footprint. So do the pilot cars that have to guide the monstrous pieces of equipment and the plants that manufacture the turbines.

It takes multiple loads to get all the parts to the often pristine hillsides that are scarred by roads cut to get the turbines to the top.

Environmentalists laud the initiative for our state's thriving green-power industry, touting a $7.5 billion investment in the state as a result. Figures that grand equal a lot of construction projects with a corresponding impact on the environment.

It would be one thing if green energy mandates were displacing coal-fired generators, but they're instead diverting one form of clean energy to other regions and replacing it with more costly, less reliable sources.

Washington doesn't have to build unneeded capacity on the backs of consumers to be green. The Legislature should focus on I-937's broader mandate -- voters want an energy policy that's good for the environment.

Instead of sticking to a path that doesn't deliver, lawmakers should overhaul the Energy Indigence Act to create a plan that gives voters what they want.

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