OLYMPIA -- Several Tri-City leaders traveled to the state capitol Tuesday to tell lawmakers that forcing utilities to meet renewable energy targets is driving up the cost of electricity and harming local businesses, schools and the poor.
"What's happening is utilities are having to purchase credits they can't even use to the tune of millions and millions of dollars," Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, told the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.
"What my bill proposes to do is (let us) buy the credits when we need them," she said.
Senate Bill 5648 -- the first one Brown introduced since being appointed to replace Jerome Delvin as the 8th District senator -- changes the requirements of voter-approved Initiative 937 to allow utilities to count energy conserved in excess of conservation targets toward the renewables target.
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The idea is that utilities would turn to sources such as wind and solar when conservation has been exhausted and new power sources are needed to meet the demand.
The initiative was passed in 2006 and required electric utilities with 25,000 or more customers starting last year to have 3 percent of their load come from renewable resources or to have bought equivalent renewable energy credits. The initiative steps up those requirements to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.
Tri-City leaders have been critical of the renewable requirements largely because they don't allow for hydropower generated from large dams to count toward the targets even though hydropower is an abundant and clean energy source that doesn't emit greenhouse gasses related to climate change.
On Tuesday, Tri-Citians told the committee that the renewable requirements are artificially inflating the cost of electricity and they believe that will harm families and cost the region jobs.
They also argued that utilities already get enough power from sources not included on the initiative's list of renewables and that making utilities buy power from more costly wind or solar producers.
Environmental advocates who oppose the bill countered that the initiative has brought billions in investment to the state and created jobs.
Clifford Traisman of the Washington Environmental Council told the committee he fears that passing Brown's bill would stymie that investment in Washington's clean energy economy.
"This bill would substantially reduce the development ofnew renewables and conservation," Traisman said. "If there's going to be a broad I-937 discussion, we would be looking at ways to balance the loss of development in this approach with an increase in the (renewable) standards, which I know is not something we're seriously pursuing this year so we oppose this."
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, asked whether any data shows positive economic effects from the initiative.
A document provided by Traisman said that in the past decade about $8 billion in capital investments have been made in Washington, creating an estimated 5,000 construction jobs and about 1,200 permanent jobs.
Most of that money -- about $5.7 billion -- was spent on development of wind power, including Energy Northwest's Nine Canyon wind project outside of Kennewick. Investment also has been made in solar, geothermal, tidal and biomass development.
About $162 million has been spent developing wind power in Benton County, bringing 81 construction jobs and 12 operating jobs, and about $330,500 in property taxes, the report provided by Traisman said.
But Tri-Citians said any benefits are being outweighed by the effects of rising utility bills.
Martin Valadez, vice president for diversity and outreach at Columbia Basin College, said power rate increases linked to the renewable energy targets will cost the Pasco-based college an estimated $200,000 per year at a time when higher education budgets have been deeply cut.
"In these tough economic times, it doesn't make sense to make utilities buy power they don't need," Valadez said.
Jared Balcom of Pasco agribusiness Balcom & Moe said coming increases in Franklin PUD rates will cost his business an additional $25,000 per year. The company spends about $500,000 per year on electricity to irrigate fields.
"Twenty-five thousand dollars a year is very similar to hiring a person," Balcom said. "We're essentially taking a wage and paying it to the utility district."
And as a potato grower, prices are determined by what buyers are willing to pay, so he can't pass the rising utility costs on to customers, he said.
Randy Ray, lobbyist for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said rising electricity rates would be especially hard on low-income Tri-Citians, who don't have any room in their budgets to absorb higher utility bills.
"Fleecing poor people in the process was not part of (Initiative) 937," Ray said.