Tri-Citians are among those asking the state Legislature to help area utilities meet renewable energy requirements.
They explained to state representatives Thursday that allowing hydroelectric efficiency improvements on federal dams to count as renewable energy would help area utility districts such as Benton PUD.
A Kennewick legislator and a PUD commissioner spoke to the House Committee on Technology and Economic Development about Senate Bill 6058, which passed the Senate in a 28-20 vote earlier this week.
Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, the bill's original sponsor, said utilities that own their dams are allowed to count energy efficiencies as renewable, but utilities buying power from the federally-regulated Bonneville Power Administration are exempt.
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"This bill is really a matter of equity," she said.
Brown said Benton and Franklin counties have a 33 percent poverty rate and that even a small savings can mean a lot to ratepayers.
"When you get to a point where seniors are having to choose between keeping the lights on and getting their prescriptions refilled, every little bit helps," she said.
Benton PUD Commissioner Jeff Hall said despite paying for efficiency improvements on BPA dams, the public utility district can't claim energy efficiencies because it doesn't own the dam.
Benton PUD buys some of its power from BPA.
While Benton PUD makes up 2.8 percent of BPA's overall hydro system, Hall said it would like fairness for all utilities trying to meet Energy Independence Act standards as cost-effectively as possible.
Those standards, approved in 2006 by voters with Initiative 937, require utilities with more than 25,000 customers to get a portion of their power from eligible renewable resources such as wind and solar.
The act requires utilities to buy increasing large percentages of their power from renewable sources but does not allow them to include most hydropower as renewable energy.
Ubder current rules, utilities must utilize 3 percent of their annual power from renewable resources. That percentage increases to 9 percent annually in 2016 and 15 percent starting in 2020.
Tim Boyd, a lobbyist representing Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, said the bill is a smart, fish-friendly investment in energy efficiency upgrades and noted the benefit to utility customers.
"Whether the dam is owned by a qualifying utility or by the federal government ... ratepayers pay the freight," he said. "All ratepayers should benefit from these good investments. This bill helps that to take place."
Travis Metcalfe of Tacoma Power, a municipally-owned electric utility serving 350,000 customers in Tacoma and Pierce County, said the bill also could help create local jobs.
A recent hydroelectric upgrade in Mason County led to more than 250 local jobs, including pipefitters, carpenters, sheet metal workers and truck drivers, he said.
The bill, he added, will help utilities continue providing low-cost, renewable power to customers who need it most.
Not all who testified were in support of the bill.
Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the NW Energy Coalition, said the bill could have a negative effect on further development of other renewable energies like biomass or wind power.
The hydropower associated with the bill would account for an average of 50 megawatt hours. By comparison, there are already more than 3,000 MW of installed wind power capacity in the state.
Hirsh said 70 percent of Washington's electricity comes from hydroelectric power sources.
"We'd like to see this (bill) as part of a package of changes (to I-937) that looks at ways to improve efficiency and compliance in the near term, while also looking at the long term," she said.
Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit_