KENNEWICK -- It doesn't make economic sense to be required to buy more power than needed to support certain renewable energy projects, such as wind farms, said speakers at a public hearing Tuesday.
The Benton and Franklin public utility districts held a joint hearing in Kennewick to gather comments on proposed legislation to alter the Washington State Energy Independence Act. About 60 people attended.
After the hearing, the boards of both PUDs passed resolutions to support House and Senate bills to modify the act. The bills are expected to be introduced when the Washington Legislature meets in 2012.
"We must protect our utility from unnecessary additional costs and our customers from unneeded rate increases," Bill Gordon, Franklin PUD Commission president, said in a statement after the meeting.
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The State Energy Independence Act never has been popular in the Mid-Columbia, where much of the state's energy is produced.
Just under 52 percent of state voters approved the act by voting for Initiative 937 in 2006, but 66 percent of Benton and Franklin county voters opposed it.
The act was meant to increase the use of renewable resources by requiring utilities to use certain renewable resources for a percentage of their load. However, hydropower, which provides two-thirds of the power in the state, is not considered an eligible renewable resource under the act.
As a result, utilities like the Benton PUD, which have ample energy supplies under contract, would have to buy additional power starting in 2012. The act requires that eligible renewable resources, which include solar and wind power production, meet 3 percent of a utility's load in 2012, 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.
The act only applies to utilities with 25,000 customers and Franklin PUD falls about 1,000 short of that. But it is growing quickly and expects to soon need to comply with the act.
The proposed new law would revise the Energy Independence Act to say that if a utility already has excess energy under contract, then the utility has the option to choose not to buy unneeded energy or renewable energy credits otherwise required by the act.
As the utility grows and needs to add energy, the utility then would have to meet the act's requirements.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced in the final days of the legislative session this year, should only be the first step, said Jim Follansbee, a Franklin County resident who spoke at the hearing. The next step should be addressing the absurd assumption that hydropower is not a renewable energy source under the act, he said.
It's infuriating that hydropower -- "the greenest resource known" -- is not considered an eligible renewable energy resource, said Jim Toomey, executive director of the Port of Pasco. Port commissioners have passed a resolution in support of the proposed legislation to modify the act.
"Buying something you don't need is just dumb," said Sherry Harvey, a Benton County resident. "This is part of the green cancer that takes away our rights one by one."
Requiring ratepayers to buy and pay for power that is not needed in these economic times is irresponsible, said Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick. Rep. Terry Nealey,R-Dayton, joined the public hearing by phone and an aide spoke on behalf of Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. Both also support modifying the Energy Independence Act.
Higher energy costs hurt business and agriculture and make recruiting industry to the Tri-City area more difficult, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council.
AgriNorthwest needs large amounts of electricity for irrigation, and costs have risen from $6.6 million in 2008 to $8.5 million this year, said Tom Mackay, general manager. When rates go up, it has to cut costs, and usually that means labor, he said.
No economic analysis has shown that the act creates jobs, said Daryll Olsen, of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. Instead, it transfers money from the utility customer to another industry, he said.
Among those who would be hardest hit by rate increases are the poor, said Judith Gidley, executive director of the Benton Franklin Community Action Committee, which helps low-income families. Cuts in funding to its energy assistance program already will mean it can serve 1,560 fewer households next year.
If rates go up, more households -- including those where children and the elderly and disabled live -- will have their power turned off because they cannot pay, she said.
The city of Kennewick already pays$1.8 million annually for electricity, and the only way to pay a rate increase is by collecting more taxes or reducing services, said Marie Mosley, Kennewick city manager. Rate hikes also have a significant impact on small businesses, she said.
The city of Connell joined Kennewick in supporting the proposed bills to modify the Energy Independence Act.
The Benton and Franklin PUDs continue to accept comments on the proposed legislation. They may be emailed to the Benton PUD at email@example.com or to the Franklin PUD at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com.