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Renewable Energy Initiative Puts 15-by-20 Plan on Washington's Ballot

Washington state voters will decide whether to compel utilities to choose renewable energy sources. The initiative is about keeping Washington from slipping backward while other states advance in their renewable energy use.


Opponents of a renewable energy standard in Washington state say the mandate would increase utility rates and cost the state jobs. But determined supporters have put I-937 on the ballot and voters will decide its future in the 2006 elections.

"The result of I-937 may be that Washington continues to meet two thirds of its energy needs with renewable energy in 2020, as it does today."

Costs capped

The obstreperous focus on costs and existing hydro is a sign of the weak case against the proposed renewable energy standard.

"Critics fail to realize that this initiative has a cost cap that limits, to an insignificant amount, any increase in cost associated with adopting the technology. The initiative limits the cost increase to a maximum of four percent, about a dollar per person." said Rep. Jay Inslee at the "Investing in Clean Energy" conference in Seattle last week.

Renewable Energy Standard

I-937 requires Washington state’s major utilities to increase the amount of new renewable resources in the electricity supply to 15 percent by 2020. Hydropower dam upgrades qualify as renewable sources under the law. Utilities will also be required to pursue all low-cost energy conservation opportunities for their customers.

Today, 20 states and DC have passed similar measures. Colorado passed theirs in 2004.

Bonneville Power Administration manages federally-owned dams in the region, providing most of the state's current renewable energy to utilities. Some utilities are independently renewable-based: rural Chelan County PUD gets almost 100 percent of its power from dams it owns, and sells excess to neighboring territories. Utiities in this rare situation would comply in part by making upgrades to their hydropower facilities -- but if they do not add any load or capacity, the only requirement is to spend one percent of their revenue on qualifying sources of renewable energy.

The University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group says a 2006-07 drought is possible, particularly in the Cascade Mountains, where a lack of winter snow could affect hydropower generation.

Stopping the backward slide

Washington is well known for its renewable energy. Hydroelectric dams provide most of the region's power -- two thirds, according to advocacy group Climate Solutions -- but that share has been on the decline for many years.

The ballot initiative primarily affects the other third -- the growing part that comes from natural gas and coal power plants -- which is also the most expensive power in the region's mix.

The state's energy demand is projected to rise by 15 percent by 2020. Initiative 937 says that it must come from renewables, not from fossil fuels.

"Projected growth is about 1.4 percent per year. Basically the 15 percent renewable standard is designed to meet the new growth between now and 2020," says Bryan Flint of Yes On I-937. "Hydro will stay the same amount of energy, but shrink as a percentage as the pie grows."

What about the region's hydro? Existing hydropower is considered in I-937, to the extent that dams will continue to need upgrades in coming years. Those upgrades qualify. Squeezing extra power from existing dams counts toward the 15 percent requirement.

Meeting the state's growing demand for energy won't be done through hydroelectric power. The result of I-937 may be that Washington continues to meet two thirds of its energy needs with renewable energy in 2020, as it does today.

Initiative 937 also intends to mandate energy efficiency. Simple conservation measures can be costless. Achieving meaningful energy efficiency requires some investment, but still is less costly than constructing power plants, regardless of fuel.

Washington is expected to meet the 15 percent standard using wind energy, of which it already has substantial installments. Wind power is generally cost-competitive with coal and gas today. All three sources receive taxpayer subsidies.

Talk back

Should states be the ones to mandate clean energy? Will businesses locate in states where energy is cheaper and dirtier? Is the best place for mandates a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that affects all states equally -- and does that give the Pacific Northwest an unfair advantage? Use the Comment form to speak your mind.

Related resources:
Climate Solutions Fact Sheet
Opponents' web site
Proponents' web site
"UW Weather Experts Expect Drought"
"Investing in Clean Energy" conference coverage


WA is attractive to businesses because of its green reputation. A business locating in WA today can meet 100% of its energy needs with renewables, by buying green tags or RECs for only 32%. That's a good deal!

I-937 has the utilities running scared, so it must be good for customers. Our hydro dams won't last forever. We have to start on the next plan now.

Are there lists available with renewable energy advocates or research organizations in the Western U.S.?

I'm going to be looking for a job in the RE field soon and am developing a list of companies I'd like to apply for. I'm just looking an easier way to do this!