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Bill Would Open Door to PUD Power Plants

by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, March 18, 2001

OLYMPIA -- The West Coast energy crisis has lawmakers reconsidering the benefits of a two-decade-old law that sets limits on power plant construction.

The measure was approved in 1982, just months before the Washington Public Power Supply System's default on bonds for two of the four nuclear power plants it never finished.

Voters gave 58 percent approval to Initiative 394, which required public utilities to get voter permission before building any power plant that would generate more than 250 megawatts.

No public utility has built a power plant of that size since.

But a bill that passed the Senate last week would change the law to require a public vote for nuclear projects only, allowing public utilities to build other power plants. Backers argue the initiative was targeting nuclear projects anyway and it prevents construction of sorely needed new generation.

"We know it was aimed at WPPSS," said Jim Rowland, a lobbyist representing the consortium now known as Energy Northwest.

Opponents of Senate Bill 5292 disagree and say times like these are what stimulated haphazard decisions to begin building the WPPSS projects.

"I think we've got the same sort of crisis mentality that we need to push forward and build plants at any cost," said Seattle's Steve Zemke, who filed the initiative 19 years ago.

Though I-394 supporters made 15 references to WPPSS in their 325-word statement in the November 1982 voter's pamphlet, they wrote nothing to suggest they entertained a phobia of nuclear power, just "runaway spending" by WPPSS management and contractors.

Supporters of SB-5292, which passed the Senate 38-11 and now heads to the House, say the initiative discourages power plant construction because it lengthens the time it takes to build plants and increases their costs. And though Clark Public Utilities recently built a plant that came in just under the 250-megawatt threshold, others don't because it's not efficient to build small plants.

"The restriction puts public utilities at a distinct competitive disadvantage," said Stu Trefry, a lobbyist for the Washington PUD Association, before a Senate committee last month. "Smaller units result in less competitively priced power. It has stymied even the consideration of certain plants."

Further, Rudi Bertschi, chairman of Energy Northwest's executive board, said the Northwest needs more generation from public utilities, which aren't profit-driven like private power producers seeking "as much money as they can get."

The initiative also would force utilities to spend gobs of money to develop a proposal, which voters could then reject. And construction delays related to an election could alter a project's financial viability.

"The first to market will always be the Dukes, the Reliants and the Enrons of the world," Bertschi said, referring to private power plant builders. "Timing of these projects is important."

Opponents of the bill make many of the same arguments they did two decades ago. Zemke called the bill a "sneaky, back-door attempt" to overturn the initiative.

"What Energy Northwest wants is a blank check" he said.

Danielle Dixon, a lobbyist for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an environmental advocacy group, said passing the bill would be an indication the region hasn't learned its lesson. And that's dangerous, given all the talk about the need for a flurry of power plant construction.

"Given that pressure, there is that potential for making some decisions that aren't the best for long-range planning," she said. "Had we truly learned from our mistakes, we wouldn't have thrown out investments in conservation the last few years."

Legislative critics of the bill said it gives public utilities too much power. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said it would give them an "unlimited ability to raise money from their customers."

But backers say the bill would allow Washington to become more energy self-sufficient.

Chris Mulick
Bill Would Open Door to PUD Power Plants
Tri-City Herald, March 18, 2001

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