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Bill Pushes Renewable Energy

by Richard Roesler
The Spokesman Review, February 20, 2003

Measure would require state utilities to increase alternative power sources

Olympia -- Wind farms are sprouting among the sagebrush and dust of the Yakima Valley's Rattlesnake Hills.

Wind turbines tower over a tractor in Oregon along the Columbia River. Wind is just one source of renewable energy in the region that Washington conservation groups say should be explored more aggressively by power companies. A small solar energy farm has blossomed at a former reactor site on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Just over the border in Boardman, Ore., dairy farmers want to turn the manure from 21,000 milk cows into methane gas -- and power for 6,000 homes.

The Pacific Northwest has a vast endowment of renewable power resources, some conservation groups say. And they want Washington state lawmakers to prod the region's power companies into tapping more of it.

A more diverse power supply, they say, is less prone to volatile price swings or drought, could turn agricultural wastes into power, and would create badly needed rural jobs.

"This is just a gentle nudge to the energy industries, to get them moving in the direction of renewables," said Donna Ewing, with the League of Women Voters.

That "nudge" is House Bill 1544, which would require large power companies to gradually increase the percentage of their renewable energy sources, starting in 2010. By 2023, 15 percent of their power would have to be from sources like wind, solar power, or combustible fuel from wheat stubble or other crop waste. More than a dozen environmental and clean-energy groups are backing the bill, sponsored largely by Puget Sound Democrats.

But some power companies, including Spokane-based Avista, are balking. They're all for renewable energy and conservation, they say, but not if the costs fall on their customers.

"This is really the wrong way to go about it," said Kristin Sawin, with the Association of Washington Business.

Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane, agreed. He's a big fan of renewable power. His northeast Spokane home was off the grid for a decade in the early 1980s, powered by solar cells and a wind turbine. But he said he doesn't like the idea of government meddling in the free market.

"I'm not a fan of government going in and telling people what to do," he said. "The market always has responded. It's the government mandating that bothers me."

According to the House of Representatives' Office of Program Research, Washington already uses a tremendous amount of renewable power: water. Some 83 percent of the state's power needs are fed by the rumbling turbines in decades-old dams on the Snake, Columbia and other Pacific Northwest rivers.

But gone are the days when mountains of concrete sprang up in Washington's narrow river gorges. And the power system's lifeblood -- water -- is prone to droughts and environmental restrictions due to threatened fish runs. Most of the rest of the state's power comes from coal, nuclear power, or natural gas. Locally, Avista gets 4 percent of its power from burning wood waste.

Avista and other utilities argue that the market is the best gauge of when to diversify into renewable energy sources. But the free market isn't moving fast enough for farmers like Rick Anderson of Sunnyside.

Windswept farms, struggling to eke out a living on dryland wheat or cattle, offer both a power resource and a way for farmers to stay on the land, said Anderson. He farms ground his grandparents homesteaded in 1905, and has been approached by a windfarm company -- if they can find a power buyer.

"Wind power's the best form of economic development," said White Salmon rancher Bruce Morley, who organized ranchers in Wyoming into developing a wind farm. "Being able to develop wind was like them suddenly being able to discover oil on their land. In many cases, it literally saved the ranch."

Over the long term, renewable energy would reduce customers' bills, according to Jim Lazar, an Olympia economist hired by environmental groups to study the bill's effects. He predicted $2.2 billion in savings by 2023. Locally, he said, Avista ratepayers would be paying 8 percent less by 2023.

Several power companies say they'd prefer tax breaks or some other incentive so they don't have to pass on to customers the higher start-up costs of wind or other renewable power.

"We see nothing but mandates and no incentives," said Bruce Folsom, with Avista.

A similar battle took place in the Legislature two years ago, during the height of the 2000/2001 power crisis.

The bill that eventually emerged allowed utilities to charge customers a slightly higher rate if they wanted to pay for renewable power. Pacific Power, for example, allows Washington customers to use more wind-powered electricity for as little as $2.95 more per month. Some 490 customers have signed up for the program.

In a week, the same lawmakers considering HB 1544 will hear a report on the likelihood of a drought this summer. Some of the environmentalists who spoke Tuesday fear that another drought will strain the region's hydropower system, bringing more energy price increases.

"The sooner we get to renewables and efficiency," Ewing said, "the better we're going to be."

Related Pages:
Washington State Legislature Summary of House Bill 1544

Richard Roesler
Bill Pushes Renewable Energy
The Spokesman Review February 20, 2003

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