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Energy initiative hits utilities  

Voters have a voice in the state’s energy future when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 7 general election.

Initiative 937 would require the state’s 17 largest utilities to invest in all cost-effective energy-conservation projects at their disposal and obtain 15 percent of their electricity from new renewable energy resources, including wind and solar, by 2020.

Supporters insist the goals can be achieved without taking a big bite out of ratepayer pocketbooks, while building on a regional legacy of clean hydropower and energy independence.

“We have a choice of charting a path toward a cleaner energy future,” said initiative backer K.C. Golden, a former state energy policy director and policy director for Climate Solutions.

Critics fear passage would drive up energy customers’ costs from $185 million to $370 million a year and create an artificial economy around new energy resources.

“We’re not opposed to renewable resources,” said Michael Early, executive director of the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, a Portland-based trade association. “But mandates tend to increase costs.”

Initiative supporters said the measure would save energy and money through conservation that is cheaper than building new power plants and through investments in renewables that already are or soon will be cheaper than conventional coal, gas and nuclear power plants.

In its review of the initiative’s fiscal impact, the state Office of Financial Management said there are too many variables that go into electric utility costs and revenues to answer the ratepayer questions conclusively.

The measure does cap costs by saying a utility need not spend more than 4 percent of its annual retail revenue on renewable resources.

The Yes on I-937 campaign qualified for the ballot by gathering 337,804 signatures in support of the citizens measure after the state Legislature failed seven years in a row to pass comparable legislation.

Backers, who have amassed nearly $1 million to support the campaign, include the American Lung Association, League of Women Voters, Washington chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection, and Washington State Labor Council.

The No on I-937 group has received contributions of about $82,000, according to the last state Public Disclosure Commission report. Opponents include the Association of Washington Business, the Western Pulp and Paper Workers Association, and the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association.

Puget Sound Energy, which serves Thurston County electric customers, has been investing in wind power projects of late and expects about 5 percent of its energy supply will be green power by the end of the year. The corporate goal is 10 percent environmentally friendly energy resources by 2010.

The state’s largest utility estimates that power from its two wind farms will cost about $170 million less in the next 20 years than from the next-cheapest source.

The initiative, if it passes, applies to utilities with 25,000 or more customers.

So, Shelton-based Mason County Public Utility District No. 3, with 31,000 customers, also would have to meet the requirements, if it passes. Currently the utility gets 1 percent or less of its power supply from wind power, utility spokesman Joel Myer said.

Neither utility serving South Sound has taken a position on the initiative, although the Washington Public Utility Districts Association supports it.

Statewide, renewable energy resources account for about 2 percent of the energy supply, initiative backers say.

“Wind is the resource that has cracked the barrier,” Golden said. “It’s the lowest-cost new energy source.”

There’s real doubt wind can produce enough electricity to reach I-937’s mandate, said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. Wind turbine costs are on the rise, and there is an 18-month delay in the delivery of the turbines from manufacturers, Brunell said.

And wind power is intermittent – sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it isn’t, which makes it a less-reliable resource, Early said.

Initiative supporters disagree, citing studies that suggest there are more than four times the wind and solar resources available in the Northwest to meet the 15 percent standard.

“Adding wind to a base of hydropower is the perfect fit,” Golden said.

Promising new technologies, including advances in solar power technology and tidal and wave power, could be ready by 2020 to meet some of the supply needs, Golden said.

Clean energy also offers public health benefits, American Lung Association spokesman Nick Federici said. Fossil fuels burned for energy pollute the air and are associated with major health problems ranging from asthma to lung cancer, he said.

“This region has some of the cleanest power resources and cleanest air in the nation,” Golden said. “This initiative is about continuing that tradition.”

More on Initiative 937

The regional electric demand is expected to increase about 5,000 average megawatts by 2025, which is enough energy to supply about four or five Seattle-size cities.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s 2004 power plan estimated there are more than 2,000 average megawatts of cost-effective wind power and 2,500 average megawatts of conservation that could be developed over the next 20 years.

The District of Columbia and 20 states have measures in place similar to Initiative 937.

The cost to the state to ensure utilities comply with I-937 would be about $167,000 a year, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

The penalty to a utility for not meeting the clean energy standards, which ramp up over the next 15 years, would be $50 for each megawatt-hour of shortfall.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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