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Bracing for an ill wind  

Peninsula Light Co. is an impressive ambassador for wind farms, inviting its customers on an annual wind and wine tour of Southeastern Washington.

But the Gig Harbor-based electric cooperative is adamant in its opposition to Initiative 937, partly because it will cost its ratepayers. On the November ballot, I-937 will require utilities with more than 25,000 customers to have minimum percentages of their energy portfolio come from renewable energy sources.

Sounds great. I support investment in wind power and alternative fuels – have in columns right here in this space.

But in this initiative, there’s clean energy and then there’s clean energy.

Pushed by several environmental groups, I-937 excludes hydropower – made eminently renewable by spring rains and winter snowpack that melts and turns dam turbines on rivers across the state – as a qualifying source of power.

Though Peninsula Light buys all its power from Bonneville Power Administration, making it a nearly 100-percent user of renewable hydropower, almost none of it counts under the initiative. That means the utility that serves Western Pierce County’s islands and peninsulas will likely have to buy or develop more new renewable power than it needs.

Let’s be honest.

Washington has one of the cleanest energy profiles in the nation when it comes to green-house gas emissions from electricity generation. The state ranks third-best in pounds of carbon dioxide produced per kilowatt hour, just behind Idaho and Vermont, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2002, the most recent year figures are available, Washington’s rate was half of California’s, one-fifth of Massachusetts’ and less than one-third of New York’s.

Thank the state’s reliance on hydropower. At least 60 percent of Washington’s juice comes from dams.

If approved, I-937 will require utilities to have 3 percent of their energy portfolios come from approved renewables, mostly wind power, by 2012; 9 percent in 2015 and 15 percent in 2020.

The I-937 campaign is disingenuous in neglecting to tell ratepayers its one-size-fits-most mandates are going to cost them – especially as rates remain high from the 2001 energy crisis. Sponsors already admit to errors they promise to help fix legislatively – but later!

Nice, fuzzy-sounding platitudes for a ballot title belie the devil lurking in the details. This one in particular smacks of a certain arrogance enamored of a worthy goal but out of touch with reality, technology and good business sense. Remember the monorail?

What are voters supposed to do? Unfortunately, not all of them can look to the leadership of their own utilities.

The Washington Rural Electrical Cooperative Association, which includes Peninsula Light, is opposing the initiative. But the Washington Public Utility District Association officially endorsed I-937. Even public power supports this, sponsors say.

But there’s more to that story as well. The endorsement was part of a deal on the condition that initiative sponsors agreed to change two of the worst provisions, dealing with cost-cap language and whether public utilities would be under the control of a state regulator.

The threat of the worst of the initiative prompted the association to make a deal. Still, the endorsement is disappointing. PUD commissioners are elected and directly accountable to their ratepayers – the initiative sponsors are not.

Only the commissions of three PUDs – Benton, Franklin and Cowlitz – so far are actively opposing I-937. Snohomish County PUD (80 percent hydro-based) is remaining neutral, but its Web page estimates the initiative will cost as much as an additional $135 million between 2010 and 2028.

Makes me wonder. Whatever happened to the fire in the belly of public power?

Birthed in Washington ironically by Initiative No. 1, this proud, scrappy movement built large swaths of this state, electrifying cities, factories and farms. But that old populist verve seems to be running out of juice. Or at least, it’s running scared.

“We’re terrified of the environmental community,” admitted one PUD commissioner, who would speak only off the record. His rural Western Washington utility is remaining neutral.

Too bad. Public power’s once-proud leadership is leaving a vacuum that is letting the sponsors of this poorly drafted initiative walk all over ratepayers.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com


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

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