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Does clean-energy initiative promise more than it can deliver?  

A clean-energy initiative on the November ballot promises to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, combat global warming and cut the cost of electricity.

Backers of the measure, Initiative 937, also say new wind farms would generate millions in tax dollars for struggling rural communities.

Can the initiative deliver on all those promises? It’s unclear.

Research indicates there might not be enough power available from renewable resources to meet the initiative’s requirement that large utilities get 15 percent of their power from clean energy by 2020.

Forcing power companies to produce more wind, solar and other types of clean power could cost more, and clean the air less, than I-937 supporters project.

And although some Washington communities have welcomed wind farms – the most cost-effective form of clean energy currently available – that has not been true in all cases.

Initiative supporters dismiss any concerns that I-937 might not meet expectations. But even if all the benefits don’t pan out, I-937 is worth moving ahead with, said Chris McCullough, campaign manager for the initiative.

“We have a choice. We can continue on the same path, a path we know has economic costs to it and has environmental costs to it. Or we can choose a different path,” McCullough said. “We have to start doing something about this. … The time to talk about this is over. We have to start acting.”

Are wind farms wanted?

I-937 supporters expect that wind power would provide the lion’s share of the large increase in clean power required by the initiative.

Windmills are big, up to several hundred feet tall, with enormous, slow-moving blades.

Promotional material put out by the campaign says “most communities are thrilled to host wind projects because of the economic benefits and the tax base.”

In Klickitat County, Assessor Van Vanderberg expects the Big Horn wind farm under construction to bring in more than $1 million a year in tax revenue.

“I’m certainly in favor of it,” he said.

But projects also run into trouble. The Kittitas County Commission has approved one and rejected two, largely because of their proximity to homes. One denial is being appealed to a state board.

Mike Robertson is one of more than 100 residents opposing the project that’s now on appeal.

Robertson built a home near Ellensburg with sweeping views of the Cascades about six years ago. Three months after he built it, he learned about the proposed wind farm. He’s been fighting it ever since.

“These machines are 410 feet tall. They want to place one of them within 1,300 feet of my back door,” he said. “It’s two-thirds the size of the Space Needle.”

David Bowen, chairman of the Kittitas County Commission, said some people hate wind farms, but others “would rather look at wind towers than houses and think it’s fantastic.”

I-937 backers say the controversy near Ellensburg is unusual.

Would it be cheaper?

Initiative supporters say conservation coupled with “cheaper” renewable power sources will cut energy bills.

“It’s going to save consumers money,” said McCullough, with I-937. “While fossil fuels keep getting more expensive, the price of renewables has been coming down.”

The campaign recently sent out a press release citing Colorado as an example. That state passed a measure, Amendment 37, in 2004 requiring utilities to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2015.

In touting Amendment 37’s success, I-937 backers said the customers of Xcel, a Colorado utility, “have already saved $14 million as a direct result” of investing in clean energy.

Xcel officials say the company has saved money from wind projects built before voters adopted the measure. However, “We haven’t saved any money” because of Colorado’s renewable standard, said Ethnie Groves, a spokeswoman for the company.

The cost of building wind farms has shot up 70 to 80 percent in recent months, in part because of increased costs for materials and strong demand for wind-power projects, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says.

The power council was established by Congress to create plans to guide Northwest energy development at the lowest cost, and least risk.

A spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which is neutral on I-937, says the two wind farms it’s built near Ellensburg and Dayton, Columbia County, were a good deal for the company, but agrees that costs have jumped. Wind power today is comparable – but not necessarily cheaper – than other forms of energy, spokesman Roger Thompson said.

A clause in the initiative would waive the 15 percent standard for utilities whose costs increase more than 4 percent because of the requirements.

McCullough argues the increased costs for wind power are temporary and will drop.

Jeff King, a senior resource analyst with the power council, said measures like I-937 could reduce energy bills over the long term.

“On the other hand,” he said, “you could see situations arising that might result in substantially increased costs. I’m not sure how it’s going to sort out at this point.”

Would it clean the air?

Supporters argue I-937 basically represents a choice between clean air or more pollution.

“As the state grows … we can choose to burn more polluting fossil fuels like coal or we can choose cleaner, cheaper renewable energy from new renewable resources and conservation,” McCullough said.

Given the concerns about global warming, it also makes sense to do what we can to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, he said. The campaign says several coal plants are being considered for the Northwest and that I-937 will dampen demand for them.

Currently one coal gasification plant is proposed in Washington. Energy Northwest, a Richland-based utility, wants to build the plant in Cowlitz County. It would burn a coal slurry mixed with oxygen that’s expected to be cleaner than conventional coal-fired plants.

Brad Peck, an Energy Northwest spokesman, said his company will pursue building the plant regardless of I-937. “The reality is that if I-937 passes, there may be a greater, not lesser need for that project,” he said.

His reasoning: Power generated by wind farms varies depending on how hard the wind blows. That means other sources of power are needed to fill in when the amount of electricity produced by wind farms falls off.

King, with the power council, said it’s possible I-937 could discourage coal-plant construction in the Northwest.

But he doesn’t expect much demand for coal plants regardless of whether I-937 passes. Even if built, he said, coal gasification plants don’t pollute like older coal-fired plants. Designed properly, their emissions are on par with gas-fired plants.

As for greenhouse-gas emissions, power plants accounted for 19 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the state in 2004, state records show. Transportation accounted for more than 55 percent.

“The issue is: Is [I-937] the most efficient approach to reducing emissions?” King said.

Is there enough power?

A more fundamental question is: Can the Northwest produce enough clean energy to meet the initiative’s requirements?

Washington residents currently get about 1 percent of their power from the types of renewable sources advocated by the I-937. About 68 percent comes from hydro and the rest from coal, nuclear and natural gas.

A Seattle Times analysis of future power demand, reviewed by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, indicates the region could need about 3,800 megawatts on average of renewable energy by 2025, if I-937 passes and renewable energy standards are adopted in neighboring states.

That’s enough power to serve 2.8 million households.

Oregon’s governor wants 25 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewables by 2025, and Montana already has a 15 percent requirement on the books.

I-937 backers argue there’s plenty of renewable energy available. The campaign cites research suggesting the potential to get 6,000 average megawatts in the Northwest from wind alone by 2020.

The power council forecasts a much smaller supply. It projects that about 2,500 megawatts of renewable power, largely from wind, will be developed in the Northwest by 2025.

That figure could be boosted to 3,100 to 3,800 megawatts (using I-937’s definition of renewable energy), but only by paying more for such things as longer transmission lines to reach wind farms in remote areas.

Also, other Western states, including California, might try to buy power from the same renewable-energy suppliers as Washington.

McCullough, with I-937, says the power council’s projection for lower-cost renewable energy is conservative. He also says costs to harness other energy sources, such as geothermal and ocean tides, will come down as technology improves.

“In the worst-case scenario and … they find the available resources aren’t there anymore, or aren’t cost effective, that’s when the [4 percent] cost cap would kick in,” he said.

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times staff reporter
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@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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