Giant wind turbines have become a common sight winding along Mill Plain Boulevard, as tractor-trailers haul the towers and blades from ships at the Port of Vancouver to wind farms sprouting up across eastern Washington and Oregon.
Voters will decide Nov. 7 whether Washington utilities should boost their reliance on such wind farms.
Initiative 937 would require Clark Public Utilities and other large utilities to increase renewable energy sources to 15 percent of their supply by 2020, following step-up requirements of 3 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 2016.
Since the initiative doesn’t count hydroelectricity which is how half of the Northwest’s electricity is generated as a renewable energy source, utilities would have to invest in wind and other renewables if the initiative passes.
In Clark County, the local utility district’s current qualifying mix of renewables amounts to one-quarter of 1 percent.
Supporters of I-937 contend that Clark and other Washington state utilities will have to seek new forms of energy in the future to meet growing demand, and that wind development already is comparable in price to traditional sources such as coal and natural gas.
“Coal and renewables like wind are competitive in price,” said Chris McCullough, campaign manager for the Yes on I-937 campaign. “Is it worth it for our children’s future for clean air to make that choice now, to go the renewable route?”
Business groups are lining up to oppose the plan, citing an analysis by the Washington Research Council pointing to potential job losses if the new standard boosts electricity rates. The industry-backed council said the initiative could drive up electricity costs from $185 million to $370 million annually and could cost the state thousands of jobs.
The council also argued that wind power is a growing energy resource already, and that a mandatory standard will undermine free-market forces.
“It seems doubtful that utilities will find magic solutions to renewable energy in the next 15 years that will enable them to meet the ambitious targets of I-937 in a cost-effective way,” the WRC report concluded.
Initiative sponsors said they addressed the cost issue by including an “escape clause” allowing utilities to opt out if buying renewable energy would incrementally boost rates by more than 4 percent. McCullough said the idea is that I-937 will nudge utilities toward choosing wind power without shoving them into a budget-busting extravagance.
Clark power keeps mum
Commissioners with Clark Public Utilities have remained officially neutral on the measure, although the Washington Public Utility Districts Association has endorsed it.
Right around the year 2015, Clark officials anticipate they will need to acquire new energy resources to meet growing demand. The initiative, however, would force Clark to significantly boost its mix of renewable resources starting in 2012.
Even though the initiative also requires utilities to improve conservation, Clark power managers figure their average load will grow from 525 megawatts today to as much as 637 megawatts by 2020. Utility managers figure wind energy will fill part of the gap, but they are concerned about the well-documented flaws in the resource, according to utilities manager Mick Shutt.
Because wind turbines can be counted on to produce energy only 30 percent of the time, regional power managers say they are struggling to figure out how to “shape” the fluctuating output of wind farms with the Northwest’s abundant network of hydroelectric dams.
That’s not so simple.
“In many ways, wind and hydro are a natural fit, but there are limits on the ability of the region’s hydro system to integrate wind,” Elliott Mainzer, a Bonneville Power Administration manager, said in a recent interview.
Mainzer is leading a group trying to figure out how to incorporate wind energy while minimizing harm to salmon trying to migrate past hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
At the same time, BPA must upgrade its strained transmission grid so electrons generated on the windy plains east of the Cascades can be carried efficiently to the cities of western Washington and Oregon, Mainzer said.
These hurdles are not insurmountable, said Randy Hardy, a former BPA administrator and energy consultant who is supporting the I-937 campaign.
“Normally, I’m not a supporter of government mandates,” he said. “I thought this was a reasonable mandate.”
By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
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