It is a silly argument, but environmental politics tends to provoke silly arguments. Of course, hydroelectricity is “renewable.” How could it not be? The power of the sun lifts water from the sea and deposits it as snow in our mountains, where it is stored until released in the warmth of spring. A small fraction of that enormous energy is captured by our turbines and converted to electricity. It happens over and over again, year after year, renewed solely by force of nature, with minimal human intervention, without burning anything, with less greenhouse gas emitted than from a pack of exhaling legislators after a floor debate.
And yet, as it now stands, the Washington Senate says hydropower is not renewable. The House says it is and some environmentalists agree temporarily, even though they believe the law should say it isn’t, because if all renewable power is called “renewable” then we would not invest in “renewables.”
Environmental goals require denial of reality. Under current state and federal law, hydropower captured by our Northwest dams is not “renewable” even if it obviously is, because calling it what it is would counteract efforts to force the Northwest’s electric ratepayers to buy sources of energy in current environmental favor. These sources are notable for their expense and inefficiency, unlikely to attract much investment absent government mandates and subsidies.
It was in 2006 voters approved Initiative 937, which said that all Washington utilities with more than 25,000 customers must obtain 15 percent of their power from “renewable” sources by 2020. But “renewable” was given an intentionally narrow definition. Hydropower, which provides 70 percent of the state’s electricity, was deliberately excluded, except for a bit of added power obtained by recent improvements in dam equipment and operations. If the obviously renewable hydropower was included, then virtually every utility in the region would meet the renewable standard without trying. Since the purpose of the initiative was to force investment in windmills and solar panels, this would not do.
More than two years have passed and it is now possible for the Legislature to amend the initiative. The Senate debated the issue intently, passing SB 5840, which adds some flexibility to the renewable standards. It did not add hydropower, but gave utilities options, like allowing new exotic sources or purchasing renewable power generated in another state. In exchange, it increased the required percentage of renewables slightly.
The bill was in constant flux from the beginning, support waxing or waning depending on current moods and strategies. Then in the House, an amendment was passed declaring hydroelectricity be included in the definition of “renewable.” This change was long sought by conservatives and many utilities, who want to call hydroelectricity what it is – a green source of power. But the amendment passed because environmentally oriented liberals said they wanted the amendment as a “poison pill” – call hydropower renewable, and it automatically makes the bill unacceptable and is likely to kill it in any form not acceptable to the promoters of the narrowest possible definition of “renewable.” The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve the differences, where the hydro-is-renewable amendment is likely to be erased and the bill massaged again to emerge for a yes-or-no vote.
Hydropower is obviously renewable, but calling it that is legislative poison. The state cannot allow semantics to interfere with the effort to cover the plains and bluffs of Eastern Washington with sometimes-turning windmills, intermittently making expensive power that, given a choice, we would neither want nor need. All the while, nearly three-quarters of our electricity will be supplied by falling water. Some people will call it what it is.
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