We live with an absurdity, self-imposed. In 2006 we in Washington approved an initiative, I-937, requiring utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from “renewable” sources by 2020. This was, and still is, a nationally trendy, feel-good, supposedly economically miraculous remedy for our energy gluttony. We are told to buy something good from the right people, even if it is something we neither want nor need.
But the law specifically and intentionally excluded the largest, most efficient and economically stimulating source of renewable energy yet devised – hydroelectric dams. It seems the authors of this initiative do not approve of dams, at least not in this context. The intent of the initiative, they said, was to force us to “diversify” – purchase power from small, inefficient, intermittent sources – primarily wind, which is the only source of non-hydroelectric “renewable” power that is remotely practical for producing anything but electrical trickles. Hydroelectric dams on our great rivers, extracting massive quantities of energy from falling water, are not classified as a “renewable.” This is the absurdity. We power our region by borrowing from nature’s constant cycle – the sun lifts water from the sea, deposits it in our mountains, and gravity returns it. Nothing is more purely renewable, or more benign to the atmosphere, and yet we cannot count it as “renewable.”
This is not only absurd, it is confusing and bad for marketing. The message was relayed in Olympia this week before the House Environment Committee, recounted by reporter Erik Smith in Washington State Wire.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s policy adviser Keith Phillips told the committee that in the governor’s international efforts to attract industry to Washington, manufacturers are concerned with green and green – they want inexpensive energy, but they want the world to know it comes from environmentally preferable sources. This is trouble for Washington, because by our own definition of renewable power we are not a standout on the clean energy lists. Washington’s standard set by I-937 requires 15 percent renewables. Other states have much higher standards – California, 33 percent; Oregon, 25 percent; etc. The governor then has to explain that hydropower is really renewable, but that it just doesn’t count. If you add hydropower, which provides 70 percent of our needs, to our 15-percent renewable standard, you come up with 85 percent clean energy, which makes us not just green, but among the greenest of the green. Some companies can figure this out, which is why BMW chose Moses Lake for its carbon-fiber fabrication works. Others don’t quite get it, because our definition of renewable is absurd.
So the governor would endorse, Phillips said, revising the definition of renewable to include hydropower. She would like to do this “in a way that does not undo the other requirements of 937,” Phillips said. Perhaps by counting hydropower as renewable we can write renewable standards that more closely reflect the environmental reality – we produce more clean energy than just about anyone else, and when you flip a switch here you are injecting very little carbon into the atmosphere.
At last, the absurdity is challenged. Revising this initiative will be difficult political work. There are many competing interests, and much money at stake. But perhaps soon we can stop demeaning ourselves, and tell the truth about the benefits and advantages of the way we choose to generate electricity.
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