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Altering clean energy law highlights its many flaws

The Legislature’s decision to expand the definition of renewable energy was a good move for Washington’s distressed timber industry.

But it doesn’t begin to fix the flaws in the “green” power initiative that voters approved in 2006. If anything, the legislative adjustment underscores Initiative 397’s failings.

The new bill broadens the measure to make electricity produced from older biomass facilities, such as pulp mills, eligible for the initiative’s renewable energy mandate. It should help keep some mills running and save rural jobs.

That’s great for Longview and perhaps some other timber towns, but it fixes only one of the act’s unintended consequences.

Under the law, utilities with more than 25,000 customers are required to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass by 2020.

Benton PUD is big enough to fall under the act. Franklin PUD is about 1,000 customers shy of the minimum, but the gap is quickly closing.

The initiative excluded hydropower and biomass facilities older than 1999 from meeting the 15 percent mandate. If not for the exclusion, Northwest utilities could easily meet the “green” power requirement without lining the Columbia River with windmills.

We already have the cleanest power in the nation, and the only way to force ratepayers to buy costlier alternatives was to pretend that we don’t.

The initiative’s goals may have been laudable – encourage the construction of new renewable sources of energy, creating jobs and reducing our dependence on carbon-based fuels.

But in practice, the measure is riddled with unintended consequences. The result is a legal mandate that forces utilities to act against the best interests of their customers and the environment.

Benton PUD and other public utilities around the state are under contract for all the clean energy they can use, thanks to a hydroelectric system that provides about two-thirds of the region’s power.

In essence, the clean electricity that utilities already have purchased must be replaced with electricity that meets I-937’s mandates.

Ratepayers, of course, get to pick up the cost of it all.

It’s galling to be forced to buy something you don’t need, but it might still be possible to justify the initiative if it actually resulted in some environmental benefit.

It doesn’t.

You pay for it, but the only beneficiaries are the manufacturers and operators of windmills and other renewable sources of energy that meet the mandate.

It’s simply not environmentally friendly to erect a wind farm – with all the associated environmental damage caused by manufacturing, transportation, construction and operation – if all it does is displace a clean power source that already exists.

Tweaking at the edges of I-937 can’t fix its flaws. The measure ought to be replaced with an energy policy that makes sense.