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When renewable is not renewable

It’s an old argument by now. Not all renewable power is renewable power. Initiative 937 was approved by voters in 2006, and was designed to force investment in the renewable power favored by the initiative sponsors. To do that, the greatest source of renewable power had to be ignored.

So it was that the truth could not be told, and the obvious must be denied. Under I-937, hydroelectric power, the massively abundant, cheap, and carbon-free power we extract from the water flowing from our mountains, is specifically not “renewable.” It is not renewable even if it is the most supremely renewable source of power yet devised. Each year legislators introduce bills to change the definition, to recognize hydropower as renewable, and each year the bills are vociferously opposed by the defenders of I-937. They go nowhere. This year the play is repeated and the outcome likely the same. Except this year, Gov. Jay Inslee chose this issue for his first comments on the Legislature’s activities. It is a step backward, he said. Calling hydropower renewable would “gut” I-937, and “The need climatically to deal with greenhouse gases and pollution is growing dramatically and that’s why I’m saying 937 should not be the ceiling. It needs to be looked at as a floor.”

Very well. The governor is correct that reclassifying hydropower would wreck Initiative 937. It requires utilities with more than 25,000 customers to obtain 9 percent of their load from non-hydro renewables by 2016, and 15 percent by 2020. The region already obtains 75 percent of its power from hydroelectricity, so calling it renewable would call the whole thing off. That exposes the true purpose of the measure, to force a massive investment in the only form of renewable power even remotely practical – wind. That is accomplished by extracting the funds from the ratepayers of the Northwest, through utilities that today and in the future mostly need no additional power to meet their load. The economic benefits are said to be great – $8 billion invested in a decade – but the proponents rarely mention the source of those funds. The environmental benefits are questionable. Selling hydropower at a discount to states far away, to purchase wind power generated at high cost in the Northwest, may displace some carbon somewhere, but not here. We genuinely hope there are economic benefits from the investment in the green economy this law forces, but the take-money-from-them-to-give-to-them strategy for economic development has limits.

Any proposed modification to I-937 that might lessen investment in wind power will be opposed, the initiative’s defenders say. Laws to allow hydro projects in irrigation canals, to count efficiency improvements at federal dams, to count reduced energy use at home, all are non-starters, they say. And you will never be able to call hydropower renewable. A better approach might be to just expunge the term “renewable” from the law altogether. Then maybe we can be more intellectually honest.

This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.