September 17, 2013

Public weighs in on state Energy Independence Act at Richland hearing

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald | September 16, 2013 |

The Energy Independence Act creates a “green versus the poor” conflict, said one speaker at a state Senate committee hearing in Richland on Monday evening.

The Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee held the hearing to learn about unintended consequences of the act. About 85 people attended.

Most of those who testified were concerned about increased costs of buying power produced by renewable energy – particularly when utilities already have adequate power, much of it hydropower, under contract for years to come.

The Energy Independence Act is based on Initiative 937, which was approved by just under 52 percent of state voters in 2006. It requires utilities with at least 25,000 customers to buy at least 3 percent of their power from eligible renewable resources, such as wind and solar, and increase that to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.

As an alternative, they may buy renewable energy credits from producers of eligible renewable resources, who then sell their power as a nonrenewable.

Most hydropower is not allowed to be considered in the renewable targets utilities must meet.

Benton Public Utility District has enough power under contract to serve its customers until 2020, said general manager Chad Bartram.

“Based on current forecasts, between 2016 and 2022, Benton PUD’s customers are estimated to spend an additional $11 million on renewable energy credits,” he said.

Franklin PUD also is close to becoming large enough to fall under the provisions of the act and is preparing to meet future targets, Bartram said.

Columbia Basin College spends $1.8 million a year on energy, or about the same amount of money it spends on 20 percent of its full-time faculty, said president Richard Cummins.

Cummins would rather see Franklin PUD spend money on conservation programs than meeting provisions of the act, he said.

“Helping me replace inefficient lighting for the college seems like a much better investment than buying unneeded renewable energy or a renewable energy credit, which is really nothing more than a piece of paper,” he said.

Last year a conservation program helped CBC save $125,000 as it converted to more efficient lighting, he said.

Renewable energy is a worthy pursuit, said Colin Hastings, executive director of the Pasco Chamber of Commerce.

“But it was already well under way – properly driven by market conditions – before I-937 was passed,” he said.

The Tri-City area values the modernization of the energy industry, he said. The wind turbines just south of Kennewick are a testament of its value to the local economy and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is researching biomass power production and other new technologies, he said.

But let the conversion to new energy production methods “continue on a smooth schedule, without artificial stimulation and without making ratepayers suffer,” he said.

It’s the poor who will suffer in particular, said several speakers, including Judith Gidley, the executive director of the Benton Franklin Community Action Committee, who made the comparison of “green versus the poor.”

So far the Energy Independence Act has been sending “big money to wind developers,” she said. “We support renewables, but not on the backs of hardworking families.”

A grandmother, a single mother or a family with many mouths to feed would not spend money on food they do not need, but they will be forced to pay higher electric bills to cover renewable energy power utilities do not need, said Albert Torres, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

However, climate scientist Steve Ghan brought a different viewpoint to the discussion.

“The Earth is warming,” he said. “We have to do something about climate change. … If not, the consequences will be very serious.”

If fossil fuel emissions are not reduced, half the snowmelt in the Cascade Mountains will be lost, he said.

Wind and solar power are part of the solution, he said. The Energy Independence Act also should have supported nuclear power, he added.

Legislators attending the hearing included Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, plus other members of the Senate committee. Also attending were Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland; Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and Gerald Pollet, D-Seattle.

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