I am a firm believer in the environmental necessity and job growth potential of the clean energy industry. I am also a firm believer in fiscal responsibility in our government.
Conventional political wisdom says that you cannot support both ideas. As a legislator I have found that the two are fundamentally connected by a belief in conservation - protecting valuable resources and striving to do the most while using the least. That is why one of my top priorities for this legislative session is bringing more fiscal oversight and performance-based management to Washington's renewable energy incentive programs.
To see proof of these programs' success, you need look no further than Bellingham-based solar panel manufacturer Itek Energy. Founded in 2009, Itek began constructing panels for individuals and organizations in Washington that wanted to take advantage of the renewable energy systems tax credit program. In their first year of operation Itek constructed more than 7,000 solar panels. Since then, they have grown exponentially and are now Washington's largest solar manufacturer.
Another example can be seen in the classrooms of the Orcas Island School District. They received a grant from a Washington state energy efficiency program to retrofit their buildings with compact fluorescent light bulbs. By doing so, they reduced their average electricity bill by almost 50 percent, allowing them to invest more money in books, supplies, facilities and teachers to help kids learn.
The success of these programs does not mean there is no room for improvement, however. One of the most substantive ways that we can improve our state's renewable energy incentive programs is to make sure they are accompanied by clear performance measurement systems. After all, we cannot measure whether our policies have been successful if we do not establish long-term goals and short-term benchmarks.
One bill that I have introduced, HB 1301, would accomplish just that goal. It would establish a fund under the Sustainable Energy Trust to encourage growth in Washington clean energy manufacturing by providing tax credit incentives for renewable energy systems. The fund is based on a current program, which is being phased out, that helps support energy consumers who use renewable sources to meet their electricity needs.
More important, however, are the new performance monitoring and management systems that are contained within the bill. These accountability measures will help ensure that the tax credits administered under this program are accomplishing what they are meant to: help create new jobs in our state. The state will collect information on how many consumers are receiving credits and where they are buying their renewable energy systems, while companies that manufacture and sell their products in Washington will receive a preference when the credits are awarded.
The legislation also calls for an ongoing assessment of how much money is allocated for this program, and whether it is too much or too little. Currently the state has budgeted $30 million for the renewable energy system tax program, but companies only claimed about $1 million in credits last year. While the program has been successful - two solar panel manufacturers in Washington that didn't exist before this policy was passed into law - the overall participation has been underwhelming.
We must constantly tend our garden of incentives to make sure the harvest of new jobs is maximized. That is why my legislation will reprogram how these solar tax credits are awarded to ensure we are receiving the greatest dividends for our investment.
While most industries wilted during the great recession, clean technology and renewable energy grew between 12 percent and 13 percent. Biotechnology has grown at a similar rate with comparable incentives and strategic grants for the Life Science Discovery fund. Not only are these companies key players in our economic recovery, but their products help protect our environment and health while reducing long-term electricity costs for families and businesses.
Investing in cutting-edge industries like clean technology - as well as aerospace, biotechnology and computer technology - helps private businesses create the new, high-paying jobs that will lead us out of this recession. However, it is proper benchmarking and consistent reevaluation of how we spend our money that will ensure they continue to propel our economy upward.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, is the chairman of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee and has represented the 40th legislative district since 1997. The 40th legislative district comprises all of San Juan County and significant portions of Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Mount Vernon, Burlington, Anacortes and much of Bellingham.