Our Voice: Senate bill would treat utilities equally under renewable energy rules

We have always seen flaws in Initiative 937, which created the Energy Independence Act, requiring utilities to purchase renewable forms of energy whether they need it or not.

Under the initiative approved by voters in 2007, hydropower does not count as a renewable resource. We've seen arguments for and against including hydropower, but it surely is a renewable resource -- at least as long as the Columbia River keeps flowing.

Our friends on the other side of the Cascades have held off attempts to amend the law. Eastern Washington utilities and business leaders have advocated several changes but have been unsuccessful so far.

Sen. Sharon Brown is leading the charge in Olympia to take another swing at tweaking the law to give Bonneville Power Administration customers credit for new energy from hydropower. The existing output still won't be counted as renewable.

The law requires large utilities to get 9 percent of their power from renewable resources and at least 15 percent by 2020. They also have to educate their customers about energy conservation. It's a bit of a weird position to be in - educating people on how they can use less of the product you sell them - but conservation is also a goodwill gesture on the utilities' part in their quest to appear as green as possible.

The proposal floating now, SB 6058, would allow hydro efficiency improvements made to federal projects to count as an eligible renewable resource under the Energy Independence Act.

Proponents say the change would provide parity for all utilities. The Energy Independence Act only counts efficiency improvements on hydro projects "owned" by a qualified utility. The bills would allow utilities that purchase power from BPA to count improved hydro efficiencies to the federal system.

Owners of nonfederal hydroelectric plants can include hydro-efficiency projects as a qualified renewable but plant improvements to federal facilities do not count. That, critics say, creates an inequity in the law, unfairly punishing customers of public utilities that purchase power from federal dams, which are spending several billion dollars for efficiencies and updates of their hydroelectric plants.

Opponents say allowing anything related to hydropower negates the law. They say that without a mandate to find sources other than hydropower, our state will never diminish its reliance on fossil fuels and the dams on our rivers. They argue that solar and wind are the way to go. Of course, most don't live on the side of the state with the sun and the wind turbines.

Some also say that the proposed changes would allow public utilities to shirk their responsibilities when it comes to renewable energy and conservation by being able to point to hydro as an acceptable alternative. They say the argument that the required levels of renewable energy generation are driving up utility rates is bunk because Washington almost has the cheapest rates in the United States.

That's no reason to force rates to go higher by treating some utilities different than others, especially when there is no clear environmental benefit. Any improvement in the efficiency of hydroelectric dams is about the greenest new power available because it just squeezes more energy out of an existing source instead of blighting the landscape with new wind turbines.

That's true whether BPA or an individual utility is making the improvement, and both ought to be treated equally.

We'd love to see some compromise. Parity of the state's utilities doesn't seem like too much to ask. Previous approaches would have taken a bigger bite out of I-937.

This latest attempt to fix one of the law's flaws merely evens the playing field for utilities while maintaining the spirit of the voters' will.