Washington's voters declared in 2006 that 15 percent of the state's electricity must come from alternative sources — wind, solar, biomass and others — by 2020.
The interim targets are 3 percent by Jan. 1, 2012, and 9 percent by 2016. So how will anyone know whether those targets are met? And what will happen if they are not? With the first deadline just over a year away, Washington officials have begun scratching their heads about how to answer those questions.
"No one is sure how this one will quite play out," said Howard Schwartz , a senior policy analyst at the Washington Department of Commerce.
State audit manager Jasen McEathron, who is in charge of finding a way to ensure compliance by publicly owned utilities, said: "It's going to create some challenges. ... It's a new area for us."
While the Secretary of State's office will monitor publicly owned utilities, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will track investor-owned utilities, and the state's Commerce Department will keep tabs on two electric power cooperatives. The Secretary of State's office and the other state agencies say they plan to work out a mutually agreeable monitoring system in 2011.
Overall, 17 power utilities in Washington are covered by Initiative 937, which passed with 52 percent of the vote in 2006. Under the law, any utility with more than 25,000 customers must comply. The law's purpose is to cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases by generating more electricity from renewable resources.
At least 20 states plus Washington, D.C., have similar laws on their books. The only other Northwest state with such a law is Montana, which has to hit the 15 percent mark by 2015.
In 2006, the initiative's supporters included numerous environmental groups, the Washington Public Utility District Association, the state Democratic Party, Republicans for Environmental Protection, some labor organizations, the League of Women Voters, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, plus U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee, Adam Smith, Norm Dicks, and Jim McDermott.
Opponents included the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, even though most of its members are too small to be affected; Peninsula Light Co.; some individual electric cooperatives; the PUDs of Benton, Franklin, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Mason counties; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, plus nine Washington-based chambers of commerce, including several major Puget Sound ones; the Washington Farm Bureau; and Weyerhaeuser, Boeing, and Boise Cascade.
Despite the legislation's seemingly ambitious goals, the law provides a backup plan for the 17 utilities that must meet the upcoming 3 percent goal: They are allowed to buy and sell renewable energy credits. Washington utilities falling short of the 3 percent, 9 percent, and 15 percent targets will be able to buy credits from renewable power sources elsewhere in the Northwest. Those renewable energy credits are expected to be a significant factor in enabling some Washington utilities to meet their targets.
Right now, averaged across a year, roughly 23.7 percent of the Northwest's electricity comes from coal, natural gas and nuclear power, according to the Washington State Department of Community Trade and Economic Development. The department's 2009 Biennial Energy Report (scroll to Page 34 of the report here) estimates that almost 73 percent of the region's power comes from hydroelectric dams — ironically considered "renewable" in other states, but not so in Washington under I-937. Another 2 percent comes from wind power, and the rest comes from a mishmash of other sources. Solar power is so small it doesn't register on the state's breakdown.
A significant portion of Washington's wind power is currently sold to California, while this state hangs on to its cheaper home-grown hydropower. California has a legal target of obtaining 20 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2017. When 2012 arrives, much of Washington's wind power is expected to be kept in this state to enable its utilities to reach their 3 percent targets.
To understand the lopsided nature of how Washington's energy is generated, consider these numbers: The Bonneville Dam near Portland can produce 1,050 megawatts of power at maximum capacity, and the Columbia Generating Station nuclear reactors can provide 1,150 megawatts. By contrast, 454 wind turbines near Walla Walla can create just 104 megawatts. A proposed major solar power site near Cle Elum would produce a maximum 73 megawatts.
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