Can the state meet its mandate to find alternative energy sources?

The first target is a year away, and no one is clear how to meet it, or even to measure progress. The legislature could tweak the 2006 law that created the requirement, but previous attempts have hit political walls.

Crosscut archive image.

The first target is a year away, and no one is clear how to meet it, or even to measure progress. The legislature could tweak the 2006 law that created the requirement, but previous attempts have hit political walls.

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.

Hydropower also is currently the cheapest resource, at $60 per megawatt-hour, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Sixth Northwest Conservation and Electric Power Plan. But there is little likelihood of building new dams, and limits exist on how current ones can be tweaked to improved production, the council said.

Wind power costs $89 to $129 per megawatt-hour. But its production is erratic because it depends on winds blowing. Puget Sound Energy (PSE) has two wind turbine complexes and a third on the drawing board. The two existing ones generate electricity 30 to 35 percent of the time, said PSE spokesman Roger Thompson.

Solar power costs roughly $280 per megawatt-hour, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council report said. Construction of at least two new Washington solar power plants are in the works — one in the mountainous forest near Cle Elum, where sunlit days occur slightly less often than the national average, and another at the Hanford nuclear reservation, near sunnier-than-average Richland.

The Northwest power council reported that several other alternative power sources produce a small fraction of 1 percent of the Northwest's electricity, with little potential for major growth. Tidal energy from Puget Sound is still in the experimental stage.

Washington's legislature is allowed to modify initiatives beginning two years after they pass. But the state Senate and House have tried twice, without success, to tinker with I-937.

In both the 2009 and 2010 sessions, utility interests wanted more flexibility to avoid spending on higher-priced alternative energy sources, which they said would increase rates for customers. But environmental interests would accept those modifications only if the target percentages also would be increased, reported in February. Neither side would budge, and the original initiative has stayed intact.

"It's an enormously complicated issue," Erik Poulsen, lobbyist for the Washington Public Utilities Districts Association, told "We are wrestling with the question of whether the benefits of the bill are worth the price of a bump in standards."

Ed Brost, general manager of the Franklin County Public Utility District, described I-937 to as a "windfall for wind power act."

Meanwhile, quoted environmental leaders in the the 2010 legislative session as fearing that the utilities and business interests might water down energy conservation and efficiency measures in the initiative. It also quoted them as contending that a rebounding economy could make the utilities' economic predictions less dire over the next few years.

Danielle Dixon, senior policy associate for the Northwest Energy Coalition, which backed I-937, said, "I'd be very surprised if it does not come up again in the next session."

State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, chairman of the House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee, said he would "probably" introduce a bill early in the 2011 session, to address some financial concerns utilities have about Initiative 937. "There may be some wrangling. But I don't think it will be as contentious as before," McCoy said.

However, State Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Kitsap County, chairman of the Senate's Environment, Water and Energy Committee, recalled previous I-937 legislative debates, when consensus was blocked by wildly competing views on how the initiative should be tweaked.

"There are always rumblings and grumblings, Rockefeller said. "But I don't hear a strong unified voice."

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8