Green state law called into question

Conservative lawmakers and others are urging an audit of the results of ordering utilities to use more alternative power sources.
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A wind farm in Montana

Conservative lawmakers and others are urging an audit of the results of ordering utilities to use more alternative power sources.

A conservative coalition wants the Washington State Auditor's Office to find out whether a statewide alternative energy push is really working.

Sixteen conservative legislators, the conservative-leaning Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, the Washington Farm Bureau and six Eastern Washington chambers of commerce sent a letter Monday to state Auditor Troy Kelley requesting an audit of the effects of Initiative 937.

In 2006, 52 percent of the state's voters approved I-937, which requires that 15 percent of the state's electricity must come from alternative sources — wind, solar, biomass and others — by 2020. The interim targets have been an easily achieved 3 percent by Jan. 1, 2012, with a still-to-be-reached goal of 9 percent by 2016.

Overall, 17 power utilities in Washington are covered by Initiative 937. 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, where utilities must hit the 15 percent mark by 2015.

The group believes an audit could show whether I-937 can be modified to be more cost-effective overall and friendlier rate-wise to lower-income people. Spokane Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, one of the letter signers, said, "The Legislature needs to have a better discussion of I-937."

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, countered that the audit is the latest attempt to neutralize I-937. "It's just another scare by the Republican senators to repeal an initiative passed by the majority of the voters," Ranker said.

The 16 legislators included nine Republican Eastern Washington representatives; five Eastern Washington Republican senators, including caucus leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville; Western Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who is also chairman of the Senate Energy & Environment Committee; and Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. Sheldon, while a Democrat, belongs to the Republican-oriented Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. 

The 16 legislators' cited Gov. Jay Inslee's veto on June 30 of a similar cost study in the state budget — approved by the majority of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers — as a reason to seek an independent study from the auditor's office. In his veto message, Inslee wrote that a study of the cost aspect was unnecessary because controls are built into the act. He also said his climate change task force would be looking at possible improvements to the measure.

One focus of the request would be for the auditor's office to explore whether other states count hydropower as a renewable energy source. Washington does not include hydro-power in its alternative energy calculations. If it did so, I-937 would be moot because more than half of Washington’s electricity comes from hydropower. Also, hydro-power is currently cheaper than many, if not all, alternative energy sources.

The letter also asks for the auditor to explore the economic and enviromental effects of the initiative, including whether I-937 saved money for businesses and consumers, caused rates to rise and reduced carbon emissions from power production in the state. 

I-937 has been the subject of almost annual jockeying for changes in the Legislature but with no major modifications resulting so far. Environmental interests and Democratic legislators tend to support the I-937 status quo. Republican legislators, business interests and rural electric utilities tend to push for significant changes.

The majority of the speakers at a Senate energy committee hearing Monday in Richland contended the renewable energy goals translate to extra costs that are being passed onto customers, hurting especially the poor, the Tri-City Herald reported. Seven of the 16 legislators signing the audit request represent the Tri-Cities area.

Ranker said that I-937 has boosted the renewable energy industry, which has translated to numerous new jobs.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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