Two years after Washington voters compelled utilities to use cleaner energy, Initiative 937 backers say a measure in the state Legislature would gut that law.
The House Committee on Technology, Energy and Communications on Wednesday plans to consider Senate Bill 5840, which raises clean-energy goals but eases requirements of I-937.
Voters approved I-937 in 2006, directing utilities with more than 25,000 customers to get 15 percent of their power from new sources such as wind or solar power by 2020.
Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, and others say the changes would give utilities more flexibility to meet the renewable energy standard while easing the ratepayers’ burden.
Initiative supporters say the bill lets utilities off the hook by allowing them to count existing small hydropower and biomass plants toward the goals.
Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, chairman of the House committee hearing the bill, said it won’t pass as it is.
“In its current form, it does serious damage to Initiative 937,” McCoy said. “I’ve said hydro is off the table. It is a renewable, but it’s not a new renewable.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire tried Friday to broker a compromise at a meeting with top legislators, utilities and environmentalists, said Marty Brown, her legislative director. They discussed many proposals but aren’t close to a compromise, he said.
But Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council, said he was nervously hopeful that a new version would keep I-937 intact.
I-937 currently applies to 17 utilities, including Avista and Seattle City Light.
Marr’s bill allows utilities to buy eligible renewable power from anywhere on the Western power grid, not just Northwest states. Utilities could count some of the energy they save through conservation efforts if they exceed certain conservation levels.
Utilities could also meet goals at a lower level, if they experience a lower load demand.
“All these things take bites out of the standard,” said Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project.
But Kent Lopez, general manager of the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said this would help utilities in slow-growing areas.
He said many utilities already buy wind power but don’t want to buy power they don’t need if demand is low. They also don’t want to replace their current energy portfolio, which mostly relies on clean hydropower with more expensive sources, he said.
“The concern is, ‘What’s it going to cost our customers?’ ” said Karen Miller, a spokeswoman with Benton County Public Utility District. “We don’t want to displace our good clean hydro.”
Marc Krasnowsky, a spokesman with the NW Energy Coalition, a prime I-937 backer, said the intent was to spur development of new resources, not count what’s already on the ground.
“We’d like to make sure the energy of the future is just as clean as the energy of today,” he said.
The changes would result in a 75 percent drop in the renewable energy that would have been produced under I-937, he said. The original law would produce an estimated 1,462 megawatts of new clean energy in 2020, or enough to power more than 1 million homes a year, he said.
Shimshak said 12 of the state’s largest utilities are on track to meet the first step of I-937, which requires 3 percent renewable energy by 2012. Marr’s bill increases I-937’s goals from 15 percent to 16 percent by 2020.
Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility, already uses wind power for about 5 percent of its total load.
Wind is more expensive than existing hydropower, but utilities won’t likely build new dams to meet growth, said Andy Wappler, a spokesman for PSE, which is neutral on the bill.
“Wind is certainly proving that it can be a reliable part of the power mix,” he said. “It’s a cost-effective choice as well as an environmental choice.”