Lawmakers Seek To Reduce Resident Energy Bills

Lawmakers Seek To Reduce Resident Energy Bills
SB 5232 could cut utility costs for many of the 2.3 million customers who pay for energy improvement projects for the Columbia River Basin dams. Photo: Bonneville Power Administration.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers want Washington utility customers who finance hydro-efficiency improvements at the federally-owned dams in the Columbia River Basin to reap the financial benefits. SB 5232 would allow the hydroelectricity produced by those dams as the result of efficiency improvement projects to qualify as a renewable resource under the state’s Energy Independence Act created by the 2006 voter-approved Initiative 937.

SB 5232 was approved by the state Senate on March 7 in a 32-17 vote. Proponents at a Tuesday, March 21 public hearing of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee argued that could cut utility costs for many of the 2.3 million customers who pay for the dams’ energy improvement projects. The dams are operated by the operated by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

“This bill is really about parity,” State Sen. Sharon Brown (R-8) told committee members. “This would really save the customers so much money, and it is really, really necessary.”

She is the primary sponsor of SB 5232. Cosponsors are State Sens. Guy Palumbo (D-1), Majority Assistant Whip Maureen Walsh (R-16), Dean Takko, Marilyn Chase (D-32), and Tim Sheldon (D-35). It’s companion bill is HB 1360, sponsored by State Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49).

Achieving Energy Independence

According to the bill report, electric utilities that have more than 25,000 customers must meet energy conservation targets and have a certain percentage of their total electricity provided qualify as a “renewable resource.” The current goal is nine percent or more by January 1, 2016, and every year after until December 31, 2019. After that, total energy use must be 15 percent a renewable resource or more by January 1, 2020, and every year after that.

Under the state law, eligible renewable resources can include electricity under certain conditions, such additional hydroelectricity produced as the result of efficiency improvements to the dams. However, the utilities must own those dams.

Reducing Utility Costs

Benton Public Utility District (PUD) is one of 17 PUDs that purchase power from BPA and pay for the improvement projects as part of purchase costs. However, they “cannot count these energy efficiencies made to the federal dam system because we don’t own the dams,” Benton PUD Commissioner Jeff Hall told the committee. “Benton PUD customers who pay for these hydro upgrades through BPA rates should receive equitable, renewable credits for their portion of the BPA hydro system efficiency improvements, just like the customers and utilities that own their own dams.”

Allowing them to use that new hydropower as a renewable resource toward meeting EIA goals would save their 51,000 customers a total of $115,000 a year, he added. “Utilities will continue to purchase renewable resources, but this bill helps provide fairness for all the utilities who are diligently working to meet the EIA goals as cost-effectively as possible.”

“Hydro efficiency improvements are really a cost effective renewable resource,” Austin Nielson told the committee. He is the Government and Economic Affairs Director with the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill would be a very minor fix…so that those customers…have those efficiencies count as a renewable resource towards the Energy Independence Act,” he added.

Maintaining Energy Cost Competitiveness

Mary Catherine McAleer told the committee that “Washington’s energy is cost competitive and that is vital to business formation and growth here especially in the rural areas.” She is the Director of Governmental Affairs on Environmental Policy for the Association of Washington Business.

“Policy egalitarianism creates a business competitiveness,” she added. “Closing this inequality would create new regulatory certainty for BPA buyers down to business customers.”

The current policy under EIA hurts rural communities that must invest in energy efficiency projects and then have to purchase renewable energy elsewhere. That is according to Richard Zeinhert, who owns a family farm in eastern Washington. He also serves on the board of Inland Power, which serves 34,000 commercial, residential and agricultural customers in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

“We take money from those who can least afford it that serves no purpose,” he said. “We just don’t feel that this is fair. We’re asking for a level playing field in that issue.”

Opponents of the bill included Joni Bosch, Senior Policy Associate for the Northwest Energy Coalition. She told the committee that “I-937 is intended to accomplish two major goals: promote energy efficiencies and build on hydropower foundation to diversify our system mix by using other renewable to meet changing load demands.”

“We are hesitant to rely on just one resource that is subject to drought and impacts from climate change,” she added. “We would much prefer to work out a more comprehensive bill.”

Others such as Clifford Traisman told the committee that “we believe these improvements at BPA are happening now already and benefiting BPA customers.” He is a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council.

“If you’re going to make changes to the renewable standard, then it should be offset with an increase, which is really what we think would be a more equitable way,” he added.

State Rep. Jake Fey (D-27) asked critics if they would be willing to support the bill “if it was amended to provide for no net loss” to existing renewable energy use. Traisman replied “we would look at that,” though he stressed the need for a more comprehensive bill.

However, Diana Carlen urged expediency in passing SB 5232. She is a lobbyist for Tacoma Public Utilities.

“I think if we were to wait for a comprehensive fix that we would never get things done in the legislature. Sometimes if you have good policy and you have support on a certain issue you have to get things done step by step and move forward.”

She added that the bill would save Tacoma PUD ratepayers $350,000 a year. “Every year we wait to pass this legislation, that’s money that’s down the tube for our ratepayers.”

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