Can Washington maintain affordable energy?

Can Washington maintain affordable energy?
In a 28-19 vote, the state Senate passed ESSB 5116 setting a 100 percent clean energy goal for Washington utilities by 2045. Photo: Michael Schroeder/Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

The same day Governor Jay Inslee announced his bid for the presidency on the Democrat ticket, the state Senate in a 28-19 vote passed one of his green energy proposals that aims to make Washington’s electricity 100 percent renewable by 2045. A public hearing of the House Committee on Environment & Energy is scheduled for today.

While some opponents offered restrained critics, other Senators harshly condemned the plan, which they believe will undermine the state’s inexpensive energy prices that rank second only to Louisiana in affordability.

Prior to the March 1 floor vote on ESSB 5116, sponsor and Environment, Energy & Technology (Chair) Reuven Carlyle (D-36) argued the bill maintains the state’s leadership toward greater clean energy use, calling the proposal “a measured but bold step forward.”

Some of the most scathing criticism of the legislation came from Sen. Curtis King (R-14), who took aim at the bill’s push for more windmills; the existing ones are located primarily in central and eastern Washington.

“You can sit in your ivory tower all you want and say: ‘Hey this is a great thing, we’re going to put it in your district,’” King said. “Well, I’m tired of looking at them! When you start building them in King County and Seattle and Elliot Bay, then we can talk!”

Under ESSB 5116, utility providers must make all the electricity they sell carbon neutral by 2030, while creating standards for the individual utilities to meet a 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2045. The use of coal would be phased out by 2026. The renewable resources used by the utilities must be tracked and verified each year; utilities that do not comply are charged $60 for each megawatt-hour, plus inflation beginning in 2027.

One of the chief complaints leveled against the bill during its public hearings is that it threatens the stability of the state’s electrical base load by requiring that utilities replace reliable sources with irregular energy created by wind, solar and biomass. However, supporters such as Carlyle argue that the bill is tailored to ensure reliability and keep costs down.

“To be smart about building a clean economy of tomorrow means being responsive and responsible for ratepayers, for costs and to make that innovation and investments make sense for all of us,” he said.

During the Feb. 28 floor debate, several amendments were approved. One sponsored by Carlyle reduces the maximum average yearly compliance cost increase for utilities from three to two percent. Another sponsored by Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12) creates a definition of “renewable hydrogen” and includes it among the bill’s renewable energy sources. A third by Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) adds a provision stating “it is the intent of the legislature to provide flexible tools to address the variability of hydropower for compliance under this act.”

However, these changes failed to satisfy opponents such as Sen. Shelly Short (R-7), who told colleagues “this bill fundamentally changes us in a big way, and I don’t think for the positive.”

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) held a similarly pessimistic view. “Really, the only reason we are here this morning on this bill, is because of what’s happening in Seattle, or has happened right now. I hope you don’t need any significant amounts of electricity…because it’s going to get a lot more expensive.”

Some state lawmakers question the need for the bill in a state that as of 2014 makes up less than two percent of total national carbon emissions, thanks to the state’s system of hydro dams that generate 68 percent of all Washington’s electricity. Also, 90 percent of the electricity generated by the state’s public utility districts (PUD) produce no carbon emissions; the emissions they do generate make up a mere 1.4 percent of the state’s total carbon emissions.

“There’s no reason for us to punish our citizens by increasing the cost of energy artificially,” Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) said. “Washington state is already like that triathlete that’s already in great shape.”

One lawmaker to cross the aisle on the vote was Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35), who caucuses with the Senate Republicans. He told colleagues that the bill is “a reasonable beginning to what we’re going to do and seek here in Washington state. I think I at least recognize the reality of who is holding the gavel today.

“We will not have 100 percent renewable power in 2040,” he added. “It’s not going to be possible. You have to have some baseload power no matter what. I think people have realized that, and there’s offramps in the bill to help us.”

As lawmakers try to reconcile ESSB 5116 with its companion bill, HB 1211, the Washington PUD Association (WPUDA) has called attention to several important distinctions between the two; while neutral on ESSB 5116, the association opposed HB 1211 during its public hearing. The Senate proposal doesn’t contain a penalty if utilities don’t reach the 100 percent renewable mandate by 2045.

WPUDA Communications and Government Affairs Director Liz Anderson wrote in an email that this is important because “currently battery storage technology is not sufficient to move quantities of excess solar and wind generation from the summer to meet the winter demand. There simply isn’t adequate cross-Cascades transmission capacity to replace the westside thermal plants with electricity from eastside generation.”

Another provision included in the Senate bill allows utilities to include hydropower generated from efficiency improvements made to hydroelectric dams as clean energy under the Emergency Independence Act, in order to meet the 2030 deadline. Anderson said that without that inclusion, some utilities might actually have to exceed 100 percent clean energy in order to comply.

Yet, Anderson said it’s unknown how the Senate proposal would impact utilities that purchase their power from Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the Snake and Columbia River dams. During times when river levels are lower, BPA purchases electricity on the wholesale market to meet all customer demands, which often includes coal-generated power.

However, if that occurs in 2025, Anderson said it “would put Washington utilities with long term contracts with BPA out of compliance with the 2025 mandate despite the fact these power purchases are being made by a federal agency and not the utility.  This is an issue we are working to address with legislators.”

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