House lawmakers on April 11 approved a Senate bill intended to wean Washington state off electricity produced by carbon. However, despite numerous revisions and changes that eventually swayed major utility groups concerned about system reliability and stability, the 56-42 vote on ESSSB 5116 reflected significant political opposition to the proposal that still exists.
“If carbon reduction were a sport, we would likely be the national champs,” said Rep. Chris Gildon (R-25). “What we’re doing today is we’re penalizing the star player on the championship team with these increased taxes and penalties and what not. What we should be doing is incentivizing.”
“If you support carbon taxes and gas taxes and higher utility costs then you should support this bill,” Rep. Jeremie Dufault (R-15) said. “If you support a green new deal that relies on science fiction to solve our pollution problem then you should support this bill.”
One of the objections cited by opponents included how the bill treats hydropower differently than other renewable energy sources. Under ESSB 5116, utility providers would have to eliminate the use of coal by 2205, produce carbon-neutral electricity by 2030 and rely on 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. However, it does not count hydro as a “renewable resource” when applying a tax reduction for the purchase of equipment and labor used on those projects. The bill also restricts the use of hydropower to satisfy demands made in the bill. An amendment proposed by Rep. Matt Shea (R-4) would have removed that restriction, but it was rejected.
At the bill’s April 6 House Finance Committee public hearing, Nicolas Garcia with Washington Public Utilities Association (WPUA) recommended hydropower be included, adding that it is a “zero emission resource without which the goals of this legislation could not be met” and offers benefits other renewable energy such as wind and solar cannot. WPUA has 24 member utilities that serve 2.5 million Washington residents.
Since it was first introduced in the Senate, the bill has undergone significant revisions to address concerns by utility providers, including a cost-cap allowing utilities to pause implementing the bill’s provisions if it increases energy rates too quickly.
During the April 11 House floor vote, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-35) said “if they (renewable energy) don’t meet our expectations for how those technologies will help us meet the energy needs of the future, there’s a cost and reliability off-ramps in place to ensure that we don’t see the brown-outs.”
At the April 6 public hearing, several utility sector members said the bill has come a long way since it was first introduced to ensure baseline reliability. “At long last we are able to stand before you in support of this bill,” Dave Arbaugh with Public Generating Pool told committee members. However, he added that “there is still more to be done.”
And while Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which provides electricity to more than 1 million state residents, also now favors the bill, PSE lobbyist Brandon Housekeeper told the committee they’d also prefer greater clarity around the implementation deferral provisions.
Garcia perhaps reflected concerns by lawmakers opposed to the bill when he observed at the April 6 public hearing that the legislation “will change the fundamental operational objective of utilities in Washington state. Instead of striving to minimize costs, electric utilities will prioritize the minimization of carbon emissions.”