In Our View: Modify I-937

Renewable-energy ballot measure of 2006 warrants changes because of economy

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Five years ago, about 52 percent of voters in Washington approved Initiative 937, which requires electric utilities with 25,000 or more customers to have 15 percent of their power supply generated from renewable sources by 2020. We all know what has happened to the global economy in these ensuing five years: the worst economic catastrophe in seven decades.

The Columbian opposed I-937 back in 2006 for many reasons. For one, it mandates something that’s already happening: the shift to renewable power sources. Proof of that conversion is the parade of wind turbine components that has flowed through Vancouver intermittently for several years. Second, I-937 does not count hydropower as a renewable energy source, yet we can hardly think of any commodity more renewable and reliable than water flowing down Northwest rivers.

Still, I-937 became the law of the land. Legislative efforts in these five years to modify I-937 have fallen short. But we wonder if the worst economic catastrophe in seven decades, plus the absence of a long-overdue recovery, might change lawmakers’ thinking. Our suspicion is shared by the Clark County High Tech and Community Council, which includes 10 high-profile local companies such as Kokusai Semiconductor, SEH America, WaferTech, nLight Photonics, Sharp Microelectronics and Kyocera Industrial Ceramics. As Aaron Corvin reported in Sunday’s Columbian, the council expects to draft legislation to modify I-937, and already has sent a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

At least some environmentalists are open to changing I-937. Corvin reported that Seattle-based NW Energy Coalition is open to changing the law so it serves people better. That would include lowering customer bills, boosting use of renewables, and increasing energy efficiency and conservation. And to their credit, members of the High Tech council acknowledge the inevitable conversion to renewable power sources. “We all want a greener world,” said Rob Bernardi, president and chief operating officer for Kokusai.

Exactly how that can be accomplished remains to be seen, but the council — whose members employ about 3,000 people in Clark County, deserve to have their voice heard. It is uncertain if hydropower will ever be included in the renewables list, despite the common sense of putting it there. I-937 clearly was meant to promote wind, solar, geothermal, landfill and sewage gases, wave and tidal power and certain kinds of biomass and biodiesel fuels.

But other changes should be considered, such as the mandated pace of conversion: the step up to renewable is required to be 3 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 2016. “If you’re SEH America or WaferTech, where your monthly electric bills are approaching or exceeding $1 million, that’s a lot of money,” Bernardi correctly concluded.

The council also wants conservation efforts listed as a qualifying source of renewable energy. That ought to appeal to environmentalists, and I-937 itself called on all utilities to pursue “all available conservation that is cost-effective, reliable and feasible.”

Here’s the basic question that families and businesses already have faced, and which legislators must answer with I-937 in mind: Does the economic collapse that occurred after the measure passed warrant reconsideration and modifications? We believe it does. Otherwise, job growth in the Northwest is inhibited and our region falls behind … if the recovery ever kicks in.