In Our View: Renewables + Realities

New bill expands definition of biomass, helps businesses plan for recovery

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The fact that the Legislature passed -- and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed -- a bill expanding the definition of biomass wasn’t the biggest news on Initiative 937 this past week.No, the shock might have come from Marc Krasnowsky, a spokesman with environmental group NW Energy Coalition.

“We’re not happy about it, but it could have been much worse,” Krasnowsky told The Associated Press. “On the positive side, while the point of 937 was to bring in new renewable sources, at least this gives a little bit more certainty to some of the communities where these resources are.”

Krasnowsky’s view is one of pragmatism, which so often is lost in modern political discourse. And it reflects the reality brought about when statewide voters passed I-937 in 2006 -- a reality reinforced by the fact that all Southwest Washington legislators voted in favor of this year’s new bill.

The law that resulted from I-937 requires the state’s larger utilities to build toward getting at least 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, geothermal and certain woody biomass sources by 2020.

The bill signed recently by Gregoire expands that definition of renewable energy to include additional biomass facilities, such as pulp mills. Initially, the law eschewed older facilities in favor of trying to promote the development of new biomass production.

It was a noble goal, but one not rooted in reality.

As Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said: “Mills that have been in operation for decades and provide hundreds of jobs would have faced an uphill climb to remain open.”

Such is the notion of attempting to balance grandiose environmental ideals with the reality of a lingering economic downturn. One of the most important roles the Legislature must play at this time is to ensure that Washington is prepared to take advantage of the recovering economy, rather than shackling businesses with constrictive regulations.

Expanding the definition of renewable energy helps businesses plan for that recovery, yet the bill still came up a little short. It was like a nice 20-yard gain on a play that could have gone for a touchdown.

That’s because the law still excludes hydropower from its definition of renewable energy. Surely, anybody who has stood along the shores of the expansive and incessant Columbia River recognizes the renewable nature of hydropower, and we again urge lawmakers to include hydropower in further updates to the law.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, conducted a roundtable with local business leaders to discuss energy costs and regulations. Some of the business leaders said that 50 percent to 60 percent of their manufacturing expenses go to utilities, including gas, water and electricity.

That makes it easy to see that stable utility costs are crucial to the growth of business and manufacturing. That also makes it easy to see that it is important for the Legislature to take a holistic view of environmental regulations.

Yes, we hope that Washington can continue to be a leader in a green economy and continue to be a bastion of environmental concerns in this country. But we also recognize that such environmental issues can come with a cost to the economy, and that foresight and balance are required.

The law signed last week by Gregoire is a step in that direction. It continues to push for the development and advancement of renewable energy sources but also takes into consideration some of the realities of the business world.