In Our View: Greens versus the Poor

2006 initiative is creating problems that will burden electricity consumers

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Carefully avoiding any temptation to say "we told you so," The Columbian will stick to the high road in discussing Initiative 937, a green-energy-promotion measure that was passed by Washingtonians in 2006.But while we're on the subject, allow us to point out that some unintended consequences have emerged to make I-937 more problematic than many people visualized in 2006. Back then, this newspaper editorially opposed the initiative that was supported by 51.7 percent of voters both statewide and in Clark County. I-937 requires certain electric utilities with 25,000 or more customers to have 15 percent of their power supply generated by renewable resources by 2020. This conversion is gradual; currently the requirement is less than 5 percent.

More than six recession-torn years later, wind energy has become the chief beneficiary of I-937, but electricity bills are poised to soar even higher than usual. Fortunately, legislators are responding. Senate Bill 5648 (Ann Rivers, R-La Center, is a co-sponsor) would lessen the impact of I-937 in a number of complicated but effective ways. Among the bill's provisions, utilities could use excess conservation to meet the requirements of I-937. Alternative compliance methods would be redefined so that utilities could more easily modernize without driving up costs that are passed on to consumers.

It's a good bill that warrants serious consideration in both chambers of the Legislature. As explained by washingtonstatewire.com, the unintended consequences are "setting up one of the most delicious conflicts in ages: Greens versus the poor." The website quotes Martin Valadez, president of the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: "… why would we want to raise these electrical rates simply to fulfill a mandate that is sending big dollars to developers and taking money away from our families? While we support efforts to increase renewable energy, we do not want this to be done on the backs of hard-working families."

Proponents of SB 5648 argue that school districts, already burdened with massive budget woes, are expecting increases of up to 15-20 percent in electricity costs. This should make the new bill even more attractive to legislators as they seek new efficiencies in public education.

Make no mistake, renewable energy is a worthy pursuit, but it was already well under way -- properly driven by market conditions -- before I-937 was passed. Another big flaw in the initiative is the fact that it did not count hydropower with wind and solar as a renewable energy. But it doesn't take a highly educated hydrologist to recognize that water-driven power generation is eminently renewable, especially in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

We hope the modernization of the energy industry continues. It's good for our local economy, as seen in the arrival of hundreds of wind-energy components at the Port of Vancouver. But let that conversion continue on a smooth schedule, without artificial stimulation, and without making ratepayers suffer. Electricity bills will increase anyway. The Legislature should moderate those increases by passing SB 5648.