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Aug. 14, 2020

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Clark Public Utilities in no rush to nix fossil fuels

Electricity must be carbon-free by 2045, bill states

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:

Clark Public Utilities isn’t shifting into planning overdrive to ensure 100 percent of its electricity will be generated from renewable sources by 2045.

“I am not a big fan of planning 25 years in advance,” Wayne Nelson, the agency’s CEO and general manager, said Monday.

Last week, state legislators sent Senate Bill 5116 to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. The bill requires Washington utilities to stop using fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas, to generate electricity by Jan. 1, 2045.

Among legislators representing portions of Clark County, the vote was split along party lines, with Democrats voting for the bill and Republicans opposing it.

Passage of the bill represents a big win for Inslee. The legislation was the centerpiece of an ambitious environmental package the two-term Democrat unveiled last December. Inslee has made combatting climate change the foundation of his nascent presidential campaign.

Three other states — California, Hawaii and New Mexico — have passed similar legislation requiring their state’s electricity to be carbon-free by 2045.

SB 5116 has long-term implications for Clark Public Utilities’ River Road Generating Plant, which is fueled by natural gas.

“Originally, the bill was aspirational,” Nelson said, “in the sense that 100 percent green by 2045 was a goal rather than a mandate.”

Nelson said he would have preferred the bill’s mandate remain a goal.

“Who knows what the future holds in terms of the development of renewable resources?” he said.

During the next 25 years, technology could improve and make renewable energy, such as solar and wind, less expensive.

“If that happens, people will gravitate toward renewals from just a business standpoint,” Nelson said.

“It’s a little bit of a wait and see,” he said. “Do you have to plan? Yes. But do you have to plan for 25 years out? Not necessarily.”

The River Road plant was the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases among Washington power plants in 2017, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. The plant released an average of about 550,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year from 2010 to 2017.

The original version of SB 5116 included a 5 percent cost cap, meaning a utility would not have to meet the 100 percent requirement if the cost of doing so exceeded 5 percent of its electricity revenue from homes, businesses and other retail customers. Nelson said that cost cap was reduced to 2 percent as the bill worked its way through the legislative process.

This change would make it easier for Clark Public Utilities to avoid having to switch completely to renewable energy sources, although it would be decades before the agency made such a decision.

In 2017, Clark Public Utilities received 62.8 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration and its network of dams generating hydroelectricity on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Another 28.7 percent came from its River Road Generating Plant, which opened in 1997. The remaining 8.5 percent came from nuclear, coal and other sources.

The amount of electricity generated by the River Road plant varies depending on how much it costs to purchase hydroelectricity.

“The River Road plant runs based on economics,” Nelson said, adding that the plant is currently shut down about one-third of the year.

According to Inslee’s office, more than 75 percent of Washington’s electricity already is carbon-free, with coal generating 13.4 percent and natural gas accounting for 10.8 percent.

Clark Public Utilities provides electricity to nearly 200,000 customers in Clark County, plus water to more than 35,000 customers.

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