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Commentaries and editorials

Renewable Energy by Any Other
Name Doesn't Smell as Sweet

by James Conca
Forbes, June 30, 2015

(Jeff T. Green) The Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the lower Snake River near Burbank, Washington. My local electric utility here in Washington State just raised my base electricity price and are having to buy renewable energy credits because they are required to supply 9% of our electricity from renewable sources next year and we only produce 85% from renewables now.


Yes, electricity generation in Washington State is 79% hydroelectric, 8% nuclear, 6% wind, 4% coal and 3% gas. We have the most renewable energy generation and the lowest carbon footprint in America and have more than surpassed any reasonable low-carbon goal you could possibly imagine. When our only coal-fired power plant is shut in a few years, carbon emissions will drop even more.

However, unlike the rest of the world, our huge amount of hydropower is not allowed to be recognized as renewable anymore, thus we have to buy wind from another state and throw away hydro-generated electricity when that wind comes online.

This rather ludicrous situation came about from a foolish, if well-intentioned, 2006 Washington State Ballot Initiative 937. I-937 requires that utilities obtain 15% of their electricity by 2020 from renewable resources such as solar and wind, but in steps -- 3% by 2012, 9% by 2016 and 15% by 2020. Unfortunately, this initiative also declared that hydroelectric could not be counted as a renewable for this purpose.

Disrespecting hydro was necessary to use renewable mandates to force wind turbine construction in the state. Washington State has so much renewable production from hydroelectric that no one in their right mind would think it reasonable to install wind capacity that would just end up displacing another renewable like hydro.

The whole point of renewable mandates and portfolio standards is to encourage phasing out coal and phasing in renewables. The State of Washington phased in renewables 80 years ago!

But we're still below 9% wind + solar. So now, in addition to hiking our rates, my little local utility has to spend an additional $3,400,000 from its meager rainy-day account to buy renewable energy credits since hydro just isn't good enough to be counted as a renewable.

Although some of the rate hike will also go to infrastructure repair, most of these funds will go to complying with I-937.

Fortunately, Washington State has so much hydro and nuclear that we also have the lowest cost electricity in the civilized world (7cents/kWh), so this rate increase won't be too onerous for most of us. And our local utilities are offering some relief to low-income senior and disabled customers.

But it's silly to pretend hydroelectric power isn't renewable. We need to fix this nonsense in the Washington State Legislature (something being spearheaded by WA State Senator Sharon Brown) and put hydro back in its rightful place as the most abundant renewable energy source on the planet.

It is debatable whether wind and solar will ever surpass hydro in global electricity generation, and it is unlikely they will ever pass hydro in this state.

Washington State ratepayers shouldn't be punished for being way ahead of everyone else in becoming the first sustainable, low-carbon and energy independent state in the union.

Related Pages:
When Should A Nuclear Power Plant Be Refueled? by James Conca, Forbes, May 11, 2015

James Conca
Renewable Energy by Any Other Name Doesn't Smell as Sweet
Forbes, June 30, 2015

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