State Democrats Poised to Rescind I-937

By Josh Feit March 4, 2009

State Sen. Chris Marr (D-6, Spokane), the Democratic majority whip in Olympia, is sponsoring a bill that will gut the voter-approved renewable energy initiative, I-937. The bill has been fast tracked by leadership and is queued up for a floor vote by the end of this week.  The bill has six Democratic sponsors and six Republican sponsors. 


Sen. Chris Marr (D-6, Spokane). Marring the people's will?

I-937, passed by the voters in 2006 52-48, mandates that electric utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Hydro was not included on I-937's list of kosher sources because the intent of the initiative was to develop new sources of green power. Hydro provides 70 percent of the region's power already. (Additionally, dams are taboo in the environmental community.)

"The main intent was to diversify," says Carrie Dolwick, policy associate for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an environmental group opposed to Marr's bill. "We can't just rely on one source, " she adds, explaining that getting an A in math, but a C in everything else, would be an unacceptable report card for concerned parents.

Marr's bill grandfathers in existing renewables, including hydro up to a 30 megawatt average, so some hydro electricity could count toward meeting the goal. The bill would also allow conservation measures to count toward the renewable goal, something that was prohibited by I-937. (I-937 had a separate conservation mandate.)

Finally, and what environmental advocates seem most peeved about is this: Rather than mandating that 15 percent of a utility's generation load come from renewable sources, the percentage will be pegged to a utility's load growth (load growth= increase in energy generation). So, for example, if a utility increases its output by 10 percent, it has to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources rather than the 15 target. And again, to environmentalists' chagrin,  conservation efforts and existing sources of renewables— including some hydro power—can be counted toward the lower goal.  

"This bill, as it is [now]," says Dolwick, "has amended I-937 until it essentially rescinds the renewable energy standard."

Most utilities' energy loads grow by about 1.2 percent a year. That puts the target number lower than 15 percent by about 12 percent when 2020 comes around. Using the load growth standard in lieu of the the 15 percent standard, for example, would even decrease a faster-growth utility like Spokane-based Avista. The  load growth standard would shrink their requirement by 41 percent for the 2012 check in, according to the bill opponents' numbers. 

"It could cut the renewables in half," says Marc Krasnowsky, communications director for the NWEC. 

Several top Avista execs are on Marr's contributors list—including President Scott Morris at $1,0000—bringing total contributions from Avista to the Spokane senator to near $6,000 during his 2006 election.

Sen. Marr says he believes if the voters who approved I-937 in 2006 were asked today what their intent was, they would say their intent was to "lower green house gas emissions, lower the dependence on carbon-based fuels, and promote renewables."

And the follow-up question, Marr would ask? "Did they intend to promote just one technology [wind power]?" Marr answers, "No, I think they'd say they wanted a portfolio approach." 

To that end, Marr strongly believes that conservation needs to be a part of the I-937 fix. "The greenest watt is no watt used," he says. And so, Marr is pushing to "incent convservation." 

Marr adds that after they run the numbers, if they find that tacking the mandate to load growth "significantly impairs the intent [of investing in renewables], I would certainly not be in support of that."

He says the bill is not finished and he agrees with the advocates concern. Marr, however, sees himself as caught between the enviros—he points out that he's been rated legislator of the year by the Washington Conservation Voters and that he cut ads for I-937 in 2006—and the utilities.  

Sen. Marr reframes the whole debate by pointing out that his bill raises the mandate on utilities from 15 percent to 21 percent, and so, putting that burden on the utilities means the utilities should get credit for other efforts that reduce their carbon footprint, like conservation and counting some hydro. (Of course, the green critics of the bill say the 21 percent mandate is irrelevant if the new standard is load growth.)

Marr also says that I-937 "has put smaller utilities in the position of getting rid of low-cost hydro for more expensive renewables," which leads him to this point: "That creates sticker shock for low-income customers." 

This is precisely the point Avista, which supports amending I-937, makes. Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof tells PubliCola that while Avista is meeting the I-937 targets now, as their load growth goes up, they will have to invest in more expensive wind power and push that price on their customers. Imhof says a new wind plant would cost $125 million. "We could save our customers $125 million," he says, if the company didn't have to build the wind plant and could count its small hydro plants toward the goal. "Hydro is renewable," Imhof says. 

Avista gets about 53 percent of its power from hydro. 

Puget Sound Energy, however, is neutral on the bill. PSE spokesperson Andy Wappler says the Bellevue-based utility is far ahead of schedule. They are on track to be at 10 percent by 2013, he says.
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