During last year's legislative session, at the request  of state Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3), the Democrats tried to alter I-937, a voter-approved measure that mandated an increase in utilities' reliance on renewable resources (15 percent of a utility's energy load by 2020.)

Sen. Brown's legislation would have changed some definitions to allow things other than wind and solar power (like hydro) to count as "green." Environmentalists argued those changes watered down the voter initiative, which was supposed to encourage the development of new green technologies.

It's wonky stuff, but it created a bitter standoff last year between greens, the Democratic leadership, and the electric utilities industry. (Start with this post to follow the whole tortured affair.)

Sen. Brown is bringing the measure back this year, although Spokane-area Sen. Chris Marr (D-6)—who carried the bill for Brown last year—isn't running it this year, a move that has cooled tensions in Olympia.

In fact, according to both environmentalists and Sen. Brown, the negotiations are off to an encouraging start. There's currently agreement what a bill can include; what it can't include; and what's up for discussion.

On the "Can Include" ledger: Upgrades in hydro plants and biomass from forest-industry byproducts can count toward a utility's renewable goal as long as the total amount of renewables is increased. The working agreement currently ups the mandate accordingly.

On the "Can't Include" ledger: Load growth can't be taken into account to tweak a mandate. (This is a complicated equation, but basically it's saying that a utility can't use its load growth number—how much new power they're producing—to replace the target of 15 percent renewables. Last year's Senate bill allowed utilities to do just this—meaning that renewable energy sources could have dropped by as much as 50 percent, according to environmentalists.)

On the table for discussion—and what could reignite some of last year's fireworks: Are conservation measures allowed to count toward the renewable goal?

Environmentalists say I-937, which passed 52-48 in 2006, was intended to create renewable energy—conservation is a separate issue.

Not so, says Sen. Brown. Asked why she's pushing for a revamp of I-937 in the first place (a bit of a mystery to liberals and a source of conspiracy theories about her relationship with Spokane-area energy giant Avista), she says: "I guess it's my economics brain." Brown goes on to explain that conservation efforts are key to the the state's goal of building a green collar economy, and that things like building in new efficiencies should be part of the I-937 equation.

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