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State tries to shrink green energy law -- Washington weakens resolve

Using the financial downturn as a hammer, several factions in the state of Washington are trying to pound down a two-year-old law that requires most state utilities to get 15% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. Similar laws in 29 other states form an important basement level of demand for wind power and this is the first example of recession woes being used to try and rollback such laws.

On the way to 15%, Washington's law, which applies to the state's 17 electric utilities with at least 25,000 customers, sets a standard for 3% renewables power by 2012 and 9% by 2016. The voter-approved initiative, I-937, became law after the November 2006 elections, but only recently became vulnerable because state lawmakers are prevented from using a legislative majority to alter voter-approved measures for a two-year period.

"It's very serious," says Rachel Shimshak of Renewables Project Northwest, an advocacy group that worked for several years to pass the law. "All the people who were the opponents of the renewables standard are still opponents of the renewables standard and they are using a weak economy to argue against it."

Among more than a dozen bills that have been introduced, two considered as serious threats would broadly expand the definition of renewable energy in return for slightly higher benchmarks. One bill would allow utilities to use hydroelectric generation, which makes up roughly half of the Northwest's capacity, to count heavily toward the goals. Another would allow renewables bought since 1995 to fulfil the requirements. Still others would allow utilities to count renewables imported from other states. Any of the measures could come to a vote before the current legislative session ends this spring.

Definition

Shimshak and other supporters of the existing law maintain that changing it would erode the momentum of the utilities, which are well on their way to achieving the 2012 benchmark. "We've done some analysis and we can see that 13 out of the 17 utilities who are covered under I-937 have planned for or have already met the 2012 standard," Shimshak says. "People took it seriously, they took steps and there are not that many megawatts to go among the four utilities that haven't complied."

Among those on record in favour of altering the law is the Washington Public Utility District Association (WPUDA), which insists no attempts are being made to weaken I-937. "Nobody is looking at reducing the percentage of renewable energy that utilities would need to require under the law," says WPUDA's Dean Boyer. "They are looking at expanding the definition of renewable energy."

A main argument for altering I-937 is to keep Northwest energy prices from rising in a part of the country that has enjoyed historically low power prices from hydro generation, by far the dominant power source. "The impact of limiting the geographic reach of where you can purchase renewable energy drives up the cost of that renewable energy," Boyer says. "What our utilities are interested in doing is meeting the requirements at the lowest possible cost to their consumers."

But Shimshak believes that line of thinking misses the point. "The arguments that they're making are the same as they ever made," she says. "Never mind jobs and local property taxes and income for farmers. If Washington is really serious about weakening and diluting their standards, then it seems like an odd time to do it, given they need all the economic help for the economy that they can get."

Washington has been nurturing a reputation as a leader in wind power with over 200 MW added last year, bringing it up to just under 1400 MW of cumulative capacity. Shimshak is aware of no other states attempting to water down their requirements. "I think it would stick out like a sore thumb if Washington went backwards," she says.

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