OLYMPIA – An initiative that would compel the Snohomish County PUD and other large electricity providers to use sources of energy other than hydropower advanced Thursday toward a spot on the ballot this fall.
Supporters turned in signatures for Initiative 937, which would require the state’s major utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources such as solar and wind by 2020.
“We wanted something that is both challenging and achievable,” U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said of the key plank of the measure.
Volunteers filed initiative petitions with 330,000 signatures; 224,800 must be from valid voters to qualify the measure.
“We have to explore every option to help people become aware of the need for clean energy and renewable energy,” said Rebecca Wolfe of Edmonds, who gathered 1,500 signatures. “I think this will help us.”
Opposition will be led by the Association of Washington Business. The group formally announced Thursday it opposes I-937 because it includes mandates that threaten to drive up costs for small businesses.
“If a utility has to forgo purchasing less expensive hydropower for a more expensive alternative” then it will be passed on, said Chris McCabe, the group’s governmental affairs director.
The proposed I-937 affects only utilities providing electricity to at least 25,000 customers. There are 17 in the state, according to proponents.
Under the measure, these utilities must rely on “renewable resources” for 3 percent of their electricity by Jan. 1, 2012, 9 percent by 2016 and 15 percent by 2020. Fines can be levied if a benchmark is missed.
Renewable resources defined in the initiative include energy from wind, solar, geothermal, landfill gas, tidal power, biodiesel, biomass and burning wood waste.
The initiative does not encourage utilities to explore nuclear or coal-fired plants.
Utilities can also earn credit toward the mandates by increasing conservation by customers and improving efficiency of existing plants.
This is a “huge stride forward,” said Sarah Patton of the Northwest Energy Coalition, one of the groups pushing the initiative.
“We have worked for years in the Legislature to get these standards, and we couldn’t do it,” said Patton whose alliance includes an array of environmental groups and producers of alternative energies.
The initiative specifically excludes hydropower, which provides two-thirds of the state’s electricity.
Nancy Hirsh, the coalition’s policy director, said the intent is to force the state to diversify its portfolio of energy resources and avoid becoming too reliant on any one.
By establishing mandates, the state reduces the economic risk facing producers of renewable energy by guaranteeing potential buyers for the power, she said.
“This creates a reasonable, gradual timeline for the growth of an industry that needs to be part of the new industries of the state,” Hirsh said.
Snohomish County PUD relies on hydropower for 80 percent of the electricity it provides its 300,000 customers. Landfill gas and a biomass co-generation plant also provide a bit of power, said PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos.
“Fundamentally, we think we are doing a lot in being a clean utility and relying on sources that are clean, like hydro,” he said.
Hirsh agreed. She noted in 2000-01 a West Coast energy crisis coupled with a drought forced the PUD to pay high prices for power produced from other means than hydropower. More options will help protect the PUD from such volatility.
The PUD Board of Commissioners received a briefing Thursday on the potential effects of the initiative. Commissioners will consider taking a position on it July 18.
Wolfe said this measure is a critical step toward preserving resources for the future.
“I’d like to see the planet survive,” she said. “I really think it’s that serious.”
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.