Tilting at Windmills

by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & hris McCullough sees a future where all the electricity that powers our homes and offices and hair dryers comes not from smoke-belching coal plants, but burbles forth from the water, the wind, from the warming rays of the sun, from the heavy tides surging through the Tacoma Narrows.

But especially from the wind.

The spokesman for the Yes on I-937 committee is pushing an initiative that would require Washington's large electricity providers (like Avista and Inland Power and Light) to take drastic conservation steps and derive 15 percent of their energy from new, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar power and biomass by 2020. He says the initiative would send a message to utilities that Washingtonians want energy that's not going to ruin the planet.

"This basically says 'This is the direction to go. We want a future that's clean and renewable and cheaper,'" he says.

McCullough and the initiative's other backers -- everybody from Senator Maria Cantwell to the Sierra Club to the League of Women Voters -- suggest it's easy to do and point to the 20-some other states (California, Montana, Texas, New York, etc.) that have passed similar legislation over the last 10 years.

The key is wind power. While the initiative doesn't specify what renewable resources utilities must use to make up the required 15 percent of new renewable energy (they exclude renewable hydroelectric power, which already makes up 70 percent of the state's generated power), wind power technology is far more viable than solar, tidal, or biomass power. Backers see tall, white turbines spinning idly all across Eastern Washington, pumping clean, renewable energy into the state's power grid -- and money into the state's coffers. Supporters predict this will save consumers money and create jobs for Washington residents.

Green power, more jobs, lower energy bills. Might as well just stop reading and sharpen your "Yes" pencil, right?

Critics of the initiative say it's not nearly that simple. And it's not because they're opposed to clean electricity ("None of us think renewable energy is bad," says Gina London with the No on 937 campaign) -- they just happen to disagree with almost everything else in the initiative.

For starters, they object to the fact that I-937 doesn't include hydroelectric power as part of the required 15 percent renewable energy.

"It's renewable, clean, low-cost," London notes of hydro, adding that the other states that have passed similar measures get to include that resource as part of their package. Without it, Washington utilities would have to lean almost exclusively on wind, which the initiative's opponents (backed by the Association of Washington Business, Weyerhaeuser and a number of local utilities) claim isn't ready to meet the heightened demand.

They point to an August study by the Washington Research Council (WRC), which suggests that even running at its highest capacity, wind power might only be able to supply about 8 percent of the state's demand by 2020.

"It could be that it's an unachievable mandate," says London.

Energy consultant and former BPA administrator Randall Hardy says the WRC's numbers are "ludicrous" and "demonstrably false," cooked up by good analysts who "don't know squat about the wind business." He believes there's already enough wind power existing or in the planning phases to supply the 15 percent mandate.

"Market economics would dictate that this is bad public policy," says Hugh Imhof, a spokesman for Avista, which formally came out against the initiative on Monday. Though Avista has produced a plan to diversify its energy portfolio with more non-hydro renewable energy sources (it aims to get 14 percent of its fuel mix from wind and other renewables by 2016, four years shy of the proposed deadline), he says forcing this on utilities is a wrong-headed idea that will only make it more difficult for them to achieve their goals.

Washington is already very environmentally conscious, he says. "We're already moving in the direction of renewables. Why screw up the market? It's like a one-size-fits-all-solution."

But opponents' biggest weapon -- during a time of ultra-low tolerance for high energy prices -- is the specter of increased power bills. They say compliance with the new measures would cost utilities more money, and because many utilities can pass increased costs on, they claim that the initiative would cost Washington consumers more -- as much as $370 million more per year.

The initiative's supporters, on the other hand, say that the conservation measures built in will actually save utilities and consumers money.

The truth is, nobody really knows. Not even Washington's Office of Financial Management, which notes in the 2006 Voter's Guide that because the measure involves so many unknown and speculative variables, its fiscal impact on local governments and utilities "cannot be estimated at this time."

Nor does the federal Department of Energy know. Analysts with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been studying the efficacy of the Renewables Portfolio Standards (RPS) passed in other states. In a recent presentation to the Oregon Renewable Energy Working Group, one analyst noted that a distinct disadvantage of the RPS is that "cost impacts [are] not known with precision in advance."

Still, their reports indicate early data from other states suggest only modest increases in energy rates, if any. And in a study of 28 other studies on the topic, they conclude that 20 of them predict rate increases of only about one percent the first year that states hit their ultimate target.

In the absence of cold hard facts on what this initiative will actually do, both sides have peppered their respective Voter's Guide statements with anecdotal evidence, scare tactics and eye-rolling rhetoric.

The initiative's supporters don't adequately source or support their claims -- that renewable energy is cheaper, that similar campaigns are "already working in 20 other states." As their source for the claim that renewable energy is working in Colorado (the only state so far that has passed this type of legislation as an initiative), they'll point to a story published by Windpower Monthly in May, which notes that a Denver-based energy exec "could barely contain his enthusiasm" when speaking about his company's use of wind power at a seminar in Washington, D.C. What Bill Grant really said was that wind was "very economically beneficial to us."

They also make it sound like Washington is choking to death on coal fumes (coal only makes up about 10 percent of the state's power generation), and they accuse the Washington Research Council and its critical study of being in bed with the measure's opponents.

Said opponents aren't much better, though. They rail about potential costs they can't back up and claim -- "we are paying too much for our energy bills now" -- in a state that has the tenth lowest rates in the country. They hint that the subsidies propping up wind power could disappear (though they'll likely stick around, considering half the country has now adopted similar laws). They also shout that poor people and senior citizens are at risk, before playing the ultimate Washington political card, warning that our cheap, renewable hydroelectric power could be sold off to the Californians.

These kinds of campaigns -- and the highly complicated, speculative nature of the issue -- make Initiative 937 a crap shoot for voters this fall. Twenty-one states have passed similar measures; some of them seem to be succeeding, and some are unenforced disasters. Many of them have already started fine tuning the laws to make them more efficient.

This initiative could save consumers money, but it could cost them a ton; it could be a hindrance to the free market, or it could be "building on Washington's tradition of cheap, hydroelectric power," in the words of the Yes committee's McCullough.

It just depends which way the wind blows.