Senate approves Ericksen energy bill, boosts jobs and reduces carbon emissions

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

OLYMPIA… The Washington Senate approved energy legislation Monday evening that aims to boost jobs, prevent steep increases in electric bills — and for the first time in legislative history, launches a practical program to reduce carbon emissions statewide.

“We can achieve big results, here and now, today – by making modest changes to our state’s renewable-energy law,” Ericksen said. “We can keep power costs low, encourage the creation of new manufacturing jobs, and achieve the additional benefit of reducing carbon emissions across the state. A clean environment doesn’t have to cause wrenching problems for our state economy or impose punitive taxes on the people of Washington. This doesn’t cost Washington a penny more than it already is spending – it might even cost less.”

Senate Bill 5735, approved 26-23, makes modest changes to Initiative 937. The 2006 ballot measure requires utilities to purchase a growing proportion of their power from “renewable energy” – virtually all of it from wind farms. The bill gives utilities another way to comply, by investing in programs that reduce carbon.

Anything that reduces carbon is fair game. Those programs could range from conservation to conversion of the Washington ferry fleet to liquefied natural gas and the installation of electric-car charging stations along major highways. The bill has the maximum potential benefit of reducing Washington carbon emissions by 5.5 million tons by 2020, or about 6 percent of the state’s carbon output.

The bill is part of a package in the state Senate this year that aims to promote new-energy technologies and carbon reduction, and provide incentives to utilities and business to invest in clean energy strategies. Other bills provide incentives to private companies to convert their fleets to alternative fuels, encourage new hydropower investment, and promote research into small modular nuclear reactors, a promising zero-emission technology.

Senate Bill 5735 works within the framework established by Initiative 937 to protect the big investments some utilities have already made in wind energy. By giving utilities a new way to comply, Ericksen noted that the effect will be to shift some or even a large portion of new investment to carbon reduction – whatever utilities find to be most cost-effective. Utilities will be credited according to the number of tons of carbon they reduce, with a third party verifying the reduction.

Ericksen said the bill corrects some of 937’s biggest flaws. Although the measure was touted by the environmental industry as a way to promote clean energy, the initiative provides no incentive to reduce emissions, carbon or anything else. It also requires utilities to purchase power even though most do not need the power to meet consumer demand.

The result is that wind will increasingly displace clean and abundant hydropower over the next five years, as utility purchasing requirements rise from the current 3 percent to 15 percent in 2020. Paradoxically, I-937 could mean more carbon emissions, not less, Ericksen said, because a backup power source is required when the wind doesn’t blow. Nearly always that power source is natural gas. “We’ll be displacing clean hydropower with a more expensive source of power that produces carbon,” Ericksen said. “Does that make any sense?

“Under this plan, Washington gets the clean-energy future people thought they were getting when they voted for I-937. We need to recognize that a transition to clean energy is coming no matter what government does. What we need to do is to make that future come faster. We do have a better way.”