March 22, 2012

Washington state plan expands renewable energy law

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday signed a bill that for the first time broadens the definition of renewable energy.

The measure makes electricity produced from older biomass facilities, such as pulp mills, eligible for the state's renewable energy mandate. Supporters say it will benefit rural communities and a struggling timber industry.

Since voters approved Initiative 937 in 2006, there have been numerous attempts by lawmakers, utilities and industry to expand what qualifies as a renewable energy source.

The law requires nearly a third of the state's utilities, those with at least 25,000 customers, to build toward getting 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, geothermal and certain woody biomass by 2020.

The plan excluded hydropower and biomass facilities older than 1999, because backers said it was intended to spur the development of new renewable energy.

The changes signed Wednesday mean "mills that have been in operation for decades and provide hundreds of jobs would have faced an uphill climb to remain open," Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, the bill's primary sponsor, said last week when it had cleared both the House and Senate with bipartisan support.

The measure would benefit facilities such as Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging and Weyerhaeuser Co.'s Longview plant.

Opposition from environmental groups helped kill the bill last year. Those groups initially opposed the proposal when it was reintroduced this year, but dropped their objections after the legislation was more narrowly defined, said Marc Krasnowsky, a spokesman with the NW Energy Coalition, a prime backer of I-937.

"We're not happy about it, but it could have been much worse," Krasnowsky said. "On the positive side, while the point of 937 was to bring in new renewable sources, at least this gives a little bit more certainty to some of the communities where these resources are."

Under the new law, biomass energy produced onsite by pulp mills is eligible toward I-937 mandates, starting in 2016.

A utility may also count energy produced from the byproduct of the pulping or wood manufacturing process, yard and food waste and untreated construction debris.

The legislation also restricts the sale and transfer of renewable energy credits a utility gets from the biomass facility.


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