Avista Utilities and Inland Power & Light Co. were among the top performing utilities in rankings released this week by the NW Energy Coalition.
Both will reach the first threshold for renewable energy use mandated by Initiative 937, which Washington voters passed in 2006. At least 3 percent of the electricity delivered to customers this year must be from sources like wind, solar and conservation. By 2020, 15 percent of all power must be renewable.
The two Spokane-based utilities were regional leaders in adopting efficiency measures that reduce the need for new generating resources of all kinds: Inland placed first, Avista tied for second among the 17 that were scored.
They deserve recognition for their achievements.
Neither utility liked I-937 – nor did The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board – but they are complying, and exceeding their internal goals for progress. Annual efficiency gains at Inland, for example, jumped from about one-third a megawatt – power enough for 700 homes – to 4.8 megawatts during the 2010-2011 period the coalition used to measure compliance.
The coalition was among the most ardent proponents of the renewable energy mandates, and is using this first report to trumpet their early success. Not only are these resources cleaner, advocates say, a more diversified resource base discourages over-reliance on one or two resources – pre-existing hydrogeneration does not count as renewable – and insulates the region from spikes in wholesale electricity markets.
But the coalition’s own chart suggests efficiency gains have lost their price edge the last two years as natural gas prices plummeted. Utilities are decommissioning the region’s coal plants, and clean-burning gas has become the preferred fuel for electricity generation.
Meanwhile, the construction of new wind-generating capacity may hang on pending legislation to extend tax credits that have made wind competitive with other resources. And, no wind, no electricity. Wind farms in the Northwest can generate more than 4,700 megawatts of electricity. In the dead calm of the last few days, they have produced almost nothing.
The utilities have been doing the right stuff.
Most of the progress Avista will get credit for this year originated with an effort to upgrade company dams that began more than a decade ago. Inland increased efficiency by distributing compact fluorescent light bulbs, and attained the 3 percent green energy threshold by buying surplus renewable energy credits from other utilities. It does not need more electricity to meet customer needs.
Northwest utilities have always been among the most innovative in the country, spinning off or supporting vendors on the technological frontier. With few coal plants serving the region, they have also been among the cleanest. In effect, the first I-937 awards credit for work the utilities were already doing.
There’s a dynamic energy world out there. We will see if mandates have their place in it.