In 2006, Washington voters gave electrical utilities statewide a clear mandate: Develop clean, renewable energy, and do it fast.
But the devil of Initiative 937, as the saying goes, has been in the details. In their efforts to generate green power, some utilities and industries in Western Washington are running into unexpected opposition: environmentalists. These projects, critics say, just aren't green enough.
Biomass boilers burn wood inefficiently, creating too much air pollution and greenhouse gas. Tidal power is experimental and costly, and the potential harm to fish and sea life remains unknown. Giant wind turbines maim and kill birds. So technologies viewed a few decades ago as squeaky clean are getting surprising resistance now that they have become possible from both engieering and financial perspectives.
"It's worth asking for any energy source — whether it's a fossil source or a nonfosssil source — what the impacts are of the development of that source of energy," said Craig Partridge, policy director for state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.
It's a question opponents of a proposed wind farm on Radar Ridge near Naselle are asking, for example, and they're not satisfied with the answer. The site chosen by developer Energy Northwest is smack in the middle of a sensitive habitat of the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird.
Conservation groups say the renewable energy boost isn't worth the potential harm to the murrelet.
"It has to be sited in a good spot. We wouldn't want to put a new wind power project or other major facility in a wilderness area, or in a national park, or in a cemetery. There are some spots that aren't appropriate," said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of the Seattle Audubon Society, a leading opponent of the proposed Radar Ridge wind farm near Naselle.
Officials for project developer Energy Northwest say they've bent over backward to reduce the impact of the project, including setting aside a 270-acre marbled murrelet habitat nearby in Grays Harbor County, but to no avail.
"I couldn't have anticipated it being this difficult when we started," said Dave Kobus, project manager for the Richland-based public power consortium.
If Kobus sounds exasperated, it's because utilities statewide are under the gun to develop renewable energy, and the clock is ticking.
Under I-937, 3 percent of large utilities' generation must come from renewables — sources such as wind, biomass, tidal, solar and landfill gas — by 2012. The requirements jump to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2020.
As far as stimulating renewable energy development, the law has worked like gang busters. Last year, Washington was the nation's fifth largest wind energy producer, more than doubling its capacity over the previous five years. New proposals for solar, biomass and wave power are also emerging, and some utilities are looking to sell their excess clean power to California and Oregon utilities to help offset rising wholesale power rates.
Cowlitz PUD, for example, expects to collect more than $20 million in power sales this year from its 124-megawatt share in the Harvest Wind and White Creek wind projects in Central Washington. As early actors in the renewable game, Cowlitz has developed nearly all the renewable power it needs to meet the I-937 requirements, said Dave Andrew, Cowlitz PUD spokesman.
However, the PUD still needs to iron out new power agreements requiring its largest industrial customers, Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging Inc. and Weyerhaeuser Co., to produce renewable energy or buy wholesale renewable on the market, Andrew said.
Millions of dollars are at stake for both companies, who generate power onsite in biomass boilers. However, environmentalists and regulators question whether burning leftover sawdust, tree tops and other leftover wood is truly renewable.
Andrew added that he sympathizes with other utilities scrambling to develop renewables.
"It's clearly not easy. With the wind projects, the financing part was difficult, but we made it. It depends on how difficult it is, and how bad you need it," Andrew said.
Environmentalists say they agree that green power is badly needed. But, they add, they want to ensure these projects do more good than harm.
Pros/Cons of some renewable options: