Many in Seattle probably know that our state is the leading hydroelectric power producer in the nation. However, many would be surprised to learn that hydroelectric power, also known as hydropower or hydro, is not considered a renewable resource under the state’s Energy Independence Act. A few Republican State Senators and House Representatives would like to amend the state’s constitution, arguing that the exclusion is driving up energy prices. This in turn makes Washington State less attractive to business owners and potential investors.
House Joint Resolution 4200 (and the similar Senate Bill 5294) seeks to recognize hydropower as a renewable resource. Introduced by Representative Haler (R-Richland), HJR 4200 aims to include hydropower into the definition of renewable resources, and thus be counted toward the required percentage stated in the Energy Independence Act.
While it seems like a no-brainer to list hydropower as a renewable resource, this bill’s motive is more convoluted than it appears. In 2006, Washington State voters approved Initiative 937, requiring utilities with 25,000 customers or more to buy at least 3% power from eligible renewable resources (e.g., wind, solar, but excluding hydroelectric) by 2012. The percentage will increase to 9% in 2016 and to 15% by 2020. The initiative, which became the Energy Independent Act, aimed to increase investment in renewable power sources while reducing our dependency on existing sources such as gas, coal and hydro. Hydroelectricity was excluded from the list of eligible resources because 72% of power in the state comes from hydropower plants. Therefore, including hydropower in the eligible list actually defeats the original purpose of Initiative 937.
There is a good reason why we need to diversify our power supply. According to the Washington State Integrated Climate Response Strategy report published in April 2012, climate change will continue to alter snowpack and stream flow of the region. The warmer climate will lead to less water naturally stored in snowpack and glacier. At the same time, earlier snow melt in spring will lead to early winter peak flow and less summer flow. It is estimated that summertime hydropower production will drop by approximately 9% to 11% by 2020. With population growth and increasing summer temperature, there is a great urgency to develop other renewable energy sources to satiate future power needs.
What about the price of electricity in the region? A National Public Radio report on October 2011 ranked Washington State third in terms of lowest power cost in US, behind Idaho and North Dakota. Similar to Washington, Idaho State produces most of its power from hydroelectric dams. With virtually no fuel input and the investment cost of dams spread-out across decades, both Idaho and Washington are able to keep its power cost low. As for the claim that cost of power has been increasing, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on January 2013 shows that Seattle residents pay less for electricity than most US residents. For the past 5 years, Seattle’s average electricity priced 27% to 38% below national average.
Without a doubt, hydroelectric power is a renewable power source under current condition. The main question is: will it be renewable in the future? Maybe it is time we stop worrying about company profits in the short term, and be more concern about our energy usage in the long run.
About the Author
ChunHo Chen is a full time Civil Engineer at Osborn Consulting, Inc., and a part time MBA student at University of Washington Foster School of Business. He was born in Hong Kong, studied high school in Singapore, and now resides in Seattle, Washington.