Backers of defeated Washington carbon tax eye big victory on renewables

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2018

A top Washington lawmaker says the state is “very close” to a deal that would end the use of fossil fuels in the state’s power sector.

The push comes as Washington’s 2018 legislative session sprints toward its conclusion and follows lawmakers’ decision to table a carbon tax proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee (D) due to lack of support.

The renewables bill would prohibit coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 and bar all fossil fuel power by 2045.

“We are very close to a very big breakthrough on a 100 percent renewable energy bill,” state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat who sponsored the carbon tax proposal in the Senate, said yesterday. “While the carbon tax hasn’t gone through, we’re super-close to a Hawaii-like bill.”

Hawaii has set a target of generating 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2045.

The bill has generated opposition from Washington’s investor-owned utilities. Avista Corp., PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy all registered their displeasure in testimony to lawmakers last month, saying the measure could send prices rocketing and compromise the grid’s reliability.

Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility, considered an alternative where it forgoes new fossil-fired power plants as part of its long-range plan, and found it would cost $2 billion more than other options, Brandon Housekeeper, the utility’s director of public affairs, told lawmakers.

“Absent new gas-fired generation, we could experience significant and sustained outages in the western U.S.,” Housekeeper said at the time.

Advocates questioned that argument. Hydropower generated more than 60 percent of Washington utilities’ power in 2016, according to state statistics. Nuclear and wind represented nearly 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of the state’s power mix, meaning that roughly 70 percent of the state’s energy already comes from low-carbon resources.

“What we’re talking about is 30 years to deal with the last quarter of our power,” said Vlad Gutman-Britten, Washington director for Climate Solutions.

Washington’s lone coal plant is slated to close in 2025. But the bill is likely to stoke tensions with Montana, which has long imported coal-generated electricity to the Pacific Northwest. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox (R) warned early this year that his state may sue Washington if it attempts to tax carbon.

The states have frequently battled in recent years over the future of Colstrip Generating Station, a massive coal plant on Montana’s eastern prairie. Avista, PacifiCorp and Puget all own stakes in the plant.

The bill would prohibit Washington utilities from charging their customers for coal-related expenses after 2030. It would also make it possible for power companies to effectively pay down the remaining costs on their coal plants more quickly, hastening their retirement.

“The 100 percent clean is really a forcing function to get off the remaining coal we get from Montana as well as the renewables above and beyond our current baseload,” Carlyle said.

Still, it was unclear if proponents could get the measure across the finish line before this year’s session closes. The initial bill, H.B. 2995, was passed by the state House Finance Committee last month. Votes in the House and Senate would need to be completed before tomorrow, the day the session ends.