The views of northwestern utility regulators can differ widely on topics such as climate change, renewable energy, natural gas policy and the development of new nuclear power generation, as revealed by remarks heard Jan. 14 at an industry conference in Seattle.
Regulators from Washington, Oregon and Idaho spoke at a conference titled “Buying and Selling Electric Power in the West.” The trio comprised a panel discussing regional regulatory policy: challenges and individual commission approaches at the Law Seminars International conference.
From a regional standpoint and a state perspective, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC) member Mark Sidran said utilities in his state should not be limited to renewable projects within their state, particularly given the fact that “California is not limiting their utilities.” Sidran noted that recent climate and renewable state legislation was labeled as the “Washington Energy Independence Act.”
While Sidran jokingly ended his remarks by saying that Washington favors liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in Oregon and nuclear power plants in Idaho, Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) Chairman Lee Beyer said he thinks his state and region “need every bit of fuel we can get, including LNG.” Idaho PUC member Mack Redford noted that his state has banned new coal-fired generation, but it has nuclear plants, and he characterized himself as a “nuclear proponent.” Beyer qualified his support for LNG by noting that in Oregon the PUC has no role in the LNG permitting process.
The remarks of the three Northwest state regulators were colored by the fact that each state has a very small carbon footprint because of the region’s abundant hydroelectric resources. Idaho, Washington and Oregon rank second, third and fifth or sixth, respectively among the 50 states as the lowest carbon emitters from electric generation, according to WUTC’s Sidran. In Washington, electric generation accounts for about 16% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Each state has a different approach to renewables. Washington has a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goal of 9% by 2015, which Sidran thinks the private-sector utilities will be able to meet, but he is skeptical about cap-and-trade systems, saying no one has really looked at the impact on power costs. While acknowledging that renewables are getting more expensive, Oregon’s Beyer said cap-and-trade “seems to be the answer,” if applied on a national basis.
Idaho has no RPS, although it is encouraging private-sector utilities to sign up more renewables, Redford said. He acknowledged that his state used to have “extremely low” retail electric rates because of its hydroelectric supplies, but that is no longer the case. Hydroelectric supplies now represent less than half of the power used in Idaho, he said.
Redford said Idaho’s concerns right now are focused on the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and its new contract agreements, which he doubts will work in Idaho. He said he was very disappointed in BPA’s handling of the situation and he has complained to the federal power marketer/transporter but has gotten no satisfaction. He thinks ultimately the region may have to have Congress “open up the  Northwest Power Act again.”
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