Every state that has a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) – or Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) as these mandates were originally called – has slightly different rules regarding hydro power.
Few included hydro or grandfathered-in a consideration of the existing hydro when considering whether a utility is complying with the RES by adding enough renewable power to the grid. Most hydro was built in the 19th century and the idea was to add more new clean energy.
In addition, there was some concern that hydro generated methane as trapped vegetation rotted in reservoirs, making hydro a dirtier kind of clean energy (a supposition that is now under reconsideration, incidentally). Nuclear is also excluded in state RES mandates because of the ongoing requirement for fuel (uranium) and the disposal issues.
But that may be about to change, according to a report at Energy Prospects. At least one state’s legislature is considering including hydro: the very wet state of Washington, in the rainy Northwest. Attempts to include hydro have been made in the last three legislative sessions and a fourth attempt next session has the blessing of the Public Utility District.
Their relatively recent RPS – just begun in 2006 – requires utilities to add 15% renewable energy or credits by 2020, excluding hydro power. The mandate starts with a low bar, requiring just 3% by 2012.
With its abundance of hydropower, Washington state would already exceed the current renewable mandates if hydro were counted. The state would be second only to Maine in hydro power nationally. (Maine gets 30% from hydro and 22% from other clean energy sources) Supporters cite the attractiveness to investors from Europe who are under the EU mandates on carbon.
BMW built a carbon fiber plant in the state, touting the clean hydro power that supplies its manufacturing in Washington. But other EU companies compare the state with states like California that are already virtually as clean powered as a Germany or a Sweden with between 18% and 19% clean power now (not counting nuclear or hydro power), overlookng states like Washington that are nowhere near that goal. But supporters believe that by including hydro, the state can advertise itself as a clean powered state.
However, if hydro were to be included, there would be no incentive to add new renewable power, with such a low target, as the standard will have been met. Utilities want to avoid adding more power.
“If we experience minimal load growth, as we are in this economy” says Doug Nass, general manager of the PUD, “we are then required to replace that very affordable clean power with power that is three to four times more costly, even if we don’t need the power.”
Of course already capitalised and paid-for power plants will produce power cheaper than yet to be built ones. We usually see this argument from the traditional sources of energy, as if rail-fed coal fires are somehow intrinsically cheaper than fuel-free wind or solar.
But now we are starting to see the same argument from the other renewables: the ones that were already paid for long, long ago, indicating that it is not that traditional fossil energy is intrinsically cheaper, but simply that existing plants are.
The next session in Washington State may be a deciding vote.