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GUEST EDITORIAL

There is no magic answer to our energy problems

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Cartoon by Matson

Sometimes I think Americans are Dorothy looking for the Wizard of Oz. We are traipsing down the yellow brick road in search of a simple solution to our energy problems. In reality, there is no Wizard and there are no magical ways to avoid tradeoffs. The simple fact is we have become an increasingly energy dependent world.

We need electricity for kidney dialysis units in hospitals and we need diesel for emergency responders. We expect our flat screen televisions to come on when we press the remote control and the heat and air conditioning to automatically adjust the room temperature at home and at work.

Today, electrical demand in our homes continues to climb. In 1978, the average home used 1.07 kilowatt-hours. By 2030, the average household electrical need will be 1.45kwh - a 35 percent increase - even with new energy-efficiencies and conservation.

So if you figure that America's population will grow from a little over 300 million today to 363 million in 2030, you have to worry if we will have enough "juice."

Here's the problem: Washingtonians seem conflicted about energy. They say they want more clean energy and narrowly approved Initiative 937, which requires utilities to buy more renewables. But there's a problem. I-937 excludes hydropower - a clean, renewable and affordable source of 70 percent of our electricity. And, it severely restricts where utilities can buy wind, solar and biomass energy.

For example, most of the wind potential is in the middle of Canada and the United States, but those sources won't qualify under Washington law.

And while Washingtonians say they want more wind power, it's difficult to site new projects because many who settle in rural areas don't want wind farms obstructing their views.

The latest example is just outside the Columbia River Gorge near Bingen. The SDS Lumber Co. wants to erect 50 wind turbines on a gusty ridge outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The company would convert its land to a wind farm and possibly add another 30 turbines on land leased from the state.

Even though there are no buffer zones around the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Forest Service Scenic Area General Manager Don Harkenrider wants any turbines visible from within the scenic area eliminated. There goes most of the project.

So, while we support renewable energy in theory, we block its development. Similarly, while we say we want cleaner fossil fuel technology, we make it impossible to develop.

Companies in the U.S. and Canada are working to develop technology that captures carbon dioxide from coal plants and puts it to good use. For example, Saskatchewan Power Corp is refurbishing a 100-megawatt coal unit that can capture and pipe carbon dioxide to nearby oil fields where it is injected deep into geologic seams to recover previously unreachable oil.

In Washington, Energy Northwest planned to build a new state-of-the-art coal plant at Kalama and develop technology to sequester the greenhouse gases underground. However, a 2007 Washington law sets strict limits on carbon emissions from coal plants and requires that utilities prove they can capture or "sequester" virtually 100 percent of carbon emissions by permanently injecting them deep underground.

But the technology to do that doesn't exist yet, and by mandating an "all or nothing" standard, our state got nothing. Because it couldn't guarantee perfection at this stage, Energy Northwest withdrew its application. The opportunity to develop cleaner technology was lost.

What's going on here?

Some key political leaders in our state flatly want to abolish coal regardless of what technology is developed to control emissions. Yet, if you look at future projections, coal will still generate more than half of our electricity by 2030. Without coal, we face blackouts and rationing.

Dorothy's journey down the yellow brick road was fiction. Our energy dilemma is fact.

There is no Wizard of Oz that will hand us the perfect solution. Meeting our energy needs will require that we make some tough decisions. Unless we do, we face a very cold and dark future.

- Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business (www.awb.org)

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