It's impossible to quantify how much the state's Initiative 937 — which set the renewable-energy quota for large utilities — was responsible for attracting new investments in wind, solar and biomass technologies.
The claim: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee has made renewable energy a focus of his jobs plan during the campaign, saying his continued leadership on that front will pay economic dividends to Washingtonians immediately and for decades to come. As evidence, he cited his role in supporting the successful 2006 state ballot initiative that required large utilities in Washington to obtain 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources. “Because we embraced the renewable portfolio standard, we have developed $7 billion of economic activity,” Inslee said during a recent interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia.”
What we found: Half true.
This one’s tricky, mainly because it’s impossible to quantify how much Initiative 937 — which set the renewable-energy quota for large utilities — was responsible for attracting new investments in wind, solar and biomass technologies.
While it’s true renewable-energy companies have made substantial investments in Washington since I-937 became law, it’s also true their investments started at least six years before that, said Tony Usibelli, director of the state Department of Commerce’s energy office.
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“I think 937 had an influence on the majority of it,” Usibelli said. But he also credited state tax policies that offer incentives for investing in clean energies.
Federal grants also have played a role. For example, a wind-turbine farm in Klickitat County received more than $279 million under the 2009 federal stimulus bill that gave grants to renewable-energy projects, according to the Greenwire news service.
Putting a dollar figure on the value of industry investments is difficult because no one systematically tracks how those investments translate into jobs and other economic benefits, Usibelli said.
Inslee’s campaign said the former congressman got the $7 billion figure from a study by Renewable Northwest Project, an advocacy group made up of industry interests and environmental and clean-energy groups.
The study showed that over the past decade, renewable-energy companies have invested more than $7.5 billion in Washington state. That figure was updated in February to nearly $8 billion, and includes projects, such as wind-turbine farms and solar facilities, as well as research and business operations in the state, said Renewable Northwest’s spokeswoman Erin Greeson.
But even the study’s authors are careful not to give all the credit to I-937, which requires utilities with more than 25,000 customers to obtain 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. The quota affects about 17 of the state’s 62 utilities, including Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light.
“We don’t assert that I-937 alone drove particular projects: it is always a combination of key elements that attracts renewable-energy investment: good resources, good business conditions, supportive policies, and public will,” Greeson wrote in an email.
But, she added, “having a strong clean-energy policy in place is a key driver behind per-state business investment decisions.”
Alan Hardcastle, a senior research associate at Washington State University Extension Energy Program, said the value of investments in clean energy depend on the type of project.
Solar-related manufacturing, for example, is likely to generate more long-term jobs than a wind-energy project, which may only need a dozen or so people to keep things running once the turbines are erected.
Most projects, however, have larger impacts early on through the creation of design and construction jobs, Hardcastle said.
Summing up: The renewable-energy industry has invested billions of dollars in Washington state. But because of the variety of factors driving clean energy, we find Inslee’s statement that I-937 was responsible for $7 billion in economic activity to be half true.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @susankelleher.