As I do at the end of every session of the Washington State Legislature, last week I asked our librarian to pull all the natural resource and energy bills passed by the 2012 legislature in its regular session.  Long session; short session, the list was as thin and inconsequential as I recall.

There was one bill that I appreciated – 2SSB 5343, which provides an extended compliance period related to Clean Air Act permitting requirements concerning sulfur for anaerobic digesters of dairy waste.  I appreciate the bill not so much because of its breadth or vision – it doesn’t have a lot of either – but because anaerobic digesters of dairy waste are one of the world’s few potential win-win-win ideas.  Milk of course is a product that needs to be “pure, fresh and local.”  But dairy cows, indeed cows in general, are major polluters.  EPA estimates that a single dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure per day, or roughly the waste produced by 20-40 people.  In an earlier era, that  waste made its way to waterways, and was a major source of water pollution.  Today, at least in Washington, the Clean Water Act and Washington’s Water Pollution Control Act require dairy farmers to manage their cows’ waste to minimize pollution of waterways – but dairy farmers spend millions of dollars on that management.  At least in concept, using that waste to generate electricity to put on the grid in distributed form could create a new source of revenue for hard-pressed farmers, while reducing future demand for major power generating facilities and keeping waste out of rivers and streams.  Unlike many forms of distributed energy, dairy waste is not weather dependent; cows keep producing it whether or not the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.  Thus dairy digesters contributed to the electric base load.  2SSB 5343 gives anaerobic digesters with a capacity between 750 and 1000 kilowatts that were in operation at the date the bill was passed, are located on agricultural land of long-term commercial significance, and are not in a federal non-attainment area until 2016 to meet the sulfur requirements for Clean Air Act permits in Washington.

The limitation of the bill to dairy digesters in operation at the date of bill passage makes the bill timid.  There are only five dairy digesters in operation statewide.  To actually make a significant difference in electricity supply, or water pollution control, or the economics of dairy farming, digester technology has to become sufficiently widespread to reduce its cost.  Five digesters is not the goal; at least one digester in every agricultural valley with dairy cows, if not more, needs to be the goal.

Beyond the Clean Air Act extension for the five existing dairy digesters, however, the Legislature didn’t seem to do much on the green energy front this session.  That is not because there was no groundwork laid for more and better.  As we had reported earlier, Rep. Deb Eddy had spent months working with various stakeholders to find ways that the state could encourage distributed energy.  The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission did a comprehensive report on both rule changes and legislative changes that could improve the deployment of distributed energy.  But those efforts appear to have failed to yield fruit thus far.

Why?  Has Washington lost its progressive way?  Is this a foreshadowing of things to come?

The Legislature has, of course, spent the entire session – and now the first special session – focused on how to close the budget deficit.  These are not times when it is easy, or even possible, to find money for new initiatives.  The “big ideas” in government at the moment seem to be about how to make government leaner and less intrusive, not about how to make it more of an agent for structural change.  And the economic recovery remains fragile, with no one in either political party having any willingness to be perceived as doing anything that would hold the recovery back.  With the 2012 state elections putting control of the governor’s mansion in serious play for the first time in years, neither party seems to be interested in being the party of big ideas in the energy area.

At the same time, the collapse of natural gas prices over the last four years since their high in 2008, has fundamentally changed the economics of many alternative energy projects.  The advent of hydraulic fracturing or fracking may return the United States to an era of cheap fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, thereby making alternative forms of energy much less viable.

That said, they did stop making fossil fuels many millennia ago.  The earth continues getting warmer, and the weather wilder.  The economy is improving, and in due course it is likely that the state of Washington and its Legislature will once again turn with more vigor to the question of how to achieve a greener energy future.