Climate change is the X-factor in Northwest electric power planning. The challenge is to harmonize energy demand with the ripple effects of a warming planet — that, or hunker down for rolling blackouts.
The key is science-based planning, a skill regional energy wonks have refined into a new art form, predicting whether we have enough energy for the foreseeable future.
The Northwest’s abundant hydroelectric resources, coupled with enhanced energy efficiency and voluntary reductions during times of peak demand by major industrial consumers like Alcoa, mean that Washington should meet its energy needs for the next two decades, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
After 2035, however, trying to crystal-ball the effects of climate change and a shrinking snow pack may disrupt that forecast. This is, sadly, no ordinary time.
Former state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, chairman of the power council, notes that computer modeling is based in part on weather, water and other data from the past half-century. But as temperatures and sea levels rise, the applicability of past data falls away.
Climate change is the one contingency that challenges most of the old-school assumptions.
The council’s recently released draft power plan underscores the role of efficiency and incorporates contingencies, along with the scheduled closure of Northwest coal plants such as the TransAlta facility in Centralia.
For now, the takeaways are positive for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Conservation has worked, and energy demand should remain relatively flat through 2035. The council also charts a path to cut carbon production emitted by the power grid by up to 80 percent. One approach would involve increasing renewable sources to 35 percent of the region’s energy portfolio. (It’s currently 15 percent.)
That goal could move higher. California wants half its energy from renewable sources by 2030. It’s a call echoed by Bill Gates, who announced a multibillion dollar investment in clean-energy technology at the United Nations climate summit last month. “We need to move faster than the energy sector ever has,” Gates said.
The council’s strategy includes expanding renewable and predictable forms of energy. Tidal, wave and enhanced geothermal all count. Also mentioned are small modular reactors (SMRs), which could produce 500 megawatts of electricity or less. SMRs likely would kindle opposition over safety and the conundrum of radioactive-waste disposal.
The council’s work flows from the 1980 Northwest Power Act, a law conceived to balance affordable electricity while protecting fish and wildlife damaged by the Columbia River Basin’s dams.
Another requirement is to corral and inform the public. Although the plan’s comment period ended on Dec. 18, ratepayers still can attend one of the mid-January council meetings.
The Northwest Power Act gave expression to original, long-term planning. It continues to work in the public interest, including the latest power plan.