Washington’s coming energy reliability crisis

Washington’s coming energy reliability crisis

Prior to the passage of the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) by the state legislature which requires that all utilities provide carbon neutral energy by 2035, various stakeholders urged caution when taking action that could destabilize the energy grid. As utilities have begun implementing the law’s provisions and coal plants are soon scheduled to close, some local utility officials and industry advocates are warning of the increased probability of outages in the state that could get even worse should further demand be placed on the system.

“In our kind of zeal to remove C02 emissions and aim for this 100 percent clean energy…we’re creating a reliability crisis, potentially,” Benton County PUD General Manager Rick Dunn said.  “We need to get more serious about securing our future supply of electricity.”

Dunn said the state’s electrical grid for the past 15 years has run a surplus, which is important for districts like Benton that don’t generate sufficient electricity and have to buy more on the market.

“You could always count on the availability of (electricity) during extreme events like summer heat or winter cold,” he said.

However, during a presentation at a May 11 resource adequacy meeting between the State Department of Commerce and the Utilities and Transportation Commission, Dunn warned that Washington faces a large gap between grid demand and energy generation over the next decade.

That was the conclusion of a recent Northwest Power Pool study, which also warned that if not addressed the situation “could bring an end to a period of stability dating back to the end of the Western energy crisis of 2000-2001.” While an outage risk of five percent or less is considered safe, the report warns that the state faces a 26 percent probability of an outage of “loss of load,” which is when system’s load is greater than the power generated.

Washington PUD Association Executive Director George Caan told Lens that the system’s reliability is getting additional pressure on two fronts: the pursuit of electrification of vehicles and buildings along with the increasing restrictions on dependable energy sources.

“We haven’t (in the past) had the challenges of environmental policies in conflict with reliability,” he said. “That’s sort of a recent, last-decade thing. We’re constantly reminding policymakers that in order to keep the grid lit there needs to be generation to do that.”

CETA requires utilities to gradually shift toward clean energy sources such as wind and solar. However, these lack both the reliability and predictability of fossil-fuel resources such as coal and natural gas. Also, they lack significant storage capacity provided through hydro dams.

“Our hydro system really is a big battery,” Caan said. “All of that water stored behind the dams is saved as energy to be used when needed. That’s why we’re strong supporters of the dams.”

“I’m not a big coal fan, but we do count on coal in the region to generate electricity in the extreme days,” Dunn said. “You may hate CO2 emissions from coal, but they provide electricity on those cold days. We can call on it at a moment’s notice. Those options are being diminished by the removal of coal. We can pray for rain and mild weather. That’s not a great way to plan a power grid.”

While CETA doesn’t prohibit the use of natural gas, Dunn said both the law and recent proposals to ban natural gas in new construction “chills” potential investments in new plants. 

“Natural gas becomes a loser in the planning (process),” he said. “You can’t help as a utility to think about what’s the future of natural gas going to be.”

Caan shares a similar attitude. “If you project you might need it, who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to build it? Who’s going to support it? What’s the value of that?”

Although CETA allows utilities to halt implementation of the law if energy rates go up too much, Caan said that won’t apply to PUDs that already have 80-90 percent clean energy due to hydropower. For utilities that depend on fossil fuels, he said it’s not easy to restart facilities. “If we start banning these fuel technologies and we make a mistake and have to go back, it’s going to be difficult to do that.”

While both Dunn and Caan view natural gas and even small modular reactors as an important energy source as the state transitions away from coal, the state Department of Commerce’s Energy Strategy envisions a ramp-up in wind. In one scenario, electricity demand grows 90 percent over 2020 levels by 2050.

While today the state exports electricity, that scenario also anticipates Washington will become a net importer by 2050, in which 43 percent of its electricity will come from multiple states such as Montana and Wyoming. All of the strategy’s decarbonization scenarios expect wind to eventually become the dominant energy source in the Western United States.

However, both Dunn and Caan are skeptical.

“The wind doesn’t blow all the time,” Dunn said. “That’s very consequential for utilities that are balancing their electrical demand every moment. Electricity demand follows a shape of human activity.”

In Benton County a proposed wind farm project would place 244 wind turbines on the ridgeline of Horse Heaven Hills, a concept that has drawn protests from the local community.

“We have a vested interest in understanding: do we need it,” Dunn said. “The answer for our community is no. We have hydro as our primary electricity supply.”

In a Dec. 11 letter commenting on a draft of the state’s 2021 State Energy Strategy, Dunn wrote that “wind turbines are not a novelty and that they may not be a celebrated symbol of environmental virtue to many of us in eastern Washington who have to live with them as an intruding presence along every path we travel in and out of our community and as a back drop to our favorite fishing, hunting, hiking and site-seeing destinations.”

He also questioned whether the strong emphasis on wind power “would be the case if the sprawling wind and solar farms were being built in the back yards of the majority of those who are most influential in the development of state policies.”

At the same time, the use of out-of-state wind energy would require new transmission lines built across Washington and through the Cascades.

“Frankly, it’s the most difficult of the solutions,” Caan said.

Not only does that raise environmental impact issues, but also concerns about potential wildfires where much of the forestland is considered at-risk. The state Electric Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force, created in 2019 by the state legislature, is currently examining this issue in order to reduce that risk.

“It’s extremely problematic to construct when you’re not adequately addressing vegetation management,” Caan said. “Our PUDs have aggressive vegetation management programs, mainly tree cutting.”

Caan advocates for improving the use of existing energy generation through smart grid technology and improvements to distribution systems. “However, those solutions only work when there’s generation available to support it.”

One of the problems both Dunn and Caan see is the rhetoric often used within public policy discussions.

“Clean energy debates are so politicized and so tribal,” Dunn said.

“When we bring up the issue of reliability…sometimes (people) interpret that as we’re against environmental issues. That is just so not the case, but sometimes they interpret it like that. What we try to do is connect the dots between decarbonization, environmental compliance, renewable energy, and grid reliability so we can have affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable generation. Sometimes that gets lost in the message.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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