One big detail could derail Northwest’s clean energy goals

Across the West, states, utilities and local governments have adopted clean energy policies in response to the impacts of climate change. The goal is to shift electricity supply from generators that burn fossil fuels to renewables, particularly wind and solar power.

In November 2017, and again in March 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued executive orders calling for a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In 2021, the Oregon Legislature passed the 2021 House Bill, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity sold to Oregon consumers to 80% below emission levels baseline by 2030, 90% below baseline emissions levels by 2035 and 100% below baseline emissions levels. by 2040.

In the law, “reference emissions” are defined as the average annual emissions for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Creating goals through a legislative process is one thing. Achieving them is another in view of the reality of the current electrical system.

It’s possible that one issue, a kind of elephant in the room that has yet to get much attention, is slowing progress toward ambitious clean energy goals.

The problem is high voltage transmission, that is, the movement of energy from where it is generated to where it is consumed.

Transmission problems

While the Columbia River Basin enjoys an abundant supply of hydroelectricity, solar and wind power have become so cheap that they beat the price of virtually every other type of energy in the wholesale market of the United States. electricity.

This makes the operation of many aging and inefficient thermal power plants fired by coal or natural gas unprofitable.

As a result, these facilities will be removed. As a result of these shutdowns, the region’s total coal-fired generating capacity will be reduced by more than 60% over the next decade. Portland General Electric Company retired its coal-fired Boardman plant in eastern Oregon in 2020.

It’s not just an Oregon problem. It affects the whole West.

Electricity produced in a state is not necessarily consumed in that state. Electricity is fed into the Western Grid, which includes all states west of the Continental Divide, as well as Alberta, British Columbia and part of Baja California.

The electricity that lights homes in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and other states is generated across the West.

This is why transmission matters and why it can be difficult to meet clean energy goals in Oregon and other western states.

There are two problems: insufficient transmission capacity; and complex and ultimately inefficient transportation contracts.

That is, the existing high-voltage transmission infrastructure may not be sufficient to move the thousands of megawatts of new renewable energy from the remote locations where it will be generated (east of the Cascades, for example) to where it will be consumed (Seattle and Portland, for starters). And even if this is the case, the current system of contracting out transport access sometimes leaves lines fully contracted out but not fully utilized.

Imagine you are pouring water into a funnel – the water backs up as it flows through the narrow opening because the funnel cannot handle all the water at once. In this analogy, the water in the funnel is generated energy, the water coming out of the funnel is energy transmission.

Unstable supply

There is another problem.

Wind and solar generators do not behave like thermal generators. In thermal power stations, the fuel supply is constant. With solar and wind power, this is not the case.

The sun does not shine overnight; the wind is changeable. Thermal power plants can produce electricity more or less constantly; wind and solar cannot.

This means that to create constant production, a lot of wind and a lot of solar capacity will have to be built to compensate for the power lost due to thermal plant shutdowns.

Energy storage – large batteries, for example – will be needed to ensure a constant flow of energy when the wind speed varies, but especially at night when the sun is down.

Fortunately, the Northwest is better positioned than other parts of the country to deal with this new reality. That’s because the massive Columbia River hydroelectric system can serve as an energy storage reservoir, within operational limits imposed by the courts to protect migrating fish like salmon and rainbow trout.

Then the question arises: even with adequate energy storage as backup, can the existing transmission system handle all this new water in the funnel?

The answer is somewhere between probably not, maybe and yes.

Here’s why. (Warning: this is complicated.)

Within the vast Western Electric System, transmission is managed by line owners in geographic divisions called control areas, or “balancing authorities”.

Entities in these areas – often utilities, but in some areas, such as most of the Northwest, the U.S. Department of Energy through the Bonneville Power Administration – ensure that demand and supply of the electricity system are balanced in the areas of the transmission network that they control.

This is important because if supply and demand become too imbalanced, transmission and distribution network equipment will disconnect, creating local or widespread blackouts.

Electricity demand constantly fluctuates and must be kept at or near 60 cycles per second to keep all of our electronics running smoothly, from ovens to cell phone chargers to industrial equipment.

Maintaining 60 cycles per second is complicated now, but adding more and more megawatts of variable-efficiency renewable energy to the power supply will only increase the complexity of managing the transmission.

And transmission experts say that as more renewables are added to sunny, windy and open but remote areas (much of it east of the Cascades), new transmission lines will likely be needed as well.

But, just try to build one.

Not in my garden… or anywhere else

Building new lines takes time and can be controversial. It’s not only a question of high cost, but also of “not in my garden”.

In 2015, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Northwest’s largest transmission owner with approximately 15,000 miles of line, proposed building new lines along the Interstate 5 corridor to relieve pressure on its existing lines. .

Several alternative routes were proposed, including one that would have bypassed developed areas and passed through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Hundreds of people attended public meetings on the proposal, and many, if not most, expressed their opposition angrily.

In the end, the lines were not built and Bonneville instead focused on improving the capacity of its existing lines.

Another example is the long-planned but still unbuilt line that would connect eastern Oregon to southern Idaho, increasing east/west transmission capacity.

This is important because, while north/south capacity is strong, east/west capacity is less so, and a stronger connection will help bring power from southern Idaho and central Montana to the south. Oregon and Washington, and to export hydroelectricity from the Columbia River to southern Idaho and the desert southwest.

This planned 500,000-volt line, called Boardman to Hemmingway (so named for the two high-voltage substations it would connect), would cost about $1.2 billion. Two private utilities, Idaho Power Company and PacifiCorp, based in Oregon, are the majority owners.

The line has been in the planning phase since at least 2012; construction is expected to begin in 2023 and be completed three years later.

Why did it take so long? The line has been controversial with rural landowners, conservationists (impacts on sage-grouse habitat), and those concerned about its impact on historic sites along the Oregon Trail.

“A simple problem”

Energy planners can imagine a perfect storm for our power supply – removing thousands of megawatts of thermal generation, adding thousands of megawatts of renewable generation and a network of congested transmission lines connecting the West that might not not be enough to handle all the new power.

With thousands of megawatts of renewable energy expected to come online in the near future in response to clean energy policies, the wholesale electricity market will be flooded with cheap power, especially at midday when solar power plants produce at their peak.

In fact, it already is. We can expect this congestion to increase and drive prices up and down as supply and demand fluctuate.

Clean energy policies in Washington and Oregon call for significant decarbonization starting in 2030. Investor-owned utilities are including large amounts of renewable energy generation in their integrated resource portfolios as they grow are working to wean themselves off thermal generation to meet state goals.

In November 2021, Seattle-based energy consultant Randy Hardy, a former administrator of Bonneville Power, told the Clearing Up energy and fish/wildlife newsletter that access to transmission, especially from new power plants east of the Cascades to serve load centers west of the mountains, will be a growing problem for utilities owned by investors like Puget Sound Energy and Portland General Electric as they strive to meet the clean energy goals of state by 2030.

“It’s a pretty simple problem,” Hardy said. “State legislatures have crafted clean energy laws without sufficient consideration of the transmission constraints that currently exist. It will take 10 to 15 years to build a new transmission line, which simply does not meet the 2030 dates for clean energy. »

Spencer Gray, executive director of the Northwest and Intermountain Power Producers Coalition, agreed with Hardy in his comments on Clearing Up.

“I’m still hoping there will be tools on the table, but to this day it really worries me that we don’t have the right grid to make it possible to meet the standards,” Gray said. “We simply cannot meet the 2030 targets without building more transmission capacity.”

John Harrison retired in January after 31 years as information officer at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a Portland-based regional energy and fish and wildlife planning agency. Prior to that, he was a reporter and editor for several Pacific Northwest newspapers.


Columbia Insight, based in Hood River, Oregon, is a nonprofit information site focused on environmental issues in the Columbia River Basin.

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