Washington State's Approaching Energy Crisis
by James Conca
We use to plan pretty well in the past for future energy crises when
all we had to do was be sure we had enough energy at a reasonable price.
Washington State has trouble on the horizon -- trouble with its electrical grid. Trouble as in not being reliable. Trouble as in risk of rolling blackouts.
The trouble stems from attempts to decarbonize our society. Getting rid of coal, oil and gas in generating electricity is the low-hanging fruit, but just getting rid of them without a realistic plan to replace them can do more harm than good.
Seeing this trouble in Washington State, however, is scary. Besides usually having the lowest cost of electricity in the country, we have never had a big problem with reliability. Washington is one of the most decarbonized states in the union with utilities getting more than two-thirds of their electricity from hydro 8% about 5% from nuclear, 4% from wind, 11% gas and 10% coal, with the latter from a single in-state coal plant as well as imports from neighboring states.
The Washington State Legislature passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) in 2019 which requires that all utilities eliminate coal by 2025 and provide carbon neutral electricity by 2030. Many stakeholders, utility officials and industry leaders warned that losing baseload sources like coal would increase the probability of brownouts and blackouts if demand increased, a likely occurrence in the next ten years.
"In our kind of zeal to remove CO2 emissions and aim for this 100% clean energy, we're creating a reliability crisis, potentially," Benton County PUD General Manager Rick Dunn told the Lens News. "We need to get more serious about securing our future supply of electricity."
Dunn warns that Washington faces a large gap between grid demand on the coldest and hottest days and the availability of dependable electrical generation over the next decade. After nearly two decades of relatively flat growth, both annual and peak electricity loads are forecasted to increase in the region by 5 or 6%, even after accounting for increased energy efficiency.
A similar warning came from the Northwest Power Pool. They conducted a study which showed that the situation could bring an end to a period of stability dating back to the end of the ENRON-precipitated Western energy crisis of 2000.
The Northwest Power Pool considers an outage risk of <5% to be safe, but the study warns that the state faces a 26% probability of an outage from insufficient generation to meet an increased load. That increased load-to-generation ratio will come from the loss of remaining coal plants, an increase in electric vehicle use and a slow increase in population.
On top of this, there is a serious push to decommission four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River, which would put further strain on the grid by removing over 8 billion kWh/year of reliable green energy, requiring over seven thousand MW of new wind turbines, as many as presently exist in the entire State, or two new gas plants, or one new pack of small modular nuclear reactors.
CETA requires utilities to gradually shift toward clean energy sources such as wind. However, these lack both the reliability and predictability of fossil-fuel resources such as coal and natural gas and require back-up sources for when they fail to generate. Gas and hydro presently provide that backup in the Pacific Northwest, while gas provides it almost everywhere else in America. It's not that CETA prohibits the use of natural gas, but it does discourage it.
On an annual basis, wind power plants generally generate energy equivalent to about 25 to 30% of what they would if the wind blew constantly and the generators were producing at their maximum nameplate rating.
By comparison, our nuclear plant generates well over 90% of its maximum nameplate rating year after year.
But it's even worse. According to the most recent E3 Northwest Resource Adequacy study, the effective capacity contribution of Washington's 7,100 MW of wind power that was in place in 2018 in the Pacific Northwest was determined to be only 7% of its nameplate capacity, that is, only 500 MW of wind power, out of 7,100 MW, can be expected to show up on the coldest days in the region.
This incredibly low contribution of wind was confirmed in a winter power market price excursion that happened in February/March 2019. Compared to the 100% for nuclear, gas and coal, wind cannot be relied upon in the cold of winter or the heat of summer.
According to E3, retiring 3,000 MW of coal will require 8,000 MW of new firm capacity by 2030 to maintain reliability. Building more wind turbines just won't do it.
As Dunn quips, praying for mild weather and abundant snow and rain for hydro isn't an adequate plan when it comes to keeping the lights on.
We use to plan pretty well in the past for future energy crises when all we had to do was be sure we had enough energy at a reasonable price. We weren't hamstrung by the push to decarbonize. It is not enough to just put up wind and solar without planning for the infrastructure needed to efficiently employ them, or without the hydro and small modular nuclear plants that should be backing them up instead of gas or the dream of sufficient batteries that is decades away.
Dunn sees natural gas and small modular reactors as important energy sources as the state transitions away from coal, but the state Department of Commerce's Energy Strategy envisions a ramp-up in wind. In one scenario, electricity demand grows 90% from 2020 to 2050.
While today the state exports electricity, that scenario also anticipates Washington will become a net importer by 2050, in which 43% of its electricity will come from multiple states such as Montana and Wyoming. But all of the strategy's decarbonization scenarios expect wind to eventually become the dominant energy source in the Western United States, an absurd endpoint that just invites rolling blackouts and grid failure.
If the wind isn't blowing in much of the west, then where would the energy come from?
Dunn is skeptical of such a wind-future. As is anyone familiar with wind at high penetration values, i.e., a high percentage of electricity coming from a particular source. The problem is wind power can displace some of the energy produced by fossil fuels but it cannot provide the dependable capacity needed to keep the grid reliable over a wide range of conditions.
And when you consider the abundant but highly variable clean hydro in the Pacific Northwest and how drought conditions are the predominant driver of blackout risk, it makes little sense to shut down reliable fossil-fuel while deepening the dependence on another highly variable resource like wind power.
This is evident in Benton County where a proposed wind farm project of 244 super-large wind turbines on the ridgeline of Horse Heaven Hills would do little to help the state keep the grid reliable. It has also drawn protests from the local community where hydro and nuclear power dominate its over 90% clean power supply portfolio.
At the same time, the use of out-of-state wind energy would require new transmission lines built across Washington and through mountainous terrain and vast natural landscapes, something that continues to be shot down by the public every time it's proposed.
The other issue is that clean energy debates are so politicized. "When we bring up the issue of reliability…sometimes (people) interpret that as we're against environmental issues," said Dunn. "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."
If this kind of problem can happen in Washington State with one of the lowest carbon footprints of any state and one of the most aggressive decarbonization plans in the world, then other states had better beware.
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