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The Impact – The Future of Power in Washington (Part 2)

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

Part two of our series on the electrification of Washington focuses on what it will take to meet state deadlines for phasing fossil fuels out of the grid. Energy planners weigh in on various power generation options, the costs of expanding infrastructure, and the implications for utility customers and property owners.  

In its latest Pacific Northwest Power Supply Adequacy Assessment, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council found that by 2027, the existing sources of electricity are not going to be adequate to meet the state’s power needs.

The Washington based vice chair of the council, KC Golden, said energy efficiency upgrades have been the main strategy to address increased electricity demand over the last decade.

“We’ve delivered enough saved energy, enough energy conservation, to be the equivalent of about three Grand Coulee dams worth of power production,” said Golden. “Over the next decade, that won’t be the case. We’re going to have to add new power supply to fulfill these new demands from electric vehicles and buildings to back the fossil fuels out of our existing electricity supply. And that’s going to take a lot of development of new generation resources, as well as energy efficiency. So we’re talking wind, we’re talking solar, we’re talking transmission systems to deliver the best wind and solar resources and geothermal from around the region to the load centers.”

“In about 25 years, we’re going to use about 30% less energy, total energy as a state, but we’re going to use twice as much electricity. How can both those things be true? We’re going to switch, as you say, a lot of our transportation system, our buildings, our gas use, most of our direct fossil fuel use over to electricity in that amount of time,” said Golden. “Wind and solar are now cost competitive with the cheapest fossil fuel resources. They are the cheapest sources of new electricity supply. That’s a big change from ten years ago.”

Unlike the controllable power output from fossil fuel combustion, wind and solar power fluctuates with the weather.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t decarbonize before we’re ready to fully integrate the grid.  In other words, don’t go too fast on banning carbon generation, gas generation,” said George Caan, Exec. Director of the Washington Public Utility District Association. “We don’t want to be in a situation like California, which went too fast and had to waive many of their environmental rules in order to keep the lights on.”

Caan believes that additional nuclear power will be critical to decarbonizing the grid. He’s optimistic that advances in reactor design will make siting new nuclear plants more palatable and feasible.  “We’re going to have to do a better job of embracing nuclear power and moving beyond the horror stories of the past,” said Caan.