Four-State Council sets Conservation Target to Save Equivalent of Entire Power Plantby William McCall, Associated Press
Environmental News Network, January 8, 2002
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Pacific Northwest may have to rely on a "virtual" power plant to help keep the lights on.
After rapid economic growth in the 1990s, the West has arrived in the new century without enough generating capacity to keep up. That's helped send prices through the roof and triggered a regional crisis that blacked out parts of California.
The Northwest Power Planning Council, a four-state agency created to balance power production and wildlife, says one of the best ways to catch up is to conserve as much electricity as a new power plant can generate.
The Portland-based council wants Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Washington to save 300 megawatts over three years — roughly equivalent to the electricity generated by a new plant using natural gas.
"Conservation is an absolutely essential element of any energy policy nowadays," said Art Compton, the chief energy policy planner for Montana. "We're moving toward a new generation of energy management in the West, with conservation as an actual resource."
Compton and his counterparts in other states say the conservation plan is workable, public support is high, and businesses are looking at every possible way to cut costs.
"There's an absolutely unparalleled demand for energy conservation information in Idaho, whether residential or business," said Dick Larsen, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which also helps manage electricity conservation.
The agency has a toll-free line for public inquiries on conservation programs, and it has logged more than 4,000 calls already this year, more than the past four years combined, Larsen said.
Larsen noted that Idaho recently had to curtail its energy-efficient window replacement program because demand was so high, it was in danger of running out of money. "When you hit people in the pocketbook, they realize how significant the savings can be," Larsen said.
Mike Weedall, the new conservation planning chief for the Bonneville Power Administration, says the savings will come from a broad range of sources, from modernizing machinery at factories to turning off vending machines at those factories when they're not in use. "These vending machines run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, especially pop machines, and we have a device that cycles down refrigeration and lighting and makes them much more efficient," Weedall said.
The BPA is the Portland-based federal agency that supplies nearly half the power in the Northwest, mostly from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The hydro system was strained to the limit last year by a drought that lowered reservoirs and reduced generating capacity so much that Bonneville had to sacrifice some of the water it normally spills over dams to aid salmon runs.
The drought capped a decade when utilities were reluctant to invest in new power plants because deregulation had created financial uncertainty. The reduced hydroelectric capacity and fewer new plants helped increase wholesale electricity rates as demand outstripped supply; the result was rolling blackouts in California last summer.
Now long-term planning is encouraged. The utility industry is turning to conservation projects that may take up to seven years to pay off; there are also moves to develop other energy sources such as wind and solar power and ethanol, Weedall said.
William Nesmith, Oregon Office of Energy administrator, said state government in Oregon already has cut its energy consumption by almost 20 percent.
Mark Glyde, who represents the environmentally focused Northwest Energy Coalition in Seattle, said deregulation set back earlier efforts at conservation. The coalition did a study suggesting Washington state alone could have saved the region 300 megawatts of electricity if plans for conservation projects launched in the early '90s had been maintained after 1994.
Now conservation efforts are a top priority, said Mark Fryberg, spokesman for Portland General Electric, the largest utility in Oregon.
A PGE program to encourage a switch to long-lasting, energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs has been a big hit with Portland area consumers, who already have redeemed more than 800,000 coupons from the utility. The number is expected to top a million by year's end, Fryberg said. "That's enough power to light Lake Oswego," said Fryberg, referring to a Portland suburb of about 35,000.
The Northwest electricity conservation programs play into a larger national effort to secure the energy supply, said U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.
"It is criminal that we are importing millions of barrels of oil a day from Saddam Hussein," Smith said. "He's using those dollars to support terrorist groups who are targeting Americans. The best way to reduce reliance on imported oil is to push every conservation measure we can."
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