Power from Nothing: Northwest's
by Don Jenkins
The Bonneville Power Administration paid Woody Guthrie $266.66 to write 26 songs in 30 days in 1941 to promote what the BPA was selling, hydroelectricity. The songs celebrated the Columbia River, Grand Coulee Dam and "electricity runnin' all around, cheaper than rainwater." One of Guthrie's best, Roll on, Columbia, Roll on, became Washington's official folk song.
If Guthrie hired on today, he might warble about efficient washing machines, compact fluorescent bulbs and ductless heat pumps. Roll on, conservation measures, roll on.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, created by Congress in 1980 when the region was suffering from ill-fated investments in unneeded nuclear plants, will soon adopt a plan intended to guide energy development in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana for the next 20 years.
In Guthrie's day, electricity was not only as cheap as rainwater, but as plentiful as well. Today, power generation is suppose to be easy on the environment, too. With the dam-building era over and the climate-change epoch beginning, the power council says conservation will be the No. 1 way the region will keep up with the demand for electricity.
According to a draft of the 20-year plan, conservation measures will not only cost a fraction of new power plants, it will reduce the release of greenhouse gases.
Besides conservation, the council says the region can meet its energy needs with more wind turbines and natural gas-fired power plants, though the council doesn't rule out emerging forms of green energy and even the re-emergence of nuclear plants.
Environmental groups praise the council's emphasis on conservation and wind power.
"This is the best plan they've ever put out," Northwest Energy Coalition spokesman Marc Krasnowsky, whose organization nevertheless complains the council didn't take a strong enough stand against coal plants, the electricity sector's top emitter of greenhouse gases.
The council estimates that between 2010 and 2030, the four-state region will need enough new electricity to power five cities the size of Seattle. Four of those cities, according to the council, could be energized by simply using less electricity to run everything from traffic lights to irrigation systems.
By conservation, the council does not mean turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater. Energy savings will come as businesses and homes gradually switch to energy-stingy lights, appliances, electronics, motors, pumps, fans, etc. "There is nothing pie-in-the-sky here," council spokesman John Harrison said. "We're not assuming any unusual consumer behavior."
Regionwide, according to the council, the greatest savings will come in homes. In Guthrie's day, aluminum smelters drove up the demand for electricity. Now, lifestyles push up consumption. Televisions per household (2.73) outnumber people (2.6). Nursing homes and assisted-living centers will become massive users of electricity as baby boomers age. An increasing number of air conditioners will make the region's summertime use of power nearly as high as in the winter.
In industry-heavy Cowlitz County, though, energy savings primarily will come from 27 industrial customers, which consume three-quarters of the electricity supplied by Cowlitz PUD.
Over the next decade, the PUD hopes to do its part and conserve enough electricity for 13,000 households. Some 80 percent of the savings are expected to come in the industrial sector, PUD energy conservation manager Jim Wellcome said.
"We're going to have to look more to industries. We can't get the kind of numbers we're looking at just from the residential and commercial sectors. Not even close," he said. "That's the difference between our utility and other utilities."
The PUD already spends $2 million a year to reward ratepayers who take energy-saving measures such as insulating attics, installing weather-tight windows and buying efficient appliances. The utility plans to approximately double the amount it spends on incentives to help industries pay for energy-saving projects and to give rebates to industries that cut energy consumption.
"They need these incentives because they're businesses concerned about the bottom line," Wellcome said.
The PUD says ratepayers will benefit by subsidies to businesses because lower industrial consumption will hold down residential rates. "It's cheaper to conserve than to build a plant to generate power," PUD spokesman Dave Andrew said.
Conservation will become all the more important to PUD and it's customers in 2011. That's when BPA will limit the amount of low-cost federal hydropower it will sell utilities such as Cowlitz PUD. The more customers conserve, the less the PUD will have to shop around for expensive non-BPA power, Andrew said.
Even if utilities meet conservation goals, however, the Northwest still will need new sources of electricity.
In assessing where that electricity will come from, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council concluded that it's unlikely more coal plants will be built in the region unless greenhouse gases can be permanently stored underground rather than released into the air. So far, the technology is unproven on a large scale.
Critics complain the council should be bolder in charting how the region can retire its existing coal plants.
"It's become clear we have to reduce carbon emissions and holding them steady is not enough," Krasnowsky said. "There's no way to do it without dealing with coal."
Coal plants emit 85 percent of the carbon dioxide from the region's energy generators while supplying 18 percent of the electricity.
In comments to the council, Kennecott Energy, which operates coal mines in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, argued the coal industry is becoming less damaging to the environment and that there is no cheaper or more reliable source of energy than coal. Coal should play a greater role in the Northwest, according to Kennecott.
The council's power plan, however, observes that even the cleanest new coal plants can't meet carbon-emission limits set by Washington, Oregon and Montana.
Washington's law scuttled plans to build a coal plant in Kalama. Before that happened, the plant's proponent, Energy Northwest, distanced itself from coal by saying the plant would probably use primarily petroleum coke, a byproduct from refining oil that actually emits more carbon, sulfur and metals than coal.
Harrison, the council spokesman, said the council has no authority to regulate coal plants, but it foresees the possibility that a carbon tax or federal cap on emissions will curtail output from those plants and help states meet their goals to roll back carbon emissions.
"I think we can assume there will be some control of carbon emissions," he said.
Main sources of Northwest energy in the next 20 years
Conservation measures, such as installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, will meet 85 percent of the Northwest's demand for more electricity over the next 20 years.
Laws mandating investments in renewable energy guarantee wind farms will continue to sprout in the Northwest.
- Natural gas
The region may need to build more natural gas-fired plants to reduce the use of coal and pick up the slack when calm weather cuts the output of wind turbines.
- Green energy
Small-scale renewable energy plants, such as ones that burn wood debris, could supplement and back up wind turbines.
It's unlikely more coal-fired power plants will be built unless technology can be perfected that will allow carbon emissions to be stored permanently underground instead of released into the air.
The Trojan cooling tower (above) was imploded in 2006, and only one Northwest nuclear plant remains. A new-generation of nuclear plants could be a source of energy that doesn't contribute to climate change.
Hydroelectricity supplies nearly half of the energy used in the Northwest. Additional large hydro projects appear unlikely, but there could be new small-scale development.
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