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Time to Fix Northwest's Inadequate Power Supply

by Randy Hardy, Guest columnist
Special to the Seattle Times, December 18, 2000

A $10 million surface collector at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River of southeastern Washington is seen in this 1996 file photo. Winter heating always creates a stressful time for the Northwest's electric system. A cold snap this season could bring that stress home to thousands of Northwest residents and businesses in a very graphic way - a power blackout.

It's easy to dismiss the shortage threat as utility scare tactics or the plot for a bad Hollywood thriller, but this past June, according to a study by the independent Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), the region narrowly avoided a blackout when we came up about 3,000 megawatts short of the electricity demand. That's equivalent to about three cities the size of Seattle.

How did the region where the Columbia River rolls get in this shortage situation? Before we blame the Californians, we need to look at ourselves and some things we can point to as successes.

After the financial mess of our nuclear power foray, we got into electrical conservation. The Northwest Power Act, passed 20 years ago by the late Sen. Henry Jackson and former Rep. Al Swift, gave priority to energy conservation and renewable resources while making a commitment to restoring salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

We conserved more than many could ever imagine. We also shut down the Trojan nuclear plant (roughly 750 megawatts), scrapped four of five nuclear plants (totaling more than 4,500 megawatts), and reduced the amount of hydropower (almost 1,200 megawatts) so there was more water for salmon migration.

We successfully avoided building any new large-scale power generation. Since 1990, the Northwest has lost more than 1,000 megawatts in generation capacity, principally because of the shutdown of the Trojan plant and reduced hydropower for fish mitigation. That is enough electricity for a city of 500,000 people. In addition, our regional population has grown by 1.5 million during the same period, to bring the total to 10.7 million. In effect, we now have two million more people with a much less certain power supply.

Our regional economy has transformed from one based on timber, fish and airplanes to today's economic drivers of Microsoft, technology and e-commerce.

Huge server farms - designed to handle heavy-duty Internet traffic - are springing up. Each server farm can draw 40 to 100 megawatts of electricity, compared to the seven or eight megawatts of a typical high-rise office tower. After all, the "e" in e-commerce is driven by electricity, reliable, affordable, uninterrupted electricity.

But this summer - thanks to West Coast shortages and market-driven prices - demonstrated just how fragile our regional system of reliable, low-cost power has become. In Whatcom County, electric rates got so high that Georgia Pacific and Bellingham Cold Storage determined it was cheaper to shut down and temporarily lay off almost 1,000 workers than buy the exorbitantly expensive electricity.

And this winter, every one of the Northwest's 10 aluminum smelters has shut down some or all of their capacity in the face of soaring prices.

Seasonal fluke? Not likely. The federal Bonneville Power Administration recently said it has underestimated its customers' need for electricity by 1,400 megawatts. To picture the magnitude of the BPA shortage, envision flying over a pitch-black Seattle.

The NPPC projects a one-in-four chance of sporadic power outages between now and 2003. And if our winter is cold, we could see those warning signs in a matter of weeks, not years. We need short-term and longer-term solutions.

Given the growth of technology-related companies (often considered a "green" source of economic development), conservation must be our top priority. We need every dime of cost-effective efficiency we can wring out of the electrical system. But we cannot depend entirely on conservation and renewable resources like wind to make up our energy deficit. So we must add generation capacity. As guiding principles, we need to:

We have learned our energy lessons. We cannot afford multi-billion-dollar power plants that take decades to complete. But we also cannot view the world through a fog of green-colored glasses - conservation, windmills, and affordable solar won't be enough.

Cheap hydropower gives us a competitive economic edge. But we cannot forget or suspend the law of supply and demand. If we don't develop added electrical capacity, electricity prices, and customer rates will increase dramatically. Scarcity always drives up the price. We can protect consumers and business by adding to our energy generation capacity - and doing it now before a shortage jolts our electric bills.

Randy Hardy was BPA Administrator from 1991 to 1997. Before that, he was superintendent of Seattle City Light. He is now a private energy consultant.
Time to Fix Northwest's Inadequate Power Supply
Seattle Times, December 18, 2000

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