As Americans, none of us like the idea of importing energy from countries that are unstable or unfriendly, nor do we like emitting a major share of the carbon that is disrupting world weather patterns. But how do we reduce our carbon footprint and our imports while continuing to ensure that our energy is affordable and reliable? While this is a major challenge facing the entire country, one of the solutions can be found right here in the homes and businesses of the Northwest: energy conservation.
Over the past 30 years, the Northwest has saved nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of a city twice the size of Seattle and Portland combined. We achieved this by building more-efficient houses, buying more-efficient appliances, screwing in compact fluorescent light bulbs and upgrading commercial lighting and heating, while modernizing industrial processes. This effort made us one of the national leaders in energy conservation, according to Time magazine, while saving us money on our energy bills and postponing the need for many carbon-emitting thermal power plants.
The job, however, isn’t nearly over. According to a new draft plan by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, as much as 6,000 megawatts of conservation is still available in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho. The council plan shows that houses can be made even more efficient, new appliances are available that use even less electricity, and new technologies are available to commercial businesses and industry that can further reduce energy bills. The Northwest has the experience to make this campaign a success while maintaining our low-cost power and the lowest carbon emissions of any regional power system.
Conservation is not the only energy resource in our future. The Northwest will continue to make major new investments in renewable energy as required by three of the four states. This will create 5,500 megawatts of new wind capacity over the next 20 years. Just recently, Bonneville Power Administration set a record for a single day when it surpassed 2,000 megawatts of wind generation on its system alone. Our low-cost, zero-emissions hydropower in the Northwest has proved to be an extremely efficient resource to balance the variable output of wind generation. At some point, this capability will be exhausted and we may need natural gas plants to integrate more wind power as well as to meet peak demands in the summer and winter.
Fortunately, natural gas plants emit only a third as much carbon as conventional coal plants, but we need to explore even more efficient ways to complement wind power and replace conventional coal generation in the future. The council calls on the region to explore many new ideas like the smart grid and innovative strategies to store electrical power. Overall, these strategies promise to keep our costs low, ensure adequate supplies of power, and further reduce our already low carbon footprint. We want to be ready when electric cars hit the market, creating an important opportunity for Northwest consumers to significantly reduce our foreign oil bill.
The path to energy independence and low carbon emissions starts with conservation. With the cooperation of utility leaders, governors and elected officials, and the citizens of the Northwest, we are on the road to achieving this vision and creating a model of energy policy for the country. The council’s draft power plan is posted on our Web site (nwcouncil.org) and we welcome comments through Nov. 6.
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