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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kurt Miller: The Ghost of Energy Crisis Past – and our future

By Kurt Miller Northwest RiverPartners

During the winter of 2000-2001, the Western Energy Crisis was in full swing. Hourly prices in the wholesale energy market used by power utilities were trading well over $1,000 per megawatt-hour, compared with more typical prices of $20 to $30 per megawatt-hour.

As a result of these energy shortages – some real and some contrived – California was having rolling blackouts and Pacific Gas & Electric went bankrupt for the first time.

At the end of the crisis, electricity bills skyrocketed. The Bonneville Power Administration raised its rates to community-owned utilities by 45 percent.

California’s Gov. Gray Davis lost in a recall election to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Enron collapsed, and thousands of Northwest aluminum workers lost their jobs because the cost of electricity made their plants uncompetitive.

Flash forward to today, and Pacific Gas & Electric is bankrupt again.

The Northwest is rightly shutting down thousands of megawatts of coal generation to fight the climate crisis.

What is less intuitive is the intensifying debate over the value and role of hydroelectricity. The prospect of dam removal in the Northwest has been gaining traction, despite new evidence that calls into question the potential benefits to salmon from breaching the lower Snake River dams.

The debate will reach a pivotal point next February with the release of the Draft Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement by the federal Action Agencies.

As it stands, our current trajectory toward a clean energy future is opening the possibility of a two-class system for electricity. They are already seeing this outcome in California, where the price of installing alternative energy systems and backup generators is still cost-prohibitive for more vulnerable segments of the population.

A recent report from the Northwest Power Pool, an organization representing major power utilities in the Northwest, indicates that “the region may begin to experience (electricity) capacity shortages as soon as next year”; and that “by the mid-2020s, the region may face a capacity deficit of thousands of megawatts.”

For context, 1,000 megawatts can power the entire city of Seattle for one year.

The highly respected Northwest Power and Conservation Council, whose focus is to plan for adequate and reliable energy at the lowest economic and environmental cost to the Northwest, has said that we could face a high likelihood of energy shortages within three years, even with all our hydroelectric dams in place.

In an unprecedented move, hundreds of Northwest energy leaders convened this October to address the real threat to future power resources and supply, in part due to increased efforts to diminish the hydroelectric system.

Even if blackouts don’t occur, given the current homeless crisis in the Northwest, the region cannot afford a repeat of the 2000-2001 energy prices. A drastic hike in costs would almost certainly push many people over the edge.

To avoid a repeat of history, we need to plan carefully and work together as a region to adequately cover our future energy needs. That plan must be mindful of costs to low-income communities and help us achieve our carbon-free goals.

There is no question that such a consideration means making the best use of all our carbon-free generating resources.

Carbon-free hydroelectricity represents almost 50 percent of the region’s electric generation, and it helps us to add other important renewables. While wind and solar power are becoming more affordable, they can fluctuate widely minute-to-minute.

However, the electric grid must perfectly balance supply and demand on a second-to-second basis, or blackouts can occur. As a result, hydroelectricity has become even more critical, because dams can store water and release it past turbines to match perfectly with wind and solar fluctuations.

We encourage everyone to learn more about hydroelectricity and engage in the CRSO EIS process, which is critical to the region’s energy future. The public comment period will be this coming February.

Even Ebenezer Scrooge learned from his mistakes. As we plan for our region’s energy needs, we are similarly confronted with clear reminders of a deeply turbulent past and an uncertain future. It is our right and responsibility to make our voices heard now.

Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners.

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