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Thursday, October 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Nicole S. Hughes: Washington is a leader in establishing a new paradigm on a decarbonized energy grid

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 15, 2020

By Nicole S. Hughes Renewable Northwest

In response to Andy Barth’s op-ed in The Spokesman-Review, “Hydropower plays key role in Washington’s energy needs” (Oct. 6), Renewable Northwest agrees that hydropower plays a critical role; however, the headline is misleading in that the main point of his opinion piece is how Washington should learn lessons from California’s “failed energy policy.”

His op-ed states that when California’s blackouts were experienced by customers in August, the events occurred primarily due to a lack of solar and wind energy, suggesting California’s clean energy policy is driving the state to a lack of reliability. Barth failed to tell the full story around California’s blackouts. Utility Dive reported that the blackouts were caused by unplanned outages at three large gas plants, combined with a dropoff in wind resource. Some in the electricity sector also question the {span}California Independent System Operator{/span}‘s handling of the situation, as peak demand at the time of the blackouts was lower than previous peak events where blackouts did not occur. Regardless of the cause for the outages, electricity prices skyrocketed, and renewable energy skeptics jumped at the chance to blame the intermittency of variable generators for the failure to meet the needs of California customers.

More recent analyses of the blackouts suggest individual utilities play an important role in resource adequacy, particularly around how they schedule imports used to maintain system reliability. In a study by ICF, California’s resource adequacy strategy was called out as inadequate at pushing load serving entities to procure adequate resources to meet emergency conditions. CAISO is considering updates to require firm contracts to back up resource adequacy procurements, which would force individual utilities to take more responsibility in maintaining reliability.

We should not necessarily assume that the resource adequacy challenges California is experiencing are transferable to Washington or the rest of the West. Likewise, there is no reasonable conclusion to the cause of California’s blackouts that link the state’s aggressive clean energy demand with a lack of reliability. The tools exist to have both a reliable and green grid; it’s more of a matter of how we use those tools and what structures we put in place to hold utilities accountable for both.

Another contributing factor to California’s blackouts that cannot be ignored is the extreme temperatures that precipitated the increase in demand. At the time of the blackouts, California was experiencing four of the five hottest days on record in over 35 years. Eleven states experienced higher-than-average temperatures in August (average increase of 2.6 degrees over the 20th century average). Since gas plants struggle to maintain reliability in times of extreme temperature, a strategy that relies heavily on them for resource adequacy seems like a true failed energy policy. The longer we rely on resources that contribute to our growing climate problems, the less likely it is that we overcome those problems.

The region’s hydropower resource does represent a significant amount of the clean energy and capacity used to serve Washington customers; however, it is not the only resource that provides nonemitting, reliable electricity and capacity. In the state’s ongoing Deep Decarbonization Pathways Study, each scenario reveals that wind, solar and storage play an important role in meeting Washington’s decarbonization goals. The study also acknowledges the role demand side resources play in system reliability. We need to take a holistic approach to meeting our region’s decarbonization goals while ensuring reliability going forward. We must also be aware that some outcries for preserving reliability are merely attempts at preserving the fossil-fuel-as-base-load argument, which is all but dead in the eyes of Washington’s future.

I further disagree with Barth that Washington lawmakers are “turning blind eyes and deaf ears on the warnings from industry.” As a member of the Department of Commerce’s State Energy Strategy Stakeholder Advisory Committee, I can attest to the broad stakeholder process the state is undergoing with input and feedback from various industry representatives. We must not mix “industry warnings” with pleas for keeping fossil fuel-based generators operating to ensure system reliability. Washington state is embarking on a massive economywide decarbonization effort that will require significant changes in the way the grid is managed. I see Washington as a leader in establishing a new paradigm where clean resources and flexible demand can work together to create a decarbonized grid. I applaud the state for taking on this challenge and urge others to get on board to help bring about positive change.

Nicole S. Hughes is executive director of Renewable Northwest. Founded in 1994, Renewable Northwest is a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes the rapid decarbonization of the electric grid in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

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