It wouldn’t take hell freezing over for the Inland Northwest’s power supply to be disrupted on the scale of what Texas has experienced this week – but the Columbia River might have to run dry.
With nearly two-thirds of the state’s power generated from hydroelectric sources and an interconnected utility grid across the West, power generators and distributors say Washington is relatively well-protected from widespread power shortages, even during surges in demand.
That’s not to say that power loss is not a very real threat, as those who have lived through the damaging windstorms of 2015 and 2021 in the Spokane area can attest. But while trees felled by strong winds or winter storms can take down a power line, they’re not a threat to the generation of electricity.
The stability of power supply has risen to the forefront of national news this week as millions of Texans suffer through unusually cold temperatures without electricity. According to the Associated Press, 46,000 megawatts of power production were knocked offline across Texas, including 28,000 from natural gas, coal and nuclear plants and 18,000 from wind and solar projects.
And while Texas’ troubles have drawn Texas-sized attention, other areas of the United States have experienced rolling blackouts to help energy suppliers meet growing demand as arctic air descended on much of the country in recent days.
What separates Texas from the Inland Northwest
The most important difference between Texas and the Inland Northwest is in the design of its power grid, according to Jason Thackston, senior vice president of energy resources for Avista Corp., a Spokane-based provider of natural gas and electricity.
Fearing federal interference, Texas’ grid was designed to be isolated. It “doesn’t connect with the rest of the U.S. very well, by choice,” Thackston said. Texas is the only state to operate such a system, the Austin American-Statesman reported this week.
The Northwest could hardly be more different.
“We are part of a much larger grid of electricity that spans across the entire western United States,” Thackston said.
That interconnectedness is helpful when a part of the region is experiencing additional demand for electricity, offering a sprawling marketplace that allows companies to quickly purchase power from one another.
For example, if temperatures are normal in the Seattle area but have plummeted on this side of the Cascades, a company like Avista has the ability to buy excess power from utilities elsewhere in the network if its own supply is insufficient to meet demand.
Some power plants in Texas were knocked offline because equipment simply froze. But in the Pacific Northwest, utilities have an agreement to help each other out in such a situation, Thackston said.
“That’s an arrangement that’s been in place for decades and a really important and critical component of how this grid works,” Thackston said. “By having this arrangement where we can lean on each other through the provisions, we save our customers from the burden of having to build additional power plants that are just there in the case of that really rare event.”
It’s all in the mix
The Bonneville Power Administration is a federal agency that markets the power generated by 31 hydroelectric projects along the Columbia River and its tributaries, which comprise the Federal Columbia River Power System. The largest is Grand Coulee Dam.
The agency also operates about three-quarters of the high-voltage transmission lines that distribute power across its broad service area, which includes Washington state. In addition to hydroelectric projects, BPA also markets power from a nonfederal nuclear power plant.
“BPA has built-in redundancies into both its transmission and power generation systems in case of outages, weather related events and equipment failures,” spokesman David Wilson wrote in an email. “We constantly evaluate both systems for reliability and needed maintenance.”
Of course, BPA needs water to generate electricity, and its employees are constantly evaluating the snow pack, river levels, and incoming weather, according to Wilson.
Those procedures helped spare the Northwest from outages during recent winter weather.
“We were able to delay maintenance projects that would’ve taken generation offline. Additionally, our staff positioned the lower Columbia River projects to have extra fuel available to meet our peak loads,” Wilson explained. “With these actions, we were able to provide a position of surplus capacity even during the demand of this latest storm.”
Inland Power and Light, a cooperative which purchases all of its power from BPA, serves 12 counties in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
“(The Pacific Northwest) can manage our flow with the dams, so they can put more water through the turbines when we need more power,” said Jennifer Lutz, a spokesperson for Inland Power and Light. “We are very fortunate in the Pacific Northwest to have that option.”
BPA has had to ask Northwest consumers to cut back in times of low production, however.
In April 2019, it cited unseasonably cold temperatures and low stream flows for its request that customers take steps like open the blinds on south-facing windows and let sun inside.
Avista generates about half its power from hydroelectric dams, the largest two of which are on the Clark Fork River. The remainder is a mix of natural gas, coal, wind, solar and biomass power.
That blend is important, Thackston said, because it enables Avista to react if any power source is in short supply. If the wind stops blowing, or the sun stops shining, it can burn more natural gas or allow more water to run through its turbines.
“We’re not relying on any one source of generation to serve our customers when it gets really cold like it was last week in the Spokane area,” Thackston said.
The threats we face
Typically, it’s wind that poses the largest threat to electricity customers, Lutz said. In 2015, a powerful windstorm knocked out power to 33,000 Inland Power and Light customers, more than 80% of its members.
Snow can also be a threat, weighing down trees and causing their limbs to snap down onto power lines.
“That’s why we’re always trying to clear the right of ways,” Lutz said. “Any damaged trees or dangerous trees that we see, try to remove those.”
Utility companies can also be forced to de-energize lines and cut power to certain areas to reduce the risk of wildfire, Lutz noted.
But an outage due to inadequate power generation? It’s unlikely, according to Thackston.
“We will have a power plant trip offline and it’s imperceptible to our system and our customers,” Thackston said. “I believe that there are sufficient layers of protection.”
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