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Northwest energy plan emphasizes solar, wind power through 2041 with coal losing steam

Solar panels fill a field east of Barker Road, north of Garland Avenue, in Spokane Valley, shown Oct. 21, 2020. The array is a project by Avista Utilities.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Solar panels fill a field east of Barker Road, north of Garland Avenue, in Spokane Valley, shown Oct. 21, 2020. The array is a project by Avista Utilities. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

With coal-fueled plants becoming a thing of the past, regional experts foresee big changes coming in the next two decades for energy production across the northwest.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s latest 20-year power plan, designed to help suppliers meet the energy needs of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, emphasizes an increased reliance on renewable energy sources. The plan describes these options, primarily solar and wind, as cost-effective at reducing carbon emissions.

The plan is designed to help inform the power generation strategies of the Bonneville Power Administration and other regional energy suppliers through 2041.

“For a really long time, I would say most of the utilities have used, especially for energy efficiency, our plan is really the starting point and a pretty fundamental input to what they do there,” said Ben Kujala, the council’s director of power planning.

Representatives for the Bonneville Power Administration and Avista Utilities indicated they are reviewing the plan and preparing comments to submit to the council.

A virtual public hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday. The council is accepting public comment through Nov. 19.

Kujala said planning mistakes can impact energy bills, and have already.

“We’re in a good place, and we want to keep that advantage,” he said. “It helps all kinds of things when we have good rates, so making good plans to go ahead and spend money, make sure we have a robust system, a reliable system, but not spend too much money – not overbuild – and not spend too little and get us into a situation where we have to spend a bunch of money in a year to keep the lights on. That’s the balance on planning.”

The power plan is revised every five years, as required by the federal Northwest Power Act. This year’s iteration outlines the most “dramatic changes in the future power supply” for the region since the council was formed by Congress in 1980, according to plan documents.

Multiple factors have fostered these changes.

A number of coal-fueled plants in the region – including Unit 2 of the TransAlta plant in Centralia – are expected to retire over the next decade for economic or environmental reasons. While the region’s coal fleet totaled around 7,000 megawatts of capacity in 2018, retirements in recent years have reduced that to just under 5,000 megawatts.

By the end of 2028, that number is expected to further decrease to 2,400 megawatts, according to the plan.

The document also noted increased interest from municipalities and utilities to reduce carbon emissions since the plan’s last revision in 2016.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee in May 2019 signed the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA), committing the state to an electricity supply free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Idaho Power similarly set a goal in 2019 to provide 100% clean energy by 2045.

Kujala said a challenge with the plan was predicting how states outside of the council’s coverage area, but within the western energy market, plan to transition to clean energy in the coming decades.

“When you look at California, they have a 100% clean requirement as well, and their system is predominantly natural gas,” he said. “So they have to retire by (2045) a bunch of their system, build something to replace it and it has to be 100% clean, by law.”

Meanwhile, technologies for solar, wind and other intermittent energy sources are becoming less expensive to build and operate, according to the document.

“The rapid cost reduction for solar and wind power technologies, when coupled with federal and state inducements, has provided an incentive for building large amounts of utility-scale solar and on-shore wind power across the region and put increased competitive pressure on thermal generators that operate at higher costs,” the plan reads.

The plan acknowledges risks with relying on renewables, such as reduced output when the sun goes down or when there’s no wind. Even so, Kujala said there are constraints with every kind of energy technology.

“That’s not necessarily as new as some people want to kind of represent it,” Kujala said. “But overall, I think the renewables, you’ve got this sort of dynamic where you’ve got to balance them out with the existing system. So we’re using our existing gas lines. We’re using our hydro system to balance those renewables out and we’re using the markets where we’re connected to California, to the Desert Southwest and we’re trading power back and forth.”

Other recommendations included in the 124-page plan include a call to policymakers and utilities pursuing emissions reductions to increase the use of zero- or low-emission vehicles, such as electric cars.

The council formally started the power planning process for the 2021 plan in February 2019, according to the document.

Representatives of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council could not specify a timeline for when the plan might be finalized once the public comment period has ended.

Pat Oshie, one of Washington’s two representative members on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said plan elements – such as projected climate impacts – were first vetted by committees of regional experts.

“We have a process that involves the public in all aspects of what we do,” Oshie said. “There are many, many people that are not participants in these advisory committees that the council sponsors. Now, it’s really their turn to take a look at what’s been produced and weigh that against their own circumstances.”

Kujala said one of the major challenges was forecasting the impacts of climate change on energy production. He said developers used work done by the University of Washington and Oregon State University to project future temperatures.

“The big deal with this plan is we took the first step down that path,” he said. “Most utilities look backwards and they say we want to plan for any historical weather we’ve had. … We see a lot of places where summer might get a lot hotter than it has historically been, so making sure we’re planning for a system that can deal with these temperatures that we haven’t historically experienced with is an important part.”

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