As part of my career of over 30 years in the energy industry, I led the effort to complete Oregon’s portion of the West Coast’s “Electric Highway.” The idea was to ensure that fast-charging stations were available for electric vehicle (EV) owners along the entirety of the I-5 corridor, from Northern Washington to Southern California. In some ways, this was our version of the mantra in the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come. We completed the highway in 2013, in hopes that it would spur expanded EV usage.
While the growth of EVs hasn’t been explosive, it has been steady. EVs have matured to the point that two western states, Washington and California, have passed laws requiring all new personal-use vehicles be electric powered by 2035. These laws are part of a larger push to cast aside fossil fuels by electrifying major components of our economy, including transportation, commercial buildings, and homes, in an effort to fight climate change.
However, these steps only help fight climate change if the fuel sources for the growing demand for electricity are carbon-free. For instance, to the extent we must rely on coal generation for electricity, we’d just be swapping one fossil fuel for another. That’s probably not what most people have in mind when they buy an EV.
Northwest residents are generally unaware of the huge increase in renewable energy that decarbonization laws will require. A recent study showed our region will have to build 160,000 megawatts of additional wind, solar power, and large-scale batteries for storage, to achieve a zero-carbon grid by 2045. To put that into context, it’s taken about 100 years to get to the 115,000 megawatts of generation we have today.
The challenge for wind and solar power is intermittency because they are completely dependent on near-term weather. That means there can be minutes, hours, or even days at a time when the weather doesn’t cooperate and those generating sources aren’t available in large amounts.
Batteries are a natural solution to the problem, but they can only hold about four hours’ worth of energy, so they aren’t very helpful during the multi-day weather events.
That is where hydropower comes in. Hydropower is the superpower of renewable energy because it comes with its own energy-storage solution. Dams can hold back water when it’s not needed to generate electricity, release water to push hydroelectric turbines when power is needed, and repeat the process again and again to fill in the gaps for wind and solar power. Northwest hydroelectric dams have the capacity for days or even months’ worth of energy storage.
This function is exceptionally important during extreme weather events, as experienced with last year’s heat dome. After the event, the Bonneville Power Administration released a statement saying that the lower Snake River dams were critical for avoiding blackouts for hundreds of thousands of homes. Grid reliability during these kinds of events becomes a public safety issue as, without electricity, homes lose critical cooling or heating capability. During the heat dome, more than 500 people across the Pacific Northwest died from heat-related causes—and that was with the electric grid operating as it should.
Right now, there are calls to pull down some of the region’s productive hydroelectric dams. The truth is, without these dams in place, the Northwest has no chance to meet its decarbonization deadlines without major technology advances. Such breakthroughs are important to work toward, but very difficult to predict and risky to depend on for something as important as protecting public safety and fighting climate change.
Grid reliability and affordability are two reasons the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called upon Congress to preserve existing hydropower resources across the nation.
We really do have a “Field of Dreams” possibility in the Pacific Northwest because our carbon-free hydropower provides about half of the region’s electricity and represents nearly 90% of our renewable energy. For our region, that means the ability to have a carbon-free grid is much more of a reality than most areas of the country. But we need to preserve our hydropower system in order to achieve this important milestone, so we encourage you to make your voice heard by the region’s policymakers on the importance of hydropower for our clean, affordable, and reliable energy future.
Learn more about this organization at NWRiverPartners.org