Tri-Citians are big consumers of green electricity

By D. Patrick Jones

Data tracking life in the Tri-Cities reveal many departures from the overall profile of life in Washington.

Consider the racial and ethnic make-up here. In 2017, an estimated nearly 39 percent of the population was non-Caucasian, versus slightly over 30 percent for the state. And the estimated Hispanic population in 2017 made up about one third of the overall count, versus an eighth in Washington.

Or consider earnings in Benton and Franklin counties. The average annual wage is 80 percent of the state, yet at the start of the new century, workers here earned about 89 percent of the Washington average, according to Benton-Franklin Trends data.

One can, of course, point to metrics that follow those of Washington closely. But like other Eastern Washington metros, the Tri-Cities isn’t often “average.”

So it is with electricity consumption. As Benton-Franklin Trends data reveals, total electricity consumed in the two counties increased slightly over the past decade, about 11 percent cumulatively.

For the most recent available year, the total slightly exceeded 5 million megawatt hours (MWh). According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the average U.S. home in 2016 consumed about 10.8 MWh. The Tri-City area recently consumed enough electricity to power more than 469,000 residential dwellings.

It seems like a lot. And it is.

Consider the per capita measure of consumption. For 2017, every man, woman and child in the two counties consumed 17,803 KWh, or 17.8 MWh.

Compare that level to the Washington state average in the same year: 12,863KWh, or 12.9 MWh.

Clearly, life in the two counties is electricity intensive.

What is likely at work? It’s improbable that residents leave on their lights any longer than the average Washingtonian. More likely is the demand from certain industries. Agricultural processing and the activities related to the Hanford cleanup come to mind. Representatives of these industries are all on the Tri-City Development Council’s list of largest employers.

Of course, there may be other industries that are high electricity consumers. Interestingly, as online viewers of the Trends can note, there is very little difference in per capita energy use between the two counties.

Another departure of the two counties’ energy profile from Washington’s lies in the electricity fuel mix. Hydropower plays a much larger role here than statewide.

For 2017, the state Department of Commerce calculated that over 85 percent of all the electricity consumed in the two counties was sourced from hydro versus 68 percent for the state ­— a share that hasn’t changed much over the past decade for the two counties.

In 2017, nuclear power generated 8.4 percent of total electricity consumed, exactly twice as high as for the state. Nuclear power’s contribution here has diminished over the past decade.

For 2017, carbon-rich fuels of coal and natural gases amounted to 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of all electricity consumed. Washingtonians in general paid 13 percent and 11 percent of their electric bills on coal and natural gas generation, respectively.

For those wanting to live in a low-carbon world, the greater Tri-Cities provides a home. Whether the hydro and nuclear power can continue to provide nearly 95 percent of all the electricity in the coming decades is an interesting question. The counties have experienced the fastest-growing population since the start of the century among all state metro areas.

The Washington State Office of Financial Management estimates that the area will gain more than 65,000 residents by 2030. With all the other demands on the Columbia and Snake rivers, the bounty of hydro may not be as present in a decade as now.

Perhaps nuclear power will win enough adherents to respond to the increases, conservation — in the form of lower per capita consumption numbers — will help solve the anticipated load issues or the planned solar farm by Neoen on Energy Northwest property will help respond to the load growth. Perhaps a combination of all.

For now and for the next few years, it seems unlikely that the low-carbon cocktail of electricity that Tri-Citians are enjoying will change much. It also seems highly probable that electricity intensity will continue to be a staple of the local economy for years to come.

8 D. Patrick Jones is the executive director for Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis. Benton-Franklin Trends, the institute’s project, uses local, state and federal data to measure the local economic, educational and civic life of Benton and Franklin counties.

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