Professionals, not politicians, need to drive energy planning

The decarbonization of the electric grid seems to be the topic of news stories across the country.

The call for replacement of the fossil-fuel infrastructure, that was built over centuries, with clean-energy alternatives is the mantra of this generation.

This decarbonization effort will require an unprecedented amount of investment, planning and skill if it is to be achieved without pitfalls. If carbon-based fuels are removed to quickly without replacement of similar baseload resources (generation that is available on demand 24/7, 365 days a year) the electrical system will become unstable.

Electricity is consumed as it is generated, which means consumer demand must always be in balance with the energy generated.

Intermittent resources such as wind and solar must be accompanied with baseload backup to be fully integrated into the electrical system.

Baseload resources such as hydro, small modular nuclear or carbon-based generation produce energy on demand and fill the gaps created by intermittent generation.

Baseload resources must have the ability to ramp up quickly to fill the voids when the sun isn’t shining and there is no wind. Without baseload generation, the result is an electrical system that fails to maintain that balance between customer demand and electrical generation.

The western transmission grid ties states together.

The transmission grid, which is made up of high voltage electric lines, allows for the efficient movement of electricity throughout the western United States.

While individual utilities can operate lower voltage distribution systems independently and within boundaries, the transmission grid ties each utility together. This interconnectivity between electric utilities also ties state policymakers together as well.

Poor energy policy in one state can impact beyond a state line.

As California politicians have pushed ahead with the decommissioning of carbon and nuclear baseload generation, the result has become a heavy reliance on intermittent generation.

This dependency on wind and solar power has complicated its energy operations and placed a dependence on hydropower from the Northwest and coal generation that is still operational from the Intermountain States.

As coal fired baseload generation continues to be decommissioned over the next few years there will be an even greater dependency on Pacific Northwest hydropower to fill intermittent energy voids and to meet peak demands during extreme weather events.

On Sept. 6, 2022, forecasters projected the highest system demand California had ever seen.

As energy consumption increased, energy providers and California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued alerts asking residents to reduce use.

Electric vehicle owners were told not to charge vehicles during this high heat event. As energy needs increased California began importing baseload hydropower from the Pacific Northwest to both meet demand and stabilize the electrical system – 6,500 megawatts average of Northwest hydropower energy exports helped keep the lights on for California during its energy emergency.

This transfer of energy does not come without a cost to the Pacific Northwest. When California competes with its neighbors for electricity on the open energy market, prices skyrocket.

As electric demand increased as predicted on Sept. 6, prices throughout the west also increased, peaking at $2,000 per megawatt-hour compared to normal pricing of less than $70.

Without the existing hydro system, Energy Northwest’s nuclear generation, and carbon fuel generation, the Sept. 6 heat event would have looked much different. Baseload generation is still the workhorse that ensures electrical system reliability.

As carbon fuel plants continue to be decommissioned, policymakers need to consider the ramifications of a high reliance on solar and wind.

If we fail to plan and not allow time for baseload replacement generation, we will have weather events that will not only stress the transmission grid beyond its capability but will have shortages of generation when it is needed most.

Baseload resources are resources that can be counted on nearly 100% of the time. While the world is calling for more renewable generation, politics should not be the driver for change.

The recent California energy dilemma and other events like the February 2021 cold spell that happened in Texas show how devastating the loss of power can be.

The call for decarbonization is ongoing. However, the lack of technological solutions needs to be recognized.

Over time we might find the necessary solutions but today we are not there.

While wind and solar have a place in an electric utility’s energy portfolio, the challenge is that their reliability is intermittent. You get power when it’s windy or sunny and when it’s not, you don’t.

It is that simple. That intermittent generation wouldn’t be a problem if we had a cost-effective, reliable way to store power – but we don’t. At least not yet.

The good news is that this energy transition is possible, but it must be with reasonable reforms and realistic expectations but most importantly, with the right people making the decisions.

Allowing the experts in the energy industry to use their knowledge and lead the charge towards integrating intermittent resources in a more sustainable and reliable manner.

At Franklin PUD we are actively preparing for a clean energy future and fully support clean energy policy.

We recently increased the amount of baseload hydropower in our energy portfolio, which will result in a 96% clean, dependable energy portfolio.

As we move forward, where appropriate and in the right amounts we will add additional wind and solar to our mix. As we do so we will reach the goal of a 100% clean portfolio.

We support wise energy policy and will continue to do our part to ensure an affordable, clean, stable electrical system.

Scott Rhees is general manager of Franklin PUD.

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