State unprepared for power crisis, Sheldon says

Coal-plant closures, ban on natural gas threaten brownouts, blackouts within next decade

OLYMPIA – As nervous utilities and government planners warn of an electricity shortage just a few years ahead, Sen. Tim Sheldon is proposing a state planning effort to help head off trouble.

Clean-energy legislation passed by the Washington Legislature last session is forcing utilities to abandon coal and natural gas. Yet wind and solar aren’t ready to pick up the slack. If nothing changes, the region faces an increasing chance of blackouts and brownouts over the next decade. The state will enter the danger zone next year, and by the end of the decade, the power shortage will be a full-blown crisis.

This is the chilling conclusion of a number of reports issued in recent months by utility organizations and the independent government agency responsible for planning power needs within the region.

“The utility community is in a state of alarm,” said Sheldon, D-Potlatch, a former public utility district commissioner and a board member for Energy Northwest. “I’m sure the public will become aware of the problem soon enough, when the lights start going out. It’s going to be a nightmare. The state needs to take a long, hard look at these policies. Modest course-corrections now could prevent enormous problems later.”

Sheldon has introduced Senate Bill 6135, which would speed up a planning effort by the state Department of Commerce. The agency would be required to make recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2022 to ensure reliable electricity service continues.

Chance of blackouts will more than triple

The clean-energy law approved by Washington lawmakers in 2019 requires utilities to abandon all coal-fired electricity generation by 2025, and natural gas by 2045. These two power sources produce a large share of Washington’s power, a total 17 percent, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.

Lawmakers did not commission studies to determine the new requirement was feasible. Instead, they relied on assurances from environmental groups that alternative energy sources would be available, and they left it to utilities to solve the problem for themselves.

Now industry groups and neutral observers are saying they can’t solve the problem in time. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, in its latest report on “supply adequacy,” says Pacific Northwest utilities are planning to abandon 3,600 megawatts of capacity currently generated by coal plants. The crunch begins in 2021, when part of Centralia’s TransAlta coal plant will be shuttered, and it will worsen in succeeding years as further coal plants are closed.

Until now, utilities had planned on replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas. But no one expects to invest in natural gas with a ban just 25 years ahead, Sheldon said.

The ban on natural gas also creates a huge obstacle for expansion of wind power, the most viable alternative energy source. Wind requires a backup because it doesn’t blow all the time. Gas is the usual solution. The region’s hydropower can’t do the job, Sheldon explained, because it is already spoken for, to meet baseload needs and to back up the windmills already in place.

If nothing changes, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says the chance of a catastrophic loss of power will more than triple by 2032. All it will take is a sudden cold snap when the wind isn’t blowing – a regular occurrence during harsh Northwest winters.

Dam-breaching, electric cars pose additional challenges

Similar warnings are being sounded in new reports from power-industry sources — Portland General Electric, the Pacific Northwest Utility Coordinating Committee and the Northwest Power Pool.

The Power Pool report makes an additional point. Until now, Pacific Northwest utilities have been able to count on California generators to back them up when power needs are high. But clean-energy rules will create higher demand in that state, and power from California likely will not be available.

These projections of disaster don’t account for other big challenges for Northwest electricity supply. One is the growing political pressure to dismantle the Snake River dams, which would eliminate an additional 5 percent of Pacific Northwest power. The other is rising demand. Planned data centers within the region would be voracious users of power, and demand will skyrocket with widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Preliminary findings of a University of Texas study indicate that full conversion of the state’s motor fleet will increase Washington electricity demand by 25 percent.

‘Foolish not to plan’

Right now, the Department of Commerce is due to report to the Legislature in 2024 about potential risks to reliable electric service posed by the clean-energy law. Sheldon says that’s not soon enough.

“We need to get cracking,” he said. “This isn’t just a problem for utilities. Blackouts are a problem for everyone. Now that the entire utility community is sounding the alarm, it would be foolish not to plan.”