Transmission West

Guest: Transmission Connections Vital to NW Clean-Energy Future

August 9, 2023

This post is written by Angus Duncan and originally published in Clearing Up.

SUMMARY: In this guest column, Angus Duncan—Pacific Northwest consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former chair and member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council—outlines an imperative for regional decarbonization and new carbon-free electricity resources to meet growing demand. He says transmission is critical to realizing this future, and floats an idea to convene a transmission planning forum to help the Northwest prepare to develop the needed grid of the 2040s.

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be,” Wayne Gretzky, a hockey great, said.

OK, this is one of the most overused corporate inspirational cliches. But cliches often have kernels of truth down in the fluff. This one has real significance for achieving a decarbonized, reliable, affordable electric power system in the Pacific Northwest.

On July 12, the Bonneville Power Administration was skating to the puck. The federal agency announced a new $2 billion investment in its transmission grid (Clearing Up No. 2117), which serves most of the four Northwest states—and importantly, much of the growing electricity needs in the Portland-Seattle Interstate 5 corridor.

While many of BPA’s announced projects have been in the works for years, movement on them deserves applause, albeit restrained applause. These actions strive to keep pace with current demand. They aren’t skating ahead of it.

BPA’s announcement includes important upgrades of existing high-voltage lines, the longest a 91-mile segment in Oregon from The Dalles to Oregon City; one new 53-mile-long line in central Oregon; and strengthening several hubs and substations.

In contrast, an informed source I communicated with calculated the region will need more than 50 such high-voltage lines, each averaging 200 miles, to accommodate potentially 15,000 MW of new renewables by 2040 as envisioned in the 2021 Northwest Power Plan.

Are we prepared to climb this hill? A recent credible analysis by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid gave our region a D grade for transmission preparedness, planning and development; California got a B (Clearing Up No. 2115).

Why must BPA and the region aim for the higher target, the moving puck? Because we, like the rest of the world, must make rapid, decisive progress toward a decarbonized economy by the 2040s or suffer climate effects that will make the region’s recent heat domes and wildfires seem like a spring afternoon in Portland’s Washington Park.

By the 2040s the region needs to:

  • Close its remaining coal and gas-fired power plants.
  • Replace that output with wind, solar and batteries.
  • Meet the additional power needs of new loads (e.g., data centers, electric vehicles, resilient heating/cooling systems).
  • Replace carbon-polluting gas furnaces and water heaters with electric heat pumps (the gas companies won’t agree, but it’s a hard truth they’ll have to face).

For this, we’ll need lots of new electricity. Fortunately, there’s ample wind energy east of the Cascade Range and into the Rocky Mountain states, plus solar energy from the Desert Southwest. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates over 10,000 GW of U.S. wind energy potential with over 30 percent capacity factors, most of it in the less-populated interior Western states (for comparison, the Pacific Northwest now consumes about 58 GW of electricity per year, based on 2021 U.S. Energy Information Administration data).These NREL numbers include just onshore wind availability; there will also be wind from offshore facilities as floating wind turbine technology matures.

Suppliers are ready to meet these demands. Recent requests from Pacific Northwest utilities for new generation have drawn bids from developers that are four, five, six times the amounts sought. For example, Portland General Electric’s 2021 call for 2,400 MW of renewable resources brought 10,300 MW of proposals. Pacific Power’s request for proposals the same year sought 4,300 MW and drew bids for 36,000 MW.

BPA’s cumulative queue of projects seeking to connect to the grid since 2017 is approaching 140,000 MW, the agency reports. If even 10 percent of these projects are realized, the region’s demand for new clean power would be substantially met.

There are technical issues with bringing all this clean energy on board, including variability of wind and sunshine (thus, plans for energy storage) and siting conflicts (e.g., the need to avoid critical environmental habitat and respecting sensitive cultural sites).

But the biggest obstacle? It’s that most all that energy is located outside the Pacific Northwest and distant from the region’s core needs in the I-5 corridor: we have a large “point A (generation) to point B (load)” problem.

Our solutions begin with the BPA transmission grid that serves the four-state region, including those growing I-5 loads. The federal power grid, which shares transmission responsibilities with smaller utility networks, was built—overbuilt, really—in BPA’s expansion era from 1945 to 1975. We’ve been growing our electric loads into that supersized grid for the last 50 years and have about used up the surplus capacity.

BPA’s system is only part of the solution, but its regional grid will have to step up its capacity to bring new wind and solar power to regional loads. Portland General Electric, Pacific Power and other electric utilities and developers must link their distant clean-power projects to the regional grid for access to customers.

At the same time our utilities, in partnership with state and local governments, need to invest in aggressive levels of electricity demand management such as smart thermostats and heat pumps. The federal government appears ready to support these kinds of initiatives.

The immediate electricity future has to be about not just staying even with needs but anticipating them by actively preparing for the decarbonizing and electrification wave that’s coming.

For efficiency, reliability and cost management, our four states need to link to and exchange power resources with California and our other neighboring states in a Western power exchange pool.

When 20-some years ago the region faced a similarly large challenge containing both risk and promise—how to integrate copious amounts of variable wind energy into the grid—we organized a Northwest Wind Integration Forum. Utilities, regulators, suppliers and others came together to agree on an agenda and questions to be asked, then charged a parallel technical team with bringing back answers and possible policy responses. This resulted not only in the region finding it could integrate far more wind than it anticipated and at lower costs than feared, but also led to discovering new sources of flexibility we could use for this task and for other system benefits.

I and others are discussing whether a similar response today, a transmission planning forum, could help us look ahead to the grid of the 2040s. What operating changes and investments will carry us to a grid that is larger and more important to an electrified Pacific Northwest? Who has to be doing what, by when, to skate to that future?

These big institutional and physical infrastructure changes are upon us. We have delayed for too long the curtailing of greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re already paying a fearsome price. Growing the electricity supply and transmission to meet new loads while displacing fossil fuel combustion in power plants and vehicles is the great task of this generation.

We know where the puck needs to be in 2040. That’s our goal.

Photo by Sinjin Thomas on Unsplash