Opinion: Washington state is already facing an energy crisis

By Kurt Miller
Originally published in the Spokesman-Review

As we navigate the complexities of our energy future, it’s crucial to base our decisions on solid data and a comprehensive understanding of the consequences. Suggestions that we can remove productive hydropower dams (as shared in a recent op-ed by Bill Arthur and Emily Washines, “Bold blueprint for salmon restoration puts region on right course,” March 9) ignores the basics of supply and demand and overlooks the stark realities of our current energy picture.

The United States, including Washington, is grappling with an energy supply crisis. In the past four years, as the result of insufficient electricity supply, utilities across 12 states have been forced to intentionally implement power outages when customers needed electricity the most. These are not trivial disruptions; they carry life-or-death implications, as evidenced by the tragic fatalities during Texas’s 2021 blackouts. 

This year’s severe January cold snap pushed a Washington utility to the brink. The utility issued a “Level 3” energy emergency alert, signifying it was on the edge of having to implement rolling blackouts. This scenario is not new and will likely recur. The Washington State Department of Commerce projects that by 2050, our electricity needs will double, driven by electric vehicles and other electrification initiatives. Some expertsbelieve these estimates fall short, failing to account for the burgeoning demands of artificial intelligence and data centers.

Wind and solar power contribute to our energy mix but often falter under extreme weather conditions. This fact becomes especially obvious during the winter months, when the nights are long, the skies are gray, and wind stops blowing during frigid conditions. Batteries can help, but they don’t have the duration to carry us through daylong or multiday weather extremes.

As noted in a previous column by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jim Matheson (“Lower Snake River Dams vital to local economy,” Feb. 28), data from the Bonneville Power Administration underscores hydropower’s pivotal role during January’s cold spell. When wind and solar outputs dwindled to near-zero, hydropower generation ramped up to save the day.

The looming energy crisis has many causes. The drivers include more extreme weather, a surge in data centers and AI-related demand, aggressive electrification policies, and stringent electric grid decarbonization mandates. Moreover, supply chain issues, transmission bottlenecks, and siting challenges hinder our ability to match the escalating demands on our electric grid. The Western Electricity Coordinating Council has consistently warned of heightened blackout risks across the West, even if all utility renewable generation plans are met.

Given these warnings, the question isn’t whether we can replace productive hydropower dams; it’s whether we can afford to lose them amidst skyrocketing electricity demand and clean energy objectives. The answer is a resounding no.

While the well-being of salmon populations is vital, we must also safeguard the lives ofWashington’s residents. We need to explore innovative solutions that protect our aquatic ecosystems without compromising our energy security.

It’s time for all policymakers and policy advocates to come to terms with our energy supply picture. We have some tough choices ahead, and they can only be made intelligently if we understand where we are, and what’s at risk.

Kurt Miller, of Vancouver, Washington, is executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, which represents 153 not-for-profit electric utilities across 10 Western states and British Columbia.

The original article is here.

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