Thursday, June 24, 2021
June 24, 2021

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Donnelly: Blackout a wake-up call for council on energy

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How likely are electricity blackouts in Southwest Washington? The issue was front and center during last month’s multiday freeze extending from Seattle through the Midwest and notably to Texas. There, the historic prolonged cold, combined with ice, disabled most electricity resources, the natural gas system and water service. People, including at least one child, died.

In Clark County, the freeze was of shorter duration. Two well-managed systems — Clark Public Utilities and NW Natural — divided the heating load to keep the region’s homes mostly safe, warm and supplied with energy under highly challenging conditions.

But what if two energy sources — electricity and natural gas — were to be reduced to just electricity? Basic economics tell you that if you have two sources and one is eliminated, costs will rise. More crucially, reliability may suffer. To address possible tight supplies, electric utilities are planning “smart meters” to cut load in high-demand periods. 

Diminishing fossil fuel use such as gasoline and natural gas is indeed the aim of the city of Vancouver’s Ordinance M-4295, a moratorium “prohibiting the establishment of new, or expansion of existing, large-scale fossil fuel facilities.” First adopted in June, the moratorium was extended in December for six months, giving the city “time to update its Strategic Plan, Vancouver City Center Vision … and Climate Action Plan.”

City residents will do well to scrutinize costs and risks as well as benefits. The ordinance bans “large-scale” facilities, exempting gas stations and propane refueling. It does not yet prohibit natural gas connections to new homes, businesses or apartments, but it bans “devices that transfer natural gas for use in the production of electricity or power,” such as the gas pipeline fueling Clark Public Utilities’ essential River Road generating station.

The city’s ordinance aligns with a nationwide movement to eliminate fossil fuels over time from the energy mix, pushing our society toward dependence on electricity only with new technology that is not yet proven. An environmental group, Stand.earth, which boasts of canceling numerous fossil fuel projects, is prominent in the movement, as is Seattle’s Coltura, which aims to phase out gasoline entirely. The movement is encouraging new city codes that block natural gas service to new homes, stores and manufacturers.

In February’s big freeze, Clark Public Utilities performed well. Tom Haymaker, manager of energy planning, credited the region’s “diverse mix of hydropower, and natural gas and coal plants …weatherized to withstand this climate,” along with robust Western U.S. transmission interconnections.

The local gas utility, NW Natural, which heats 86,000 homes in Southwest Washington, experienced no significant service disruptions. NW Natural’s system is supported by interstate pipelines and storage fields for near-perfect reliability. It is working to add more renewable gas supply, according to utility vice president Kathryn Williams.

February’s storm should be viewed as a wake-up call, reminding the city council to study future impacts on reliability and cost in detail before making the moratorium permanent.

Cost control of utility rates is crucial. Many middle-income families are moving here and need affordable housing. Substituting electric heating for natural gas will raise housing costs substantially. And under Clark Public Utilities’ cost-based tariffs, the large expenditures needed to transform the electricity system, including subsidies, will be passed along in higher customer rates.

We have a reliable, diversified and affordable energy system now. Plans to transform it should be carefully analyzed using state-of-the-art modeling of supply, demand, costs and rates. Future failures could cost lives.

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