The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has published its draft 2021 Northwest Power Plan, which will guide the development of the Bonneville Power Administration and the regional power grid through 2027.
The plan maintains most of the region’s fossil fuel generating capacity, with the assumption that major reductions are more than five years away. But it also sets aggressive targets for new solar, wind and other renewable power capacity to offset the coming losses.
“We expect the change in our power supply will be modest over the next five years or so but is likely to be more aggressive after that,” Council Chair Richard Devlin said in a statement on the council’s website.
The draft plan can be viewed at nwcouncil.org/2021-northwest-power-plan, along with an option to submit public comment online through Nov. 19. The council is also conducting four virtual public hearings for the plan, with sign-up instructions on the website. The Washington hearing will be at 5 p.m. Thursday; the Oregon hearing will be at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 12.
The council was formed by Congress in 1980 and is composed of members from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. It takes a broad geographic perspective that accounts for the entire footprint of the Bonneville Power Administration, which includes most of the four states plus parts of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and California.
The group is tasked with forecasting the region’s power demands and guiding the long-term growth of its electrical system through the Northwest Power Plan, which is overhauled every five years. Each edition is drafted with a 20-year outlook but includes a more immediate “action period” in the first five years, according to council member Patrick Oshie.
The plan primarily directs policy at the Bonneville Power Administration; it doesn’t directly apply to local providers like Clark Public Utilities. But BPA’s actions indirectly impact consumers across the Northwest; the agency supplies about 28 percent of the region’s overall power, according to its website, and far more in specific markets. Clark Public Utilities purchases more than half of its power from the BPA.
The draft 2021 plan places a far greater emphasis on renewable power resources than prior versions, including a target of 3,500 megawatts of new generating capacity from renewable resources by 2027. Previous iterations of the plan didn’t have specific directives for renewables, according to Ben Kujala, the council’s director of power planning.
The 3,500-megawatt target is intended to meet the requirements set by new state laws such as Washington’s 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act, he said, but it also reflects the fact that solar and wind have both seen their cost per megawatt drop by more than half since the last power plan was drafted, and they’re now often cheaper than conventional alternatives like thermal plants.
Hydroelectric power has always been at the core of BPA’s portfolio, but the falling prices have turned wind and solar into major parts of the overall composition of the system as well, Kujala said, and the trend is expected to continue. Existing sources have to be adjusted in the plan to account for the increased renewables.
Another notable change in the 2021 plan is a lower energy-efficiency target. The plan treats energy efficiency as a resource just like hydro, coal or solar generation, Kujala said, because it’s often cheaper to invest in technologies to decrease collective energy consumption rather than build additional generating capacity.
The 2016 plan set a goal of 1,400 megawatts of power to be “gained” through increased efficiency, but the 2021 plan’s minimum target is only 750 megawatts. The change reflects the fact that the region has already made great strides in efficiency through measures like widespread use of LED bulbs, Kujala said.
At this point, there’s less low-hanging fruit left in terms of efficiency gains, he said. There are plenty of other ways to reduce consumption further, but they’re increasingly costly to implement, and beyond a certain point it becomes cheaper to add more generating capacity to the grid.
“We don’t have the next LED lightbulb,” Kujala said.
One of the new plan’s biggest challenges is to maintain a steady supply of power as the grid transitions to more renewable sources. Solar and wind installations are cheap, but their output varies depending on the weather and the time of day.
The short-term way to integrate those variable sources is to reconfigure other sources to fill the gaps, Kujala said, such as by switching gas generating plants to run overnight. BPA has a natural advantage in that arena because it has access to so much hydropower.
“I think our system is a lot more adaptable than other systems because of the hydro system,” he said. “We’ve just always had the ability to decide when to put water through the dams, subject to constraints (such as wildlife conservation).”
Another part of the solution is to take full advantage of the massive geographic range of the West Coast grid and operate it as a more closely integrated system, Kujala said. For example, variable input from California’s large solar industry, buoyed by the state’s abundant sunshine, is balanced out by the Pacific Northwest’s heavy supply of hydropower.
Long-term emission-reduction targets will require gas and coal plants to be shut down entirely, and that will be a difficult challenge, Kujala said. But in the short term, there’s no reason to pull back on the rate of renewable installation, because the legacy sources make it easy to integrate wind and solar.
“The system is what it is, so all the resources that are part of the system will be part of the plan, unless there is some clear directive that those resources cannot be there for the life of the plan,” Oshie said.
Phasing out natural gas and transitioning the region’s transportation fleet to battery or hydrogen power will also be long-term challenges, Kujala said, because they’re likely going to cause substantial increases in demand for electricity. But those impacts are also expected to fall further down the road than the current plan’s five-year outlook.