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News / Northwest

By 2050, Washington might need to buy energy from other states

By John Stang, Crosscut
Published: February 4, 2023, 1:38pm

For years, Washington has exported some of the electricity it produced. The state sent more than 18 percent of its generated power out of state in 2021, but in the coming decades that will change – and maybe not for the reason you expect.

If Washington reaches its goal of weaning itself from fossil fuels and continues its drive to replace gas-powered cars with electric vehicles, we will need to start importing electricity by 2050, according to calculations by the Washington Department of Commerce.

Partly to blame is Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate that by 2035, all new cars sold must be electric. A lot of extra power will be needed to keep those cars running. In fact, the state’s efforts to replace carbon-emitting fossil fuels translate to an increased demand for electricity, said Glenn Blackmon, manager of the Energy Policy Office for the Washington Department of Commerce

“It’s replacing fossil fuels in every sector of our economy,” he said in an interview.

Lawmakers are also concerned about future energy needs. “Are we planning for the amount of electricity needed to recharge these [electric] automobiles?” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, at a Jan. 13 briefing before the Senate Environment & Energy Committee.

In 2021, Washington generated almost 111 million megawatt-hours of electricity and imported slightly more than 5 million. The state used slightly more than 88 million megawatt-hours and exported just over 25 million. That translates to roughly 20 million megawatt-hours in net exports.

Blackmon told the Senate energy committee that the state’s power needs will increase 97 percent by 2050, or almost 230 million megawatt-hours. Therefore Washington will have to import a huge amount of power, Blackmon said.

“That’s a big thing to say we will begin importing power instead of exporting it,” said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy.

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The Commerce Department predicts that 36 percent of Washington’s clean energy in 2050 will likely come from wind turbines in Montana and Wyoming. Homegrown clean energy comes mostly from a mix of hydroelectric and wind power, but also from other sources, like solar, wave energy, and biofuels such as technology that turn farm waste into biogas.

For almost a decade, Inslee has pushed an ambitious program to cut fossil fuel use in the state, finally achieving some major goals in the past couple years. Those include the nation’s second cap-and-trade bill on industrial carbon emissions. Low-carbon fuel standards went into effect this year. The Legislature set a soft goal of 2030 for phasing out gas-powered vehicles, followed by Inslee’s mandate that no new gas-powered cars be sold in the state as of 2035.

“We need more capacity to site and permit clean energy projects in a timely manner, and we need to bolster our transmission infrastructure to reliably deliver clean energy throughout the state,” wrote Inslee’s spokesman Jaime Smith in an email.

A number of energy bills before the Legislature this year would encourage development of clean energy, and get it to more people through ideas like House Bill 1509 which would create a market for small-scale community solar – but Washington’s future electricity problems are expected to be too big to fix with any one simple solution.

Other energy bills being considered this year include plans for allocating the money generated through Washington’s new cap-and-trade program; a Republican proposal, Senate Bill 5092, to provide tax breaks to people buying hybrid gas-and-electric vehicles; and a slew of ideas to incentivize businesses to make greener choices.

Inslee’s goals build on a 2008 state law that sets carbon-reduction targets of 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, 70% by 2040 and 95% by 2050. A 2021 Washington Department of Commerce report put the state’s carbon dioxide emissions at 99.57 million metric tons in 2018. The report shows that from 2016 to 2018, the transportation sector was the largest contributor, at nearly 45% of Washington emissions.

With the state planning to shift from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles in the 2030s, electric transmission lines will also need to be added, Blackmon said.

“The [Northwest electric] grid is so inadequate that hundreds of proposed wind and solar projects are ending up at the back of waitlists where they may sit for years,” wrote Emily Moore, director for climate and energy for the Seattle think tank Sightline Institute, in an analysis published last October.

New transmission lines take more than a decade to build, she wrote: “Unless Northwest policymakers develop a plan for building out the grid we need, and unless they start erecting it immediately, the region’s ambitious decarbonization commitments will amount to so much hot air. …That’s right. We may fail the climate test because we’re missing some wires.”

Washington’s ability to send electricity back and forth to Canada and to surrounding states is limited. In 2022, Washington has the ability to transfer 3,000-3,150 megawatts with Canada, 7,200 megawatts with Oregon, and 1,250 megawatts with Montana, with the ability to expand that by another 6,000 megawatts, according to the Western Electric Coordinating Council and the Washington Department of Commerce. Washington can also transfer 10,700 megawatts internally.

While hard figures are not available, the state Commerce Department has determined that massive construction on new power lines between Washington and other states will be required by 2050.

Utilities are legally required to identify and plan for future transmission needs. However, at a January 18 hearing before the Senate’s environment and energy committee, Nicolas Garcia, representing the Washington Public Utility Districts Associations, said many utilities don’t have the expertise for transmission planning.

It takes 10 to 20 years to build a power transmission line corridor between Washington and another state and two to three years to build a solar or wind turbine farm, Kathleen Drew, chairwoman of state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, told the Senate Energy Committee at a Jan. 18 hearing on Senate Bill 5165, a transmission planning bill. Ten years is not long enough to tackle the studies, leasing, permitting, coordinating and construction of a transmission line corridor, she said.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, introduced SB 5165, which would require utilities to begin transmission-line planning 20 years in advance, along with some technical changes to transmission planning.

State government agencies, environmental groups and some utilities support the bill. Meanwhile, Avista Utilities and the Association of Washington Business said more details are needed on the processes and targets within the bill. “It needs clearer standards and deadlines for agency decisions,” said John Rothlin, representing Avista.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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