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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Speed development of alternate energy sources

The Columbian
Published: May 9, 2024, 6:03am

To state the obvious, we need electricity.

Without reliable energy sources, you would not be reading this editorial on your computer or phone. For those who prefer the print edition of The Columbian, we need a reliable supply of power to run our press. And you (or your favorite barista) would not be able to prepare a cup of coffee to sip while catching up on the news — lest you boil water on a wood stove.

Amid debates about clean energy and climate change and Snake River dams and the use of natural gas lies an immutable truth — we need electricity. All of which makes for an eye-opening report from the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee.

The group’s most recent annual summary estimates that electricity demand in the Northwest — Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana — will increase 30 percent in the next decade. That represents a jump from last year’s projection and is three times the projection formulated three years ago.

Without new power sources, transmission lines and storage capacity, the report details, the region’s energy system could fail when people need it most.

The Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee represents public and private utilities throughout the Northwest, but the utilities are not alone in sounding an alarm about stress on the grid. At the monthly meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in April, experts warned that utilities will have difficulty keeping the lights on while complying with environmental mandates such as rebuilding salmon runs and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

One major driver of increased demand is the growth of data centers that are a function of the digital age. The Portland and Seattle areas both rank among the top 10 nationally for data centers and, according to OregonLive.com, Amazon has plans to build 10 additional centers in Eastern Oregon. One commercial property consultant estimates that data-center electricity demands throughout the United States will double from 2022 to 2030.

Concerns about the future of electricity are not limited to the Northwest. As the headline of a March story in The Washington Post suggests, “Amid explosive demand, America is running out of power.” But the Northwest has been spoiled for nearly a century by inexpensive and reliable hydropower, giving us a level of complacency about the issue.

In recent years, Washington has been a leader in developing and promoting wind and solar energy. Those sources can fill some of the gaps, but construction is not keeping up with the growing demand or with efforts to remove fossil fuels from the equation for new construction.

“You can’t phase out natural gas until you have clean production up and running,” state Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat who is running for governor, told The Columbian this week. Mullet also advocates the use of nuclear power, saying, “If you’re being honest with yourself, I don’t think you can picture a grid without small modular reactors.”

The Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee this year approved a bill to explore the possibilities of small modular reactors.

Locally, January’s cold snap provided what could be a harbinger. Clark Public Utilities saw record demand that increased costs and resulted in rate increases for the future.

Meanwhile, deft management and expedited development of alternative sources — including nuclear power — is necessary. After all, we need electricity to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.