Third Power Plant, Grand Coulee Dam. Photo by brewbooks. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

V9i5 Loss of Power Reliability

Narrated by Colin Morrison

This article was originally published by the Everett, Washington Herald at:

While it is encouraging that a recent Environmental Protection Agency report celebrated a seven percent drop in power sector greenhouse gas emissions, it paints a grossly incomplete picture. A closer look reveals a hidden crisis in the Pacific Northwest, where climate change has created a feedback loop leading to higher emissions and dirtier air.

This past year’s drought limited our region’s hydropower, our primary source of clean energy. Grand Coulee Dam generated less power this past year than during any year in the past two decades. To compensate, Washington’s only coal plant burned 15 percent more coal and gas-powered generating facilities saw a 75 percent increase in fuel use. This resulted in increased utility costs, worse air quality, and 17 percent higher nitrogen dioxide emissions.

Megadroughts across the West have consistently reduced hydropower output, leading to increased reliance on fossil fuels and 121 million tons of additional carbon emissions since 2001. While the Pacific Northwest is undoubtedly facing challenges with our electric power supply, the Southwest is in worse shape where the disastrous drop in Lake Mead’s water level seriously imperils the water and power supply to much of Southern California. While climate models are uncertain about future precipitation, they agree that our current infrastructure is not built for the emerging 21st century climate.

On top of these challenges, power blackouts will become more likely due to increased demand and constrained electricity supply. Population growth, building electrification, and electric vehicles are steadily increasing the need for electricity, while the Northwest’s drought and the retirement of fossil fuel generation have put a damper on supply.

These realities ought to be a huge wake-up call for our lawmakers in Washington state, Washington D.C, and the public. We need urgent action on at least five fronts:

Drought resilience: To make our grid less vulnerable to drought, we must invest in diversifying the energy mix, including sophisticated water management, solar, wind, energy storage, and probably nuclear energy.

Energy permit reform: In the state or local permitting process, energy projects appear to languish, often for years. This is perhaps due to staffing shortages at the state permitting agency and is sometimes a failure of the renewable energy developers to build community support before seeking approval for renewable energy projects.

Climate adaptation: We must retrofit our buildings, homes, and infrastructure to withstand the changing climate: helping to ensure that clean energy is available, reliable, and affordable.

Citizen activism: While Washington state has had many leaders with the foresight to plan for various aspects of climate change, they cannot do it all and can’t do it at all without engaged public support. Certainly, the current efforts to repeal Washington’s Climate Commitment Act — Initiative 2117 — need to be soundly defeated.

Matching need with supply: There is an absurd disconnect between the agencies responsible for predicting power shortages and the state agency responsible for permitting new power and transmission resources. In a sane world, efforts would be taken to match our growing need for clean energy with the issuance of permits to carefully vetted providers of wind, solar, geothermal, bioenergy, tidal, and nuclear energy.

These new realities serve as a stark reminder that climate change isn’t just about rising temperatures; it has real-world consequences affecting our energy security, air quality, our quality of life, and our wallets.

We can learn from this crisis and build a more resilient, sustainable future. Or we can plan to live in the cold and dark.

Mark Rohde is co-lead for the Snohomish County Chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.