Policymakers' inconsistent energy approach could bring blackouts

Policymakers' inconsistent energy approach could bring blackouts
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The Western United States is in the midst of a historic mega-drought. This drought follows last summer’s devastating wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and this past winter’s super-freeze across Oklahoma and Texas. 

Many people tie these events to the ongoing climate crisis, and scientists warn that dramatic weather anomalies will be the rule — not the exception. 

But the U.S. has another human-made crisis that doesn’t get nearly the same attention —at least until the lights go out — an unstable and unreliable electric grid. 

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What once was unthinkable has now become a regular occurrence: The U.S. electric grid has been riddled with blackouts of its own design. In the past year, four different central operators have purposely shut off power to major portions of the grid as a last-ditch effort to conserve energy and avoid cascading outages across entire swaths of the United States. 

The best way to think of it is if you’ve ever driven your car on empty on a hot summer day and purposely turned off your AC to conserve fuel. It might be uncomfortable, but it is far better than getting stranded alongside the highway.  

Unfortunately, recently, it seems like we are always running our proverbial car on empty. Of course, part of this issue is the weather. The Texas power outages this past winter happened during an extreme weather event.  

In the West, last summer’s widespread heat spiked demand while smoke from wildfires hindered solar power production. This led California’s grid operator to purposely blackout customers to avoid a more widespread disaster. Pacific Northwest utilities also declared states of emergency but were, fortunately, able to avoid shutting off customers. 

The fact is, extreme weather is to be expected. While we may not be able to predict the timing, we know severe heat and cold events are increasing in frequency. 

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If that is the case, why isn’t our grid set up to handle them? 

It’s a matter of policy butting heads with the physics of energy. Energy policies may sound good on paper, but they risk failing due to system limitations.

For example, Oregon’s Governor Kate BrownKate BrownNew spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds Oregon mandates masks in schools, state buildings Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe MORE wants the state’s investor-owned utilities to get 100 percent of their energy from clean energy resources, but she also wants to breach the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington state. If these goals seem at odds, it’s because they are. 

On a combined basis, these dams can regularly generate up to five times the energy of Oregon’s recently retired Boardman coal-fueled power plant during the highest demand winter hours. They can do so for several days in a row, mirroring an extended coldsnap. All of the utility-scale batteries in the United States combined can’t replace the long-duration generating capabilities from just these four dams. 

In a similar way, these dams can be used to fill in the gaps for the ups and downs in wind and solar power production, keeping the grid in perfect balance. Hydropower is truly the Northwest region’s competitive advantage to achieving its electrification and decarbonization goals.

What would happen if we removed these critically important resources? One solar power developer I spoke with shared that achieving the region’s clean energy goals would be next to impossible. 

Understanding considerations like these is why the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine and the International Energy Agency have all released pro-hydropower statements in the past year. 

Going back to our car analogy, whether it's an old school Dodge Ram or a brand-new Tesla Model X, running on empty shouldn’t be part of our energy policy journey. 

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest  RiverPartners — a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower and science-driven solutions to energy in Northwest. Miller has spent almost 30 years in the Northwest energy and utilities industry and established the first successful electricity brokerage business in the U.S.