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To stabilize the climate and avert catastrophic disruption, we must “decarbonize” the economy–particularly our energy and transportation sectors–by mid-century. The electric power system is in many ways the tip of the spear for this decarbonization project. 

The technologies to produce and use clean electric power are relatively well-developed and commercialized now and are relatively diverse compared, say to the transportation and liquid fuel sector.  As the energy system makes greater use of rapid advances in information and communication technology, more pathways emerge on both the demand and supply sides for meeting energy service needs.  And with very rapid progress in vehicle electrification and energy storage technologies, clean electricity can soon be a major part of the strategy for reducing transportation-related emissions.

The Northwest’s electric power system in particular has a big leg up on decarbonization.  Major portions of the system are decarbonized already.  The region’s power supply as a whole is less carbon-intensive than any other part of the U.S. The large base of existing hydropower both anchors the existing low-carbon system and, because it offers operational advantages over large thermal power plants, can serve as a relatively efficient platform for integrating new, intermittent renewables.

A carbon-free electric power system is within practical reach in the relatively near-term. If the entire economy is to be decarbonized by mid-century, the electric power sector in the Pacific Northwest will need to get there by the 2030s.  The Northwest system is already 71% carbon-free.  The major carbon sources in the system are already approaching functional and economic obsolescence; many coal plants are scheduled for retirement already, and none are being built. 

Fossil methane is picking up some of the slack, with dubious climate benefits,[1] but there is little if any legitimate need for new investments in gas power plants or infrastructure.  Existing capacity can serve any foreseeable temporary need to use gas for system balancing.  A diverse array of flexible, low-cost strategies is emerging – including storage, efficiency, load management, smart grids, renewable energy diversity, and scheduling accuracy–to instantaneously balance electric power systems loads and resources.

Clean Power Pathways

Energy efficiency is the foundation of power system decarbonization – reducing the need for new generating capacity overall and significantly improving the economic performance of the energy system.  It is already the region’s second largest electric power “resource,” after hydropower.  Progress in capturing these efficiencies over the last three decades is a strong affirmation of the economic and environmental value of the resource.  Enormous efficiency opportunities remain. 

We expect that renewable electric resources will be the primary focus of any new electric generating capacity needed to achieve decarbonization.[2]  Accelerated progress in financing, deploying, incentivizing, and integrating these technologies is a major decarbonization priority.

Efficiency and renewables can save and deliver the kilowatt-hours we need.  But significant changes in “system” hardware and software are necessary to unlock their full potential.  Grid modernization, smart grids, load management systems, storage solutions, and energy and transmission market reforms are vital and rapidly evolving parts of this “system upgrade.” 

Utilities and their regulators will need to evolve as well, developing financial and regulatory models that reward innovation, protect consumers, and facilitate decarbonization as cleaner energy technologies open the path to more distributed energy systems.


[1] Even low rates of methane leakage largely–or perhaps completely–balance out the advantage of gas over coal due to its lower CO2 production. But “better than coal” is not the appropriate test: even if leakage were not a problem, investment of long-term energy capital in new gas capacity is not consistent with the emission and investment trajectories necessary to meet climate stabilization imperatives.  See: “Key factors for assessing climate benefits of natural gas versus coal electricity generation.”

[2] Nuclear power plays a very limited role in the existing NW system, with only one commercial generating station in the region. New nuclear capacity using existing, commercialized technology is not competitive, nor is it being contemplated. New nuclear technology platforms are in the experimental stages, as are many other renewable energy technologies. While further innovation is welcome and needed, our focus here will be primarily on deployment and operationalization of technologies and systems that have a reasonably clear sightline to commercialization. 


 

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