Post Alley contributor Bruce Ramsey’s August 3 scare story warns that, “Your Electricity Bills will be Going Up (A Lot!)” That’s almost certainly true, but it’s less than half the story.
On the flip side, if you transition from a gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicle to an electric vehicle, while your electricity consumption, and bill, will go up, your costs for fossil fuel for your ride will decline to zero. If you transition from using natural gas for space and water heating or cooking to using electricity, your electric bill will go up, but your cost for natural gas will decline to zero.
The real question is whether your total energy costs, for electricity and for fossil fuels, will grow or decline and it’s a question Ramsey addresses tangentially and incompletely. It doesn’t help that he treats the words “rates” and “bills” as synonymous or interchangeable. Seattle City Light customers who have benefited from City Light energy efficiency programs know the difference. Their rate per kilowatt hour may have gone up, but they’re consuming so much less electricity that their bill – their total electricity cost – has gone down, not up.
Where are electricity costs going with widespread adoption of carbon-free renewable resources? In their 2021 regional power plan, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) found that, “To this point, the accelerated addition of renewable generators operating without fuel costs to the power supply has led to lower electricity prices, sometimes crossing below zero during intra-day trading”.
The cost of new wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy has been falling rapidly for years. Between 2009 and 2019, the cost of solar PV power declined by 89%. Over that same decade, onshore wind cost fell by 70%. The even better news is that the cost of new renewable resources and energy storage is forecast to continue to decline for the foreseeable future. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory sees costs of wind, solar PV and hybrid solar and battery storage projects declining at least through 2050.
Ramsey concedes that renewables have become “more competitive” but doesn’t seem to fully grasp the magnitude of the decline in costs. He asserts that “new ‘green’ power, whether solar, wind or nuclear, will not be cheap”. He’s right about nuclear, which is not likely to be remotely as affordable as new renewables, but mistaken about truly green resources.
Meanwhile the 2021 NWPCC power plan suggests that natural gas prices are headed up. Most of the gas used in our region comes from Western Canada. The power plan forecasts that gas prices (in constant dollars) at the Sumas Hub on the U.S./Canada border will experience a slow but steady increase.
Are there enough new resources out there to meet growing demand in a rapidly decarbonizing economy? The answer is a robust Yes! Back in 2020 PacifiCorp, serving electricity customers in seven Western states (including Washington), released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking 4300 megawatts of new energy and capacity to be delivered by 2024. They received 36,000 megawatts in bids. PacifiCorp ended up signing contracts for 4000 megawatts of wind, solar and battery storage at costs significantly below the Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) “priority firm” rate for sales to its public power utility customers. Similarly, in 2021 Puget Sound Energy issued an RFP for 3200 megawatts of new, clean energy and capacity; they received 18,000 megawatts in bids.
And, as the Northwest Energy Coalition noted in a 2022 report, “Another measure of the magnitude of potential resource development is the requests made by resource developers for transmission service (often called a transmission queue) for BPA, PacifiCorp, and other investor-owned utilities. These requests include over 100,000 MW of wind, solar and storage projects that are seeking access to the federal and regional transmission system. BPA’s interconnection queue alone accounted for half of these resources.”
It doesn’t help Ramsey’s analysis that he’s got some basic facts wrong. He asserts that City Light “…gets 86 percent of its energy from hydro, about half of that from its three dams on the Skagit River, and the rest from the Bonneville Power Administration”. In fact, City light’s Boundary Dam, on the Pend Oreille River in NE Washington, produces twice as much power as the three Skagit dams combined.
Ramsey also mischaracterizes calls to restore a free-flowing lower Snake River, to help recover threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs. His take is that, “…environmentalists and the tribes are pushing to rip out the Lower Monumental, Ice Harbor, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams on the lower Snake River.” Northwest Tribes — the People of the Salmon — have led this campaign, calling recovery of abundant, harvestable runs a treaty obligation of the U.S. Government. Conservationists, alongside commercial and recreational fishermen and the business that supply and depend on the fishing economy, stand with the Tribes.
I don’t think it’s nitpicking to note that rather than “rip out” the lower Snake dams, what’s proposed is breaching the earthen berms that join the concrete lock and dam structure to the bank; that’s enough to create a channel for a naturally flowing Snake River. And supporters of a free-flowing lower Snake have been clear: the services the dams now provide – energy, irrigation and barge transportation — must be replaced.
Ramsey’s also right about some things. There will be real challenges in siting and permitting new renewable resources and storage technology and the transmission to get that energy to load centers. It doesn’t help that BPA, owner of 75% of the long-distance, high-voltage transmission in the region, is exhibiting a real lack or vision and urgency in doing their part to develop needed transmission.
And he’s also right that there are equity issues in the transition to a decarbonized economy. We must make sure that the transition is affordable for all.
If those challenges are met – and they can and must be – our energy future is far brighter than Ramsey imagines. We can help to slow, halt, and eventually reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. We can affordably meet our energy needs with carbon-free power sources. And we can restore those abundant, harvestable runs of salmon and steelhead – central to Northwest culture and economy for millennia. We can bring people and communities across the Northwest forward together.