Rebuttal: Let’s Talk about the Real Cost of Your Energy


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.

Marc Sullivan
Marc Sullivan
Marc Sullivan is Western Washington Coordinator for the Save Our Salmon Coalition. He previously worked for Seattle City Light, first as director of City Light’s award-winning energy conservation division and then as the utility’s director of strategic and power supply planning. He lives near Sequim.


  1. Marc
    Thank you for your helpful assessment of the current and future energy situation in the PNW. Fills in the gaps in Bruce Ramsey’s piece and is a good reminder of how well our region is doing bringing on renewable carbon free energy production. Seems like every few years there are warnings about our lack of new energy plants. Calling for nukes, natural gas or other expensive and unsustainable energy plants. Meanwhile renewables and conservation keep stepping up to deliver more cost effective alternatives.

  2. In response to what he calls my August 3 “scare story” about the cost of a green energy future, Marc Sullivan offers assurances that it will turn out fine. He also has an agenda: He is speaking for the Save Our Salmon Coalition, which wants to take away the four lower Snake River dams. He objects to my term “rip out” the dams — which was what the plan used to be. The new plan, he says, is to dig channels around the dams, leaving them stranded. Maybe that’s an improvement. It would be cheaper.
    He also says it doesn’t help that I treat “the words ‘rates’ and ‘bills’ as synonymous or interchangeable.” I don’t. My story is about rates. The word “bills” was in the headline, written by the editor. The headline is, however, accurate. It’s simple arithmetic: If your rates are going up, and the average usage of electric power is going to double (which is what the official forecast implies) your bills are going up by a lot. And in his first sentence, Sullivan concedes, “That’s almost certainly true.”
    What is our dispute, then? Sullivan wants to argue that the cost of solar power has come down so much in the past 15 years that our increased spending on electricity will be largely offset by not spending on gasoline and natural gas. Of course, he doesn’t know what the cost of fossil fuels will be, and I don’t, either. Oil is expensive now because Russia and Venezuela are largely out of the market.
    Sullivan is careful not to say that in an all-electric future, our total energy bills will be lower. He argues, in effect, that they won’t be higher by enough to worry about. Maybe. Solar has come down sharply in price. According to an Energy Department study published in 2022, the cost per kilowatt of utility-scale solar is now cheaper than wind, hydro, nuclear or coal with carbon capture, even if you include battery storage (which will be necessary). It looks as if much of the nation’s new power generation, maybe most of it, will be solar, which supplies less than 5 percent of the country’s electricity now.
    That will be a wonderful thing, but note: the Energy Department study compares the cost of new solar with new wind, new hydro, new coal, and new nuclear. Seattle City Light (and City Light was the focus of my article) is mostly a distributor of old hydro — power from the Skagit dams, the Boundary Dam, and federal dams, including the Snakes. Old hydro is cheap, not because the dams were cheap to build — they weren’t — but because most of them were built 75 years ago.
    To minimize cost per kilowatt, a utility-scale solar plant would have to be built where the sun is strong, the skies are clear and land is cheap. Think the high desert country of Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California, which is where big solar projects are now. You can pencil out a project and say, “We could do this.” And we could — but consider that all the other utilities in the West will be wanting to do it, too. The stewards of that desert land will be in a position to make demands. Recall the reaction in the Pacific Northwest when Californians wanted a share of Columbia River water: To heck with them! Get your own damn water! Now we’re wanting to get our power from their deserts. Envision a battle between their environmentalists and ours.
    I’m not saying a solar future can’t be done. Probably it will be done, but at 21st century costs and after negotiations, lawsuits, and political grandstanding, because that’s how things get done these days. Also, to move the new electric power, new interstate transmission lines will have to be built, and at the local end, new substations, transformers, power-management systems, etc.
    Sullivan cites some of these things at the end of his piece, then brushes them aside. “If those challenges are met – and they can and must be – our energy future is far brighter than Ramsey imagines,” he concludes. I didn’t say the future wasn’t bright; I just said it would be expensive. And if you start breaching dams to save fish — and would you stop at four? — you’ll be making it more expensive.

  3. Mr Sullivan is wrong on 2 accounts:

    1. “Are there enough new resources out there to meet growing demand in a rapidly decarbonizing economy? The answer is a robust Yes! ?

    2. “We can affordably meet our energy needs with carbon-free power sources.”

    As for #1: Where are the new required mineral resources to build the machines? The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that we should be seeing a huge expansion in the mining of copper, lithium, and the suite of rare earth metals required to build the machines for a “Net Zero” economy.
    And it’s not a mining expansion of just by 10% or even 50%, but by hundreds of percentage points. We’re hardly seeing any increase in mining or in mining investments. And given the amounts required, it’s just simply not realistic to think we’re going to get them all from the existing sources – Chile, Argentina, Australia, China, and Africa. And then where will all the ore be refined? China, perhaps, as we continue to bicker with them over international issues?
    Where are all the new mines that will take 15 years to dig and come on line? It’s going to require the largest expansion in mining in human history. This will be expensive.

    As for #2: Solar and wind are intermittent sources that require batteries. The idea being to store energy during sunny months to use during cloudy months.
    The Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based energy policy think tank, recently found that for California to meet its current goals, it will need 36.3 million mega-watt hours of battery storage capacity. Current prices for big battery packs are running around $200 per kWh. Do the math to find that the 36.3 million MWH for a California will cost $7.2 trillion. (That’s with a T!). And just go ahead and cut that in half if you believe the cost batteries will come down.
    Contrast these numbers with California’s state budget which is somewhere around $200 Billion (With a B!). Clearly, building the renewable generation and the storage necessary to reach California’s goals would drive up consumer energy costs exponentially.

    And the same will be true for Washington State, just at a different scale.


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