Comment: Hydropower crucial to a future for electric vehicles

If we hope to switch to EVs, we’ll need the charging stations and electricity on which they run.

By Kurt Miller / For The Herald

President Biden, as part of the American Jobs Act, has proposed $174 billion of government spending to help win the electric vehicle market. The plan calls for $100 billion in new customer rebates and $15 billion dedicated to new electric vehicle charging stations.

As a former manager of transportation electrification at Portland General Electric, I’d actually like to see those two numbers reversed or at least evened out a bit. Affordability of EVs has been improving for years, but the charging infrastructure remains a mess.

Tesla has its own proprietary network of chargers across the United States, but the remainder of U.S. charging stations are operated by a hodgepodge of owners, with different equipment standards and inconsistent models for pricing and payment. And, to put it politely, they are also plagued by erratic maintenance practices.

It isn’t at all uncommon to see one or multiple stations out of service at a single site. Imagine taking a long road trip only to find that your last chance for gasoline had been boarded up.

Even if the charging stations are in good working order, EV owners complain they are too scarce, especially in rural areas. Also, the lack of charging stations at many apartment complexes leaves out a major portion of the population. Before policymakers encourage or even require car owners to buy EVs, it’s clear that much-improved infrastructure needs to be in place.

But there is another piece of critical infrastructure policymakers need to consider: electricity. In the Northwest, we’re dramatically decreasing our reliable electricity supply at the same time we’re preparing for an EV revolution that will place new demands on the power grid.

The Northwest is in the process of shuttering its significant coal-fueled generation fleet, years ahead of schedule, to help fight climate change. While this move is great for providing EVs with a cleaner fuel mix, it has also led to many predictions of region-wide blackouts over the next one-to-five years in the Pacific Northwest.

While such predictions may have seemed unfathomable just a year ago, we’ve seen two major energy emergencies — in California and Texas — in less than a year. Policymakers have predicted climate change will lead to more frequent extreme events that will continue to test the electric grid.

The demands on the grid won’t likely stop with EVs either. Several West Coast cities have voted for the elimination of natural gas in all homes and buildings as a heating source, which will shift even more demand to electricity.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called on Congress to preserve operating nuclear power and hydropower facilities wherever possible. This call seems particularly wise in light of our changing resource mix.

On the plus side, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council believes that once we get through the next few years, the Pacific Northwest will be able to use its flexible hydropower system in new ways to advance our clean energy infrastructure.

The council’s modeling indicates that a planned massive buildout of solar power in California and the Desert Southwest will lead a new paradigm where the Northwest backs off its hydropower production during daylight hours, and then exports energy when solar power isn’t available, like on cloudy days or during the evening and nighttime hours. Hydropower’s storage capabilities will save billions of dollars by diminishing the need to build untold numbers of utility-scale batteries. The ability to minimize battery buildout is also important, because doing so reduces the need to mine for lithium and rare earth minerals, and it eases the competition for battery resources that our EVs rely on, helping to lower costs.

The critical point is that the nation’s future electrification efforts depend on having the right infrastructure in place to ensure a reliable fuel supply for our cars, homes and communities. With hydropower producing 90 percent of the Northwest’s renewable electricity, it is a reliable and crucial piece of the puzzle that demands our support.

Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners

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