Commentary: California blackouts a warning for the Northwest

The peak electrical demand that hydropower supplies relies on the dams on the lower Snake River.

By Kurt Miller / For The Herald

Last Friday, California experienced its first stage -3 electrical emergency since the western energy crisis devastated the region 20 years ago. The state’s grid operator had no choice but to purposely black out areas because it didn’t have the energy capacity to provide power to everyone.

Because the western grid is interconnected, even Northwest utilities struggled to keep the lights on this past week, as wholesale market prices in Oregon and Washington jumped to $1,000 per megawatt-hour or more; roughly 50 times the normal price.

In response to the rolling blackouts that left millions without power, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom called for an investigation Monday morning: “These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state.”

But, ironically, the state’s grid operator had issued such warnings; and not on just one occasion. Steve Berberich, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator stated: “We have indicated in filing after filing after filing that the resource adequacy program was broken and needed to be fixed. The situation we are in could have been avoided.”

The disconnect between technical experts and policy leaders is unfortunately all too common and has some serious implications for the Pacific Northwest.

This past fall, the Northwest Power Pool held a 400-person conference of utility experts who warned of the lack of resource adequacy — simplified, the ability to meet energy demands — for the Pacific Northwest.

Also, a recent federal report showed that breaching the lower Snake River dams would likely double the already high threat of regional blackouts. Despite these warnings, some elected officials, such as Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, continue to advocate for these drastic actions.

It’s notable that the lower Snake River dams produced close to 1,000 MW per hour of power over the peak hours of California’s recent shortage. At times, over 7,000 MW were flowing into California from the Northwest; enough to power roughly five million homes.

While it’s difficult to track the exact path that electricity flows, BPA’s data show it produced strong hydropower surpluses. If California had not received the extra power provided by the Northwest’s hydropower system, the blackouts could have been much more severe.

The event that triggered California’s recent blackouts was a multi-state heatwave that left the state vulnerable in the early-evening hours as solar power waned. While solar is typically a reliable generator, the timing and presence of cloud cover greatly reduced the available energy.

Scientists tell us that, because of climate change, we will likely see these region-wide heatwaves become more prolonged and frequent.

Even if they don’t result in blackouts, as noted above, energy shortages result in very high prices that utilities pay for electricity. Those higher prices will eventually be passed along to customers.

Higher prices represent a real problem because, due to COVID-19, people are using more energy in their homes, which means significantly higher electricity bills.

From a health perspective, there are also serious concerns. Blackouts and high energy prices have more dire implications due to COVID, because people lack alternatives to cooling their own homes.

Typically, people would have access to cooling centers, malls or movie theaters to get a break from the heat, but many of those options aren’t available due to pandemic precautions. This change has especially dire implications for seniors and minority communities, who are more susceptible to heat related illnesses and to COVID-19.

As policy leaders move to retire coal and natural gas-fueled generation to help reduce our carbon footprint, we must be especially careful to keep the grid reliable and affordable.

For that reason, Northwest RiverPartners continues to champion the hydropower system. It provides our best opportunity to fight climate change while maintaining the integrity of the electric grid for every single one of us who depend on it. As we’re seeing now in California, the consequences are far too dire.

When it comes to our region’s resource adequacy needs, we are providing ample warnings. Will the Northwest elected representatives hear us? We certainly hope so.

Kurt Miller is the executive director for Northwest RiverPartners, a advocacy group for public electrical utilities in the West.

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