By Paul Roberts / For The Herald
Effectively responding to climate change requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible by phasing out consumption of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. This in turn requires transitioning to a zero-emission economy based on renewable energy: hydropower, wind, solar and nuclear. It represents a sea-change in how we generate and consume energy, and a rewiring of our energy infrastructure. The result will be electrifying almost everything and managing electrons through peaks and valleys of supply and demand.
In the U.S. and developed world, electricity is provided primarily by public and private electric utilities. The Snohomish County Public Utility District serves Everett and Snohomish County. It is the second largest public utility in Washington state and 12th largest in the nation in terms of customers served. The PUD serves morethan 373,000 customers — more than 850,000 people — covering 2,200 square miles.
The transition to a clean energy zero-emission economy brings new challenges for electric utilities effecting supply, demand operations and finance. The devil is in the details and the PUD has been paying attention to the details for years, developing practical responses to challenges and changing circumstances including: changes in supply and demand, increasing demand for clean carbon-free energy, conservation, risk management, technology and cyber security, finance and workforce training. Space limits discussion of all these activities. But let’s consider some of the more prominent examples.
Supply: Transitioning to zero-emission renewable clean energy is a major focus and a complex challenge for utility planners in the U.S. and around the world. The planning horizon is 2050 (26 years from now) with a target of zero emissions by that date. Utilities must make investment decisions today to meet these supply and demand targets by 2050. That time frame generally corresponds with financing capital projects through debt instruments often running 25 years into the future.
Snohomish PUD owns and operates hydro projects generating about 7 percent of its total energy supply. The remainder is purchased in the marketplace, from Bonneville Power Administration (over 76 percent), wind (6.5 percent) and other sources. Washington’s electricity is among the cleanest, most sustainable in the world, generated primarily from BPA hydropower and renewables. The PUD’s power supply is already 97 percent carbon free.
Demand: The demand profile for electricity is rapidly changing in response to climate change, decarbonizing the grid and technology. Transportation is among the fastest growing sectors for increased demand, providing charging capacity and infrastructure for electric cars, trucks, buses and commuter rail. Transportation is not the only source of growing demand, but it is a relatively new one. Still, today it represents a small percentage of overall demand.
Demand is also increasing in more traditional sectors such as residential, commercial and industrial uses driven by population and employment growth. Also, rising temperatures will increase energy demand for heating, ventilation and air conditioning capacity in homes and buildings.
Technology is a game changer effecting efficiency in balancing supply and demand in ways that are rapidly evolving. In addition, cybersecurity is a growing concern associated with all aspects of utility operations and technology.
Snohomish PUD maintains internal management systems that actively monitor and respond to developments that affect demand and operations in real time and into the future. Its staff are looking over the horizon in areas that support operations and resiliency including: demand, supply, technology, disruptions including climate-driven weather and fire events increasing in frequency and intensity, risk management, workforce training and finance.
Increasing resiliency and storage capacity: There are peaks and valleys in supply and demand of electricity. Solar and wind production vary depending on availability of sunlight and wind. Likewise, demand for electricity varies depending on time of use and weather conditions. Providing appropriate storage and distribution capacity requires modernization of infrastructure responding to variability of supply and demand.
The PUD has been exploring these issues for years and recently developed the Arlington Microgrid project. In partnership with the University of Washington, this project is studying the economics of microgrids, energy storage and solar energy in the Pacific Northwest.
Advanced Metering Infrastructure: The PUD is upgrading to advanced metering technologies such as Connect Up to improve energy conservation, management and security; and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). Connect Up and AMI will support energy efficiency, manage energy usage, improve security, instantly report outages and support cheaper rates for clean energy including electric vehicle charging.
Workforce training: All utilities are responding to an aging workforce. The challenges are two-fold. First, an aging workforce means losing experienced employees to retirements. Second, the skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce are different than today’s. Snohomish PUD has invested in recruitment and training facilities in Arlington.
Successfully transitioning to a zero-emission economy is transforming the way utilities do business. There are no road maps to show the way. Climate change teaches us that history is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. Utility management in this environment is like kayaking in white water; unpredictable, constantly changing and complex.
Snohomish PUD has embraced these challenges, incorporating them into the culture of the organization. Perhaps the PUD’s most important asset is a commitment to continuous improvement, looking over the horizon, and protecting the interests of customers and ratepayers as they navigate through the uncertainties of providing clean energy in a warming world. The batteries in their crystal ball are fully charged.
Paul Roberts is retired and lives in Everett. His career spans over five decades in infrastructure, economics and environmental policy including advising Washington cities on climate change and past chair of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Board of Directors.
“Eco-nomics” is a series of articles exploring issues at the intersection of climate change and economics. Climate change (global warming) is caused by greenhouse gas emissions — carbon dioxide and methane chiefly — generated by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels and agricultural practices. Global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. Successfully responding to this threat requires urgent actions — clear plans and actionable strategies — to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate-influenced events.
The Eco-nomics series is focusing on mitigation and adaptation strategies viewed through the twin perspectives of science and economics. The series will return in January.
Find links to the series thus far at tinyurl.com/HeraldEco-nomics.