Washington state’s Legislature approved a bill this session committing power utilities in the state to provide carbon-free energy by 2045, a move that will force the development of far more green energy capacity than currently exists.
The road map for how to get there is less clear.
The law, called SB 5116, mandates that by 2022, utilities must develop rolling four-year plans for meeting the carbon targets. Electric utilities in the state will be penalized $100 for every megawatt-hour (MWh) used to meet their power loads, with higher penalties for using different types of fossil fuel by 2045. The money collected would be deposited into funds to make buildings more power efficient.
A 2015 survey of greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s Department of Ecology found that electricity accounted for nearly 20 percent of emissions in the state, just under the roughly 21 percent generated from houses, commercial buildings and industrial uses. Combined, these two sources are still less than the 42.5 percent that come from the state’s transportation sector being pumping from commuters’ tailpipes.
But to address transportation through electric vehicles, the state first needs carbon-free electricity, said Nives Dolsak, environmental professor at the University of Washington.
“The move to clean up electricity is extremely important,” Dolsak said. “This will allow us to tackle emissions from the transportation sector, which is a lot more difficult.”
Dolsak and her colleague Aseem Prakash study how climate change interacts with public policy. Moving away from burning fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, is the easy part with transportation being a more difficult goal. Reducing those emissions from transportation will be the next big challenge facing the state, Dolsak said.
“Electricity was the easier one,” Prakash said. “But it’s an important place to start.”
Boosting energy production
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were nearly 116 million MWh generated for Washington state in 2017, with around 92 million MWh being sold. The majority of the energy in the state is generated by hydroelectric dams, a renewable resource.
The Washington State Department of Commerce tracks the state’s electric fuel mixture and showed in 2017 that nearly 68 percent came from hydroelectric generation, followed by around 13 percent from coal and roughly 11 percent from natural gas. Nuclear power made up around 4 percent and wind comprised just under 3 percent. Other sources of power such as solar or biomass accounted for a fraction of the state’s total energy portfolio.
In order to reach a carbon-free grid, nearly a quarter of electricity in the state must be converted from fossil fuel to alternative forms of power generation.
The Department of Commerce is the lead energy agency in the state, but the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is also looking at ways to leverage its lands to boost energy production. DNR commissioner Hilary Franz said one large solar project in south Central Washington, run by Avangrid Renewables under contract to provide energy to Puget Sound Energy (PSE), is already up and running. A second project was approved at the end of May, and together, Franz hopes they will generate around 500 megawatts (MW).
The state is looking at auctioning off more than 30 properties in five Central Washington counties to be used for renewable energy facilities such as solar or wind farms. These could not only boost carbon-free energy for utilities across the region, including PSE, which serves the Eastside, but they could increase energy capacity and also send more money to counties in the state.
“We see this as a triple win. It’s a win for the environment moving to cleaner sources of energy production, it’s a win for the economy because there are jobs, but there’s also more of an energy resiliency for the community,” Franz said.
Money generated by state-owned DNR land is used to fund counties that provide services such as schools, police and fire services. Many of the plots that the DNR is looking at leasing currently generate little or no revenue. Some plots were being used as livestock grazing lands like the Avangrid site. If these are developed into energy farms, it could increase per-acre revenue from a few dollars to between $300 to $1,400, and provide more money for county services in Washington state, Franz said.
The DNR is additionally beginning to treat some 2.7 million acres of diseased and dead forestland to reduce wildfires. Around 155,000 acres should be treated by the end of next year by removing dead and diseased trees,which can be used in wood products. This process will likely create a lot of biomass waste, which could be burned to generate energy.
Power utilities like PSE are exploring ways to eliminate fossil fuel from their power portfolio, said David Mills, PSE’s vice president of policy and energy supply.
“We are already well on our way,” he said. “Today we have about 800MW of renewable wind that’s owned and operated within our system as well as the hydro generation we have,” he said.
PSE currently relies much more heavily on coal and natural gas than the state average, pulling in around 28 percent of its portfolio from coal and 21 percent from natural gas. Using coal to power utilities will become illegal in 2025, the date when PSE plans to shutter the last remaining coal power plant in Washington near Centralia. The portion of the ColStrip Power Plant in Billings, Montana, that is owned by PSE will be closed by 2022, Mills said.
On top of this, state law requires utilities to provide 15 percent of their portfolio from renewables by 2020.
“Right now the initial plan is we’re going to embark on cleaning up the entire portfolio, replacing coal with renewables,” Mills said.
Part of this will be made up by a 170MW wind farm in Lewis County as well as the Avangrid solar project. PSE’s total power portfolio is around 3,500MW of capacity. Power utilities are barred by state law from raising power customer rates by more than 2 percent each year, Mills said. How quickly PSE increases its renewable power portfolio could come down to an issue of keeping rate increases below that instead of renewable energy availability.
Mills said he expects renewable energy developers to increase the number of projects, including water pump storage and wind and solar farms in coming years to keep up with demand from utilities.
Increases in energy storage technology will also be needed. Energy capacity can be stored with hydroelectric generation by using energy stored by expending it to power pumps, moving water to large reservoirs, which can then be released to regenerate power when needed. For other types of renewable energy such as solar or wind, power utilities will need to either be able to quickly ship power across the country using power grid infrastructure that doesn’t exist, or build large batteries, a technology that is still being developed.
“Battery technology is going to have to be a pretty significant centerpiece,” Mills said.
Prakash and Dolsak are less optimistic that power utilities will immediately switch away from power sources like coal to renewables. Instead, they said utilities will likely switch to natural gas until that becomes unusable in Washington state. Lawmakers also need to be drafting plans on where further renewable energy projects will be located, they said. Both solar and wind farms can only be located in areas where those resources are already available, often in Central Washington.
“Those are the details that seem to be missing as of now, but I’m sure they will come up,” Dolsak said.
Lawmakers should “go beyond soundbites” and examine the land use trade-offs of how and where to build renewable energy resources, Prakash said. SB 5116 marks an important first step, and one which needs to be successful, they said.
“It’s going to help us clean up the transportation, which for us in Washington state is a bigger challenge, so I don’t mean to sound negative at all,” Dolsak said. “In climate change we need successes, and it’s important for this to work out.”
One way to address pollution from transportation is to transition to electric vehicles. However, this will also increase the burden on the electric grid. Mills said PSE showed in one of its planning scenarios that electric vehicles could suck up 10 percent of electricity consumed in their service area.
Power grid infrastructure in Western Washington will likely need to be upgraded as well to keep up with both increasing populations and electric vehicles.