Miller: Hydropower needed in fight against climate change
Global warming … climate change … climate crisis.
As the name has evolved over time, so has our understanding of how serious the problem has become. What was once just a theory is now driving policy, technology and our economy.
Around the world, temperatures — especially those in the ocean — are rising faster than most scientific models predicted.
The recently released special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that "the ocean has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system," and it warns of the impacts this has on the abundance of marine life and fish populations, especially in coastal areas.
Given the importance of orcas and salmon to Northwest communities, it comes as no surprise that the region is moving forward with some bold initiatives to address this crisis.
Washington state passed a clean energy bill this year that aims to achieve completely carbon-free electricity by 2045. Cities like Portland and Boise, Idaho, have approved similar initiatives as well.
The move to 100% clean energy is exciting, but also a difficult challenge.
Solar and wind power are very important, but they share a common trait in addition to being renewable: they are intermittent. This means their electricity output fluctuates based on the availability of wind and sunshine.
The challenge for grid operators is that if there is too little or too much power on the grid at any one time, blackouts can occur. The grid must be in near-perfect balance every second. To keep this balance, a controllable source of electricity is needed to fill in the gaps.
One utility in central Washington provides a good example of how the Northwest's strong hydropower base can be paired with wind and solar to achieve a carbon-free future.
Grant County Public Utility District is a nonprofit, community-owned utility that owns and operates two significant hydroelectric dams on the mid-Columbia River.
The population of Grant County, Washington, is small, but the PUD's generation can power a city the size of Portland each year.
Grant's leaders realized that in order to achieve a renewable energy future, solar and wind power are in need of a third, carbon-free partner to provide balance to the grid. This led to their decision in 2005 to lease shares of their hydropower plants.
As Grant's leadership team predicted, the utilities and power companies who buy these shares often use them to balance wind and solar power output.
This strategy has helped the Northwest achieve incremental renewability, bringing in new renewable generation and balancing it in a completely carbon-free way.
Grant PUD serves as just one example among many. The Bonneville Power Administration uses a portion of its hydropower system to help balance over half of the Northwest's approximately 9,000 megawatts of wind generation with its hydropower system.
Policy leaders in the Northwest recognize the need for renewable energy growth in order to achieve our carbon-free goals. While many alarms already have been raised, the new IPCC report is a clear signal that we must get the wheels turning, and fast.
There are still hurdles ahead, and new technologies like large-capacity batteries and hydrogen cells will be important as they continue to develop.
However, the bottom line is that if we are to put up a fight against climate change, we'll need to continue to think creatively and make the most of our current carbon-free resources — and hydropower is an important ally.
Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners.
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