The hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who spent days without electricity, due to the recent ice storm, learned firsthand that power outages represent something more than an inconvenience.
If you lose power during a period of extreme cold or heat, lives can be at risk.
It's one thing to know that downed trees are causing you and your neighbors to be without electricity and that local utility crews are working 24/7 to restore it. But, imagine the millions of people in Texas who had their power purposely shut off by the state's grid operator.
A sustained blast of Arctic air spiked the state's heating demand at the same time that natural gas pipelines filled with ice, coal piles froze, and over half of Texas' substantial wind turbine fleet stopped producing electricity, in part due to frozen blades.
As a result, the Texas grid operator had to ration electricity by purposely shutting off supply to different sections of the grid on a rotating basis — also known as rolling blackouts.
Similarly, this past summer, California's grid operator implemented rolling blackouts during an extreme heatwave that coincided with wildfire smoke that reduced solar power production.
Unfortunately, that's how blackouts tend to work — they are most apt to occur when we need electricity the most. In part, this relationship occurs because extreme temperatures put power plants under additional stress, which leads to a higher probability of plant failures.
Intermittent renewables, like wind and solar power tend to be particularly susceptible to regionwide weather events, because they depend on specific types of weather for their fuel.
To help fight climate change and reduce the frequency of related extreme weather events, many policy leaders agree we need to move away from fossil-fueled plants. However, by putting all of our eggs in one basket with wind, solar and batteries, we are left at the mercy of the very events we are trying to prevent.
If we do so, rolling blackouts may become the new normal on a nationwide scale. Given the life and death implications of blackouts during extreme weather, we cannot afford to have a vulnerable grid. Instead, we need to consider a more balanced carbon reduction approach that includes other carbon-free resources.
Recently, notable national and international organizations are urging policy leaders to remember the critical role of hydropower. The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based watchdog, is encouraging a doubling of global investment in sustainable hydropower, calling it renewable energy's forgotten workhorse.
Separately, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, in a recent report, called on Congress to, "(preserve) operating nuclear plants and hydroelectric facilities where possible." The Academies include a social justice framework to make their argument, stating that our existing low-cost carbon-free resources are necessary to keep electricity affordable, or we risk leaving vulnerable communities behind.
In 2020, the Union of Concerned Scientists was part of a larger consortium that acknowledged the critical role that hydropower plays in helping add intermittent renewables to the grid.
Even U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who is advocating breaching the lower Snake River dams in Washington state in an attempt to help struggling salmon populations, acknowledges how important those dams are to the Pacific Northwest. His proposed $33.5 billion package to mitigate their potential loss speaks volumes.
It's important to recognize that there is no perfect form of electricity generation. But, a common-sense approach is to maintain existing hydropower generation wherever possible. It takes a healthy balance of energy sources to meet demand when we need it most.
At a time when we already are struggling to recover the economy and keep our communities safe and healthy, we cannot allow rolling blackouts to become the new normal.
Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for community-owned utilities across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada.
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