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The Road to Resilience

Harvey and Irma have reminded us that we need to step up the pace in transforming our energy system to carbon-free renewables.  We in the Pacific Northwest have been the fortunate recipients of cheap hydroelectric power for about eighty years.  The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was formed by the Federal Government in 1937 to meter out the power from the newly built Bonneville dam.  Up until that time, our power source was primarily natural gas, and it has been sold to us by Puget Sound Energy since 1873.

Puget Sound Energy buys about 53% of its power from the BPA.  All of it is hydroelectric and is considered renewable although there are environmental issues caused by the damming up of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The remaining power is generated in plants that PSE owns.  About 31 percent is from the four Colstrip coal-fired plants in Montana, of which they are part owners.  About nine percent comes from gas-fired plants that they own in the Puget Sound region.  About five percent comes from their two wind farms in Eastern Washington and the remaining from a nuclear plant and various other sources.  PSE claims to be the second largest owner of wind power facilities in the country.

It is important to remember that PSE is also the state’s largest provider of natural gas.  They buy their gas from a number of sources in British Columbia and in the Rockies.  It is important to note that much of this gas is fracked gas, and in using it, we must take that fact into account as well as the environmental damage caused by burning it.

Puget Sound Energy can rightfully claim that they are one of the leaders in the US in offering renewables to customers.  However, all but six percent is hydroelectric power from the BPA.  On the other hand, 31 percent of the power they generate comes from the four aging Colstrip coal plants in Montana, which are the second dirtiest coal facilities in the country.  The uncompetitive coal plants are losing money, and their fuel source is nearly depleted.  Two of the four Colstrip plants are scheduled for closure in 2022 and the other two were to be paid off and closed by 2027.  Now they would like, instead, to extend the life of those remaining two plants, possibly for another 15 years.  In addition, they would like to replace the contribution of coal to their energy portfolio with new gas-fired plants.

Renewable wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and competitive with gas.  If PSE faces a decision to build new power capacity, why should it not pick renewables?  It is understandable that they would favor a gas-fired plant because they sell gas and are familiar with the technology, but we are at a point where we need to transition to renewables as fast as possible.  If an investment in renewables would be roughly equivalent to an investment in gas, why not choose renewables?   

In January 2017, PSE filed for a rate increase with the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission to pay for maintaining aging assets, and for decommissioning and environmental remediation of the Colstrip plants.  We think it is fair for them to charge us more to decommission the coal plants, but we want them to do it sooner, and we want them to replace them with renewables rather than gas.  About 40 islanders went to each of the rate hearings in Bellevue and then Olympia to express this opinion.  In the Bellevue hearing, which I attended, the testimony was virtually unanimous in favor of an early retirement for the two remaining coal plants and to replace them with renewable energy.  

Now we find that PSE wants to extend a gas pipeline to Tacoma, where they would like to build a liquid natural gas facility to fuel ships at the port.  It makes sense to fuel cargo ships with natural gas instead of oil, as it is much cleaner.  However, it reminds us that PSE is a gas company as well as an electric utility, and that fact might influence what kind of energy production facility they may want to invest in.

PSE offers us many options for improving our personal carbon footprint.  In the Green Power program, we have the option of paying a bit more and receiving all or part of our energy from renewables.  Obviously, the electricity we each use all comes from the same source, though some accounting trick along the way must attribute some funds for expansion or maintenance of renewable facilities.  There is no explanation of how, or even if, that actually happens.

In the Solar Choice program, we can invest directly in a solar facility somewhere else, or receive net metering for panels on our own house.  

In the Carbon Balance program, you can invest in carbon offsets (usually tree planting) to sequester as much carbon as you are releasing.

PSE also offers discounts and incentives to make our homes more energy efficient.

All of these programs are helpful, but it remains to be seen whether we are moving toward energy sustainability as fast as possible.  We have no real control over what PSE decides to do.  Can our energy utility operate efficiently as a profit-making monopoly, or should it be a public utility?  It behooves us to study this more closely.