The Impact of Plug-in Vehicles, Data Centers, and More

posted Nov 19, 2014

Outback solar facility near Christmas Valley, Oregon

The Council’s power committee met recently to hear about energy trends for plug-in electric vehicles, data centers, utility-scale solar energy, and combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plants. The information will help in developing its Seventh Power Plan.

Plug-in electric vehicles are proving popular in the Northwest, particularly in urban areas of Washington and Oregon, but less so in Idaho and Montana compared to assumptions in the Sixth Plan.

Through 2035, electric vehicles are expected to represent 10-35 percent of new vehicle sales in Oregon and Washington, and about half that in Idaho and Montana, a slight reduction from the Sixth Plan assumptions, said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis. By 2035, demand from these vehicles should be 150-600 average megawatts — small compared to total regional demand, but significant.

Charging electric vehicles varies depending on the time of day. During on-peak (highest demand) times of the day — typically early morning and early evening — the anticipated demand increases from less than 5 average megawatts today to about 30 by 2035. The biggest impact is during off-peak hours when demand is low, such as overnight. That demand is anticipated to increase from less than 100 average megawatts to more than 1,000 by 2035, Jourabchi said.

In general, electric vehicles are three to four times more efficient than gasoline powered vehicles. The cost of electricity per mile driven and assumptions about future sales of electric vehicles will be lower in the Seventh Plan than in the Sixth.

Data centers continue to proliferate, particularly in commercial buildings where they serve a specific business or organization. These embedded data centers, and large ones built by Apple, Google, will consume about 800 average megawatts of electricity this year; about 300 of that from the embedded centers. That total could grow to about 1,340 average megawatts by 2035, based on current assumptions.

Utility-scale solar energy technology continues to improve in both energy-efficiency and cost, said Steve Simmons, energy analyst. It’s a growing power source in the Southwest, attractive because it doesn't consume fossil fuels and has no emissions. Solar has a limited presence in the Northwest, although development may soon increase significantly in Southern Idaho, which probably is the best solar energy area in the region.

Solar power is variable both seasonally and daily. For instance, unexpected cloud cover can dampen expected generation, so it needs to be integrated with other, more flexible power sources. Though utility-scale solar power has relatively high up-front costs, these have been declining rapidly. A forecast of future cost declines will be part of the Seventh Plan.

Combined-cycle gas turbines are a mature technology that continues to improve in efficiency and performance. When hydropower is in short supply, power from combined-cycle plants is an especially valuable resource for the region.

Currently, there is a plentiful supply of low-cost gas so the near-term cost estimates for plants are stable. But the 20-year planning horizon is highly uncertain, as future costs will depend on the supply and price of gas and hydropower conditions. While a downside to combined-cycle plants is their carbon emissions, new plant emissions are expected to be within proposed EPA regulations.

Council Approves Projects for Steelhead Kelts and Freshwater Cod

posted Nov 19, 2014

Conducting an ultrasound of a steelhead. Photo: Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Two projects that aim to improve survival of steelhead and burbot the upper Columbia River Basin are moving ahead.

This month the Council approved continued funding of a project that proposes to recondition steelhead after they have spawned to take advantage of their unique life-history trait. Unlike other salmon, steelhead are capable of spawning a second time. Fish that do this are called kelts.

Yakama Nation fish biologists are leading the project, which involves capturing steelhead after they spawn the first time, holding them for six to 10 months — approximating a return to the ocean — releasing them to spawn a second time, and then monitoring their contribution to the abundance of the naturally spawning stock

Meanwhile in Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, the Colville Confederated Tribes are working to gain a better understanding of the burbot population, which is thought to be small but sustainable. Burbot are a freshwater variety of cod. The project involves monitoring the status of burbot to better understand when and where to allow anglers to catch the fish.

Why We Plan for Uncertainty

posted Nov 19, 2014


The Council’s power plans begin with the premise that the future is uncertain and we can’t really predict what will happen. Managing that risk is central to the Council’s approach to resource planning. Prior to the Council’s formation, this wasn’t always the case. 

Until the Council’s first plan, utility resource planning was based on a single forecast of the region’s most likely energy demand. Resources that took 10 to 15 years to build were planned and constructed to that best guess. If the future turned out differently, the region faced the problem of either having underbuilt or overbuilt resources, and the cost of error on either side was enormous. 

The Northwest has experienced both situations. The most serious case of over-building occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when the region embarked on a path to build several new thermal plants, including five nuclear power plants in the state of Washington. The economic backlash from this disastrous planning failure resulted in unprecedented increases in Bonneville Power Administration electricity rates totaling 418 percent between 1978 and 1984. 

The opposite situation arose in the mid-1990s when exceptionally low market prices, coupled with a series of above average water years, led Northwest utilities to depend too much on the spot market to meet loads. When California’s ill-fated deregulation effort coincided with a severe Northwest drought in 2000-2001, West Coast electricity market prices spiked to stratospheric heights that averaged more than $700 per megawatt hour over an entire month, compared to around $30 per megawatt hour in the prior years. Again, electricity ratepayers paid the price with significantly higher rates. 

There are many unknowns when it comes to energy planning, and 30 years later, a lot has changed. Growing renewable generation, technological advances, and initiatives to lower carbon emissions all add to this complex planning exercise: How much will loads grow or decline over the next 20 years? What mix of new low-cost resources will best meet the region’s needs?  What is the cost and risk of constructing those resources? How much cost-effective energy efficiency is available to meet a portion of the region’s load growth? What will happen with wholesale electricity prices in the future? 

To manage these uncertainties, the Council’s plan strives to identify a resource strategy that will ensure a reliable and economical power supply. The plan also includes flexible resources like low-cost energy efficiency, which plays a critical role in protecting the region from the danger of overbuilding or underbuilding the power supply. 

As Power Division Director Tom Eckman put it recently, “We have a Goldilocks problem: We don’t want too many resources and we don’t want too few resources; we want just the right amount.”

The Council uses a planning model to evaluate how well a resource would perform under various conditions. The regional portfolio model analyzes different portfolios to understand their cost and risk tradeoffs across a large number of potential futures. It may also be used to test various policy propositions, such as strategies for reducing carbon emissions from the power system. 

Throughout the planning process, the Council relies on participation from a wide variety of stakeholders—utilities, public interest groups, and state agencies and commissions—to give their perspectives and to vet the analyses. 

It’s a rigorous process. In the end, it’s a journey of discovery the region takes to develop a plan that offers the best insurance, not just for a prosperous future, but for a secure future, too.

Research: Salmon disappearing, sea lions increasing

posted Nov 5, 2014 by John Harrison

Sea lions crowd a walkway at a mooring basin in Astoria

If the circumstantial evidence bears out, adult salmon returning from the ocean to the Columbia River Basin are being killed by seals and sea lions between the estuary and Bonneville Dam in alarming numbers, according to research by NOAA Fisheries.

Preliminary results of research that began in 2010 show a steady increase in fish mortality over a five-year period that may be attributable to seals and sea lions. Adjusted for other mortality factors, average spring Chinook salmon survival was just 55 percent in 2014, down from 69 percent in 2013 and 82 percent in 2012. If the estimate represents the run at large, this means about 45 percent of the 2014 spring Chinook run died somewhere between the mouth of the river and Bonneville Dam.

“Even I have a hard time believing those numbers, but at least through 2013, estimates of fish mortality do fall within theoretical estimates of predation,” lead researcher Dr. Michelle Wargo-Rub of the Seattle-based Northwest Fisheries Science Center told the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee in November.

She said fish mortality, and the number of sea lions in the estuary, have increased dramatically in recent years. NOAA research focuses on spring Chinook because the run coincides with when the sea lion population is largest in the river.

Mostly males, the sea lions follow the spring-returning fish between March and May. Most of the sea lions then go to breeding grounds off southern California in the summer.

Dr. Wargo-Rub and her research team catch and tag salmon in the estuary near Astoria. More than 2,200 salmon have been tagged since the research project began, and of those about 68 percent were determined by genetic testing to be destined for the river and tributaries above Bonneville.

Survival varies over the course of the run, Dr. Wargo-Rub said. It appears that a higher proportion of early-migrating fish die before reaching Bonneville Dam since they take longer to reach the dam and are exposed to potential predators for a longer time.

Committee Chair Phil Rockefeller, a Washington member of the Council, said that even if the 2014 numbers are adjusted, “the trend is such that we have a growing predation problem.” He pointed out that the Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program calls on federal agencies to use their authority to address the problem.

Committee member Bill Booth of Idaho, called the research results disturbing.

“When the region is directing more than half a billion dollars a year to fish and wildlife recovery and nearly half of the spring run is being consumed by seals and sea lions, then we definitely have a problem.”

Why We Have a Regional Power Plan

posted Oct 29, 2014


What is the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and why is it writing its Seventh Northwest Power Plan?

The Council was authorized by Congress 1980 when it passed the Northwest Power Act, giving the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington a greater voice in how we plan our energy future and manage natural resources.

Congress created the Council partly in reaction to the region’s disastrous decision to build five nuclear power plants in the state of Washington in the 1970s. The decision was based in part on inaccurate Northwest electricity load forecasts. Only one of the plants, the currently operating Columbia Generating Station, was ever completed. Due to exorbitant cost overruns, the other four plants were abandoned or mothballed prior to completion.

Two of the unfinished plants were responsible for one of the largest bond defaults in the history of the nation, while the financing for the other three plants was backed by the Bonneville Power Administration. Even today, more than 30 years after the Northwest Power Act was enacted, BPA pays millions of dollars a year on debt service for two of the unfinished nuclear plants. And, from 1978 to 1984, BPA was forced to raise its rates by 418 percent (adjusted for inflation) to pay for the cost of these plants. Congress concluded that an independent agency, without a vested interest in selling electricity, should be responsible for forecasting the region’s electricity load growth and determining which resources should be built.

One of the Council’s primary responsibilities, along with the fish and wildlife program, is to write a 20-year, least-cost power plan for the Pacific Northwest and update it at least every five years. The plan includes several key provisions, including an electricity demand forecast, electricity and natural gas price forecasts, an assessment of the amount of cost-effective energy efficiency that can be acquired over the life of the plan, and a least-cost generating resources portfolio. The plan guides BPA’s resource decision-making to meet its customers’ electricity load requirements.

Congress concluded back in 1980 that energy efficiency should be the priority energy resource for meeting the region’s future load growth, a decision that even today rings boldly. The Act includes a provision that directs the Council to give priority to cost-effective energy efficiency, followed by cost-effective renewable resources. In effect, for the first time in history, energy efficiency was deemed to be a legitimate source of energy, on par with generating resources. The rest is history. Since the release of the Council’s first Northwest Power Plan in 1983, the region’s utilities have acquired the equivalent of more than 5,600 average megawatts of electricity, enough savings to power five cities the size of Seattle.

The Council is now working to update the Northwest Power Plan for the seventh time. The new plan is expected to be completed in late 2015. 


Estimating Energy Efficiency

posted Oct 24, 2014

Seventh Power Plan 101

posted Oct 6, 2014

Weathering a Cold Snap

posted Jan 17, 2014 by Carol Winkel

The Seventh Power Plan

posted Dec 11, 2013 by Carol Winkel

Designing for Efficiency

posted Nov 12, 2013 by John Harrison

The Flexibility Challenge

posted Oct 30, 2013 by Carol Winkel

Northwest Q & A: Robert D. Kahn

posted Oct 29, 2013

Tagging Sturgeon in Astoria

posted Aug 22, 2013

Habitat Tours Focus on Results

posted May 31, 2013

Sustainability Is Success

posted May 29, 2013

A Last Look at Condit Dam

posted Oct 24, 2011

Changing Minds, Changing the Land

posted Jul 26, 2011

Wind Power, Then and Now

posted Apr 18, 2011

The Rebound Effect: Is It Real?

posted Feb 1, 2011

An Update on Didymo

posted Jan 27, 2011

Didymo: A New Kind of Invader

posted Jan 18, 2011

A Good Year for Returning Salmon

posted Sep 30, 2010

Building a Better Battery

posted Aug 11, 2010

Using Batteries to Store Energy

posted Jul 28, 2010

Growing Summer Energy Demand

posted Jul 26, 2010

California's Energy Scene

posted Jul 23, 2010

Ensuring Efficiency

posted Jun 21, 2010

Making Wind Work

posted Jun 7, 2010

Clean Tech Draws VC Funding

posted May 3, 2010

And the Wind Came Up

posted Apr 6, 2010