Five-year forecast: New resources will keep Northwest power supply adequate

Wind power and developments outside the Northwest are changing the character of the Northwest electricity system, but the power supply will remain adequate over the next five years with the addition of new generation and/or additional energy-efficiency equal to the output of a single, medium-size power plant, according to an analysis by the Northwest Resource Adequacy Forum. The Forum is a committee of electricity experts including utility planners, state utility commission staff and other interested parties.

"As the region’s power system has evolved over time, it’s become much more dynamic and complex and the need for comprehensive and timely information has become critical," Council Chair Rhonda Whiting said. "The Forum provides a way to monitor the power supply so potential issues can be identified early and addressed before they become serious problems."

The Council and the Bonneville Power Administration created the Forum following the 2000-01 West Coast energy crisis, when a diminished power supply brought the region to the brink of blackouts during the winter and caused electricity prices to soar. The Forum developed a method to measure future power supply adequacy, which the Council has used annually since 2005 to look five years ahead.

Adequacy is measured by the risk that power resources will not meet electricity loads. The Council has set a maximum limit on that probability of 5 percent. The Forum’s analysis shows that for 2017, the probability would be 6.6 percent if the region relies only on existing generating plants and new energy-efficiency savings outlined in the Council’s Northwest Power Plan, which dates to 2010. However, the analysis suggests that a number of actions by utilities -- new generation, new energy efficiency or a combination -- would bring adequacy to the minimum acceptable level by 2017. What’s important is that the result is 350 megawatts of new capacity at times of peak load, according to the Forum. Demand response, in which customers agree to reduce their consumption during periods of high use, also may be an option but was not included in the analysis.

According to the analysis, one reason the Northwest will need additional resources is the uncertainty arising from changes in California’s energy market. As that state attempts to meet more of its growing summer loads with solar energy and demand response, and as new environmental regulations lead to the retirement of some generating plants, there may be less power available for export to the Northwest in the future, particularly in winter.

Another recent analysis by the Council shows that good progress is being made toward improving energy efficiency and that as the region faces an increasing need for power system capacity and flexibility, identifying how energy-efficiency programs affect the system will become more important. According to that analysis, low prices for natural gas and continuing low prices for wholesale electricity are signs that the regional power system is changing.

Historically, planning for new power supplies was driven by anticipated annual deficits. Now the focus is shifting to ensure that the power supply is adequate to meet winter and summer peaks in demand -- particularly winter peaks -- and also flexible enough to respond to variable output from renewable resources throughout the year.