Comments Question Assumptions About Power System Reliability In Draft Power Plan

As the Council moves toward finalizing the 2021 Northwest Power Plan in the next month or two after a nearly four-year effort, the discussion at the January meeting focused on several issues that received a lot of attention during the public comment period on the draft plan late last year. Among these, the issue that attracted the most concern was whether the recommendations in the plan will assure that the region’s electricity supply remains adequate and reliable.

The issue is vexing because of the rapid proliferation of solar and wind power in response to state-mandated clean-energy policies on the West Coast. The output from those resources is variable because of the nature of the ‘fuel’ – wind and sunshine.

The resource strategy in the draft plan calls for adding 750-1,000 average megawatts of energy efficiency and at least 3,500 megawatts of renewable resources to the power supply by 2027, and more over the 20-year horizon of the plan. This, plus existing hydropower, nuclear power, imports of power from outside the Northwest, and electricity from coal and natural gas plants that continue operating (some inefficient thermal plants will be retired over the next decade or so), should keep the regional power supply adequate and reliable, according to the plan.

Comments on this issue, particularly from electric utilities, focused on several issues: the resource strategy in the draft plan misses or underrepresents the extent of the potential problem with adequacy and reliability, particularly regarding the ability of the power system to respond to peaks in power demand; under-estimates the impacts of thermal plant retirements; over-estimates the amount of power that would be available for import; and under-represents constraints to high-voltage transmission.

Pat Oshie, a Washington member of the Council and chair of the Council’s Power Committee, said that ensuring a reliable and adequate system that also is economical – the Council’s mandate in law for the regional power plan – is difficult. “You can build a more robust system by adding redundant generation that may not run all the time, but that is a very expensive proposition,” he said. Add to that the difficulty of defining what constitutes “extreme,” and the matter becomes even more complex. “It’s a real struggle to come up with a set of inputs to determine what to plan around,” he said.

Idaho Member Jim Yost noted that while it is good to plan for extremes – high demand for electricity caused by extreme heat or cold, the more practical issue to address in support of a reliable and adequate power supply is whether utilities that transmit electricity and send it to our homes have the ability to handle the extreme demand.

“In the plan, you need bookends for extreme weather events, but it’s hard to plan for them,” he said. “What would assist utilities is support in the plan for addressing the weaknesses they have in their infrastructure. We should include a comment to that end in the plan.” Montana Council member Doug Grob agreed, adding, “utilities would want to know when to upgrade – sooner or later? That’s in the subtext of the plan, but it could be made more clear.” This also would include support for vegetation management around transmission lines to ensure trees don’t grow close enough to ground the lines.

In addition to support in the plan for addressing weaknesses in the power system infrastructure, the plan also could encourage utilities to pursue “soft changes,” Oregon Member Ginny Burdick said. “If we are encouraging utilities to make changes in infrastructure, soft changes like cooperation agreements need to be in place, too – for example, a regional plan among utilities to jump in quickly when one or more suffer a crisis from an outlier event. I’d like to see some emphasis placed on utilities working together on policy upgrades as well as infrastructure upgrades,” she said.

The Power Committee will continue its discussions about the draft plan during an online meeting Friday, January 28. The next meeting of the full Council is February 15-16.