Council explores efficiency, long-duration energy storage & other innovative strategies to meet growing power needs

The Council's April meeting was held in Olympia, Wash.

Meeting the Pacific Northwest’s growing need for power with a shifting mix of energy resources will be a major undertaking on its own. Balancing supply with demand, however, is only one part of the challenge for the Council’s power planning efforts.

The Council must ensure the region’s power system is adequate, reliable, efficient, and economical for the households, businesses, and industries that depend on it, while also mitigating for the effects of the hydropower system on salmon and other fish and wildlife in the Columbia Basin. Clean energy policies and goals across the region are accelerating the pace of change, while hydropower production continues to fluctuate.

During its meeting in Olympia, Wash., on April 9-10, the Council heard briefings on a range of solutions to make the challenges ahead easier to tackle. Some are emerging technologies, such as long-duration battery storage, while others have been tried-and-tested for years, like energy efficiency or reconductoring transmission lines to increase capacity. Others loom on longer-range planning horizons, but the innovative ways they can relieve pressure on the grid could speed up their timelines to commercial viability.

Energy efficiency continues to benefit region’s power grid, deliver savings on energy costs

While emerging technologies could play a significant role in the future, improving energy efficiency is a key element of the Council’s current power plan for the Northwest. The 2021 plan has a target of acquiring 750-1,000 megawatts of energy efficiency. Reviewing data since the plan was adopted in February 2022, Manager for Power Planning Resources Kevin Smit said it appears the region is on track to meet that. However, if loads grow significantly in the future, he said additional actions may be needed to acquire more energy efficiency and demand response in the Northwest. (Watch video)

The Northwest’s decades-long history of successfully acquiring energy efficiency has helped it ensure that power demand has stayed largely flat, even as population has swelled and the economy has grown. Energy efficiency is now one of the largest energy resources in the Northwest. Since 1980, 7,678 average megawatts have been saved, enough to power to cover the demand of seven Seattle-sized cities. That has resulted in over $5 million total annual saving on consumer electric bills in the region.

Energy efficiency is now one of the largest resources for the Northwest’s power grid. Source: Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

New data and research are uncovering more ways to conserve energy. Council staff and analysts for the Council’s Regional Technical Forum collaborated on a study on how Northwest households can get the most efficient performance from electric heat pumps, which provide space heating and cooling. The study has been accepted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and will be published this summer. Senior Resources Analyst Christian Douglass explained some of the findings, which are based off five years of data on power usage and temperatures collected by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance from 400 homes and 70 businesses across the region.

More buildings are installing heat pumps, particularly in Washington and Oregon. Douglass said the data reveals that incorrect sizing or installation of heat pumps, unnecessary back-up heating systems and other factors such as deep nighttime thermostat setbacks were causing avoidable power demand spikes in the morning and at night. Efficiency actions like more proactive thermostat controls, better consumer education, and heating houses incrementally instead of at once could “reduce those spikes in half,” Douglass said.

“We think this isn’t getting enough attention,” Douglass said. “We’re still operating heat pumps like they’re furnaces and they’re just not – they’re different technologies.”

Long-duration storage can benefit a hydro-reliant grid

As the Northwest’s power grid transitions from coal and gas to renewables like wind and solar, grid operators must navigate more variability throughout the day and season, or even during peak demands. Long-duration energy storage offers a potential solution, and the Council listened to a presentation about the benefits of one option – Form Energy’s 100-hour Iron Air battery systems. (Watch video.)

Company representatives explained that iron is a durable, widely available, and relatively low-cost material. The battery system can hold charges for long periods of time, and dispatch as needed – it doesn’t have to be continuously over 100-hour periods – before re-charging. Iron Air batteries can play a key role in helping the Northwest address both rising demand for power and decarbonization targets, said Form Energy Senior Analyst Patricia Levy. The Columbia River is a massive source of electricity, but its flow varies seasonally – the peak occurs in spring during snowmelt-fueled runoff.

Levy said Iron Air batteries can store energy cheaply in the spring for use later in the summer, such as during a heat wave. It provides the same benefits during winter cold snaps, she said. Form Energy used Council data on the operations and flows of the Columbia River hydropower system in a recent study, Levy said. Iron Air batteries are not as efficient as lithium-ion batteries, which only hold power up to four hours, so they’re intended to complement each other.

“What this is designed to do is soak up very cheap power and store it for a long time,” Mark Thomspon, Form Energy’s Director for State Affairs, told the Council. “It’s intended to meet reliability needs…when the grid is really strained – think heat domes.”

Panel discusses innovative future strategies

Angela Becker-Dippmann, a Director with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Sonia Aggarwal, CEO for Energy Innovation; and Josh Jacobs, a Vice President for Puget Sound Energy, led a panel discussion on innovative strategies that can help meet future power demand in the Northwest. (Watch video.)

Jacobs said PSE is pursuing adding more wind and solar to its portfolio, but is confronting transmission constraints in getting the power from where it’s generated to where the demand is located. Looking out long-term, he said PSE is exploring three options to help build baseload energy capacity that can be dispatched when needed – small modular nuclear reactors, partnering with Form Energy on 100-hour battery systems, and green hydrogen.

“We need to expand and modernize the electric grid to support the transition to clean energy,” Jacobs said. “We are extremely concerned about resource adequacy.”

Aggarwal also cited reconductoring transmission lines as a potential solution for the region. Reconductoring replaces existing power lines with cables made from cutting-edge materials. Energy Innovation helped publish a new report finding that this could greatly increase the power grid’s capacity in many parts of the U.S., creating ample room for more wind and solar power. Reconductoring was included as an energy efficiency strategy in the Council’s 2010 and 2016 power plans, and new research and development efforts have unlocked more potential.

Reconductoring replaces existing power lines with cables made from state-of-the-art materials. New research finds this could greatly increase the power grid’s capacity, creating ample room for more wind and solar power.

She said electricity demand forecasts are increasing across the U.S., but particularly so in the Pacific Northwest because its power is relatively inexpensive. Aggarwal said some tech companies are lessening the burden of data center projects on grids through on-site solar and battery storage systems. As it prepares for its upcoming adequacy assessment and the next power plan, the Council will be closely evaluating ways to make power demand from data centers more efficient, flexible, and easier to manage, as well as monitoring the shifting dynamics of the power system.

Aggarwal also cautioned that load forecasts often end up wrong, so the Northwest should pursue strategies to get the most it possibly can out of existing energy infrastructure.

“The real workhorse in all of this is energy efficiency,” Aggarwal said. “Efficiency works wonders.”

Becker-Dippmann said PNNL is researching and aiding development of hydrogen, vehicle electrification, next generation nuclear, advanced hydropower, carbon management, and many other technologies. She said new technologies are unlocking more flexibility in the grid and making it easier to manage demand for power.

“Flexibility is the coin of the realm in the future system,” Becker-Dippmann said.