As an alternative to building new power plants to meet the Northwest’s demand for electricity, energy efficiency lowers the demand for power so it is not necessary to build as many new generators. Energy efficiency means doing more work, or the same amount of work, with less electricity. It does not mean “conserving” electricity. Conservation and energy efficiency are different concepts — electricity might be conserved, or hoarded, during times of extreme demand for power, such as during extremely hot or cold weather. This concept, also called “demand reduction,” has an important place in maintaining reliable electricity service during emergencies. It is notable for its short-term duration. Energy efficiency is a different concept, implying a long-term reduction in electricity consumption with no corresponding decrease in the amount of work accomplished. A Northwest energy expert once described the impact of energy efficiency on electricity ratepayers this way: “Warm house, cold beer, pay less.”
Energy efficiency has an important role in the history of the Columbia River. With the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its major tributaries from the 1930s on, the Northwest became increasingly dependent on hydropower as the primary source of power. To this day, hydropower provides more than half of the electricity generated in the Northwest, and most of that is generated in the Columbia River Basin.
In the 1960s, when it became apparent that demand for power was growing and new supplies would be needed, many of the region’s electric utilities joined the federal Bonneville Power Administration in developing the Hydro-Thermal Power Program to build nuclear and coal-fired power plants to augment the hydropower supply. But the effort proved to be overkill, as forecasts of future power demand were inaccurate — demand actually declined in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. As well, the augmentation effort was poorly managed and plagued by cost overruns. Two studies in 1976, one prepared for Seattle City Light and the other for Bonneville, demonstrated the value of energy conservation, which could be acquired at a lower price than new power plants. Energy conservation also had an obvious advantage: no fuel costs. This was an important consideration in light of the fact that the Arab oil embargo of 1973 was still fresh in the public mind. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in 1979 increased public interest in energy efficiency and disinterest in nuclear power.
The Northwest Power Act of 1980 made energy efficiency a resource on a par with generating plants for the purpose of meeting Bonneville’s future demand for power. The Act requires Bonneville to acquire energy efficiency in addition to new power supplies its customers may require. Congress intended that Bonneville would constantly reduce its demand for power by increasing the efficiency of its customers’ energy use, thus keeping energy costs as low as possible.
Since 1978, the region has acquired nearly 5,800 average megawatts of improved energy efficiency. Compared to an equivalent amount of generated electricity, that’s enough for five cities the size of Seattle. The efficiency saves the region’s electricity consumers more than $3 billion annually compared to the cost of power that would have to be consumed in the absence of the improved efficiency, and because the energy is not generated an estimated 22.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide are not emitted into the atmosphere annually.
Energy efficiency remains an important resource for the future. In 2008, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimated that nearly 3,100 megawatts of cost-effective energy efficiency remains available in the region. The Council tracks energy efficiency acquisitions by Northwest utilities and Bonneville on its website.