7th Northwest Power and Conservation Plan another stride toward clean energy future

In approving its seventh 20-year power plan on Wednesday, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council refilled the prescription to meet the region’s new electricity needs primarily with bill-shaving, emissions-avoiding, job-creating energy efficiency.

The Council finds that acquiring 1,400 average megawatts of cost-effective energy efficiency in the plan’s five-year “action plan” period and 4,300 aMW by 2035 is the lowest cost and lowest risk strategy for meeting growth in electricity demand. This is a common-sense strategy. Northwest utilities and their customers are exceeding Council and individual utility conservation targets year after year, and have made energy efficiency the region’s second-largest energy resource after hydropower.

A NW Energy Coalition 7th Plan issue paper, The Pace of Progress, documents how power planners have consistently underestimated energy efficiency measures’ potential and the speed of their adoption, and highlights huge future savings opportunities.

Energy efficiency also smoothes peak power demand, thus contributing greatly to meeting what power professionals call “capacity.” Another way to meet capacity is with “demand response” programs that offer incentives to customers who shift some of their power use to times of lesser system-wide demand. The 7th Plan says at least 600 megawatts of demand response should be cost-effective. We believe a higher and harder target or range is justified; the Council will conduct a mid-term assessment of demand response efforts and accomplishments two years from now.

Make no mistake. In continuing to put energy efficiency front and center, calling for improved access to efficiency savings for low-income and other hard-to-reach sectors, and in focusing on demand response to further reduce peak demand, the 7th Power Plan marks a significant stride toward our clean and affordable energy future.

Calling for no new natural gas plants for at least the next decade and beginning to acknowledge the full extent and expense of coal power consumed in the region (addressed in our issue paper, The True Cost of Coal), are important victories as well.

The 7th Power Plan, however, is not without flaws – including two serious ones.

First, the plan devalues the next generation of renewable energy which, despite 35 years of Council indifference, has grown enormously in the region, drawing investments, creating jobs, supporting local communities and reducing climate emissions.

The 7th Plan calls for building only those new renewables required by individual Northwest states and running existing gas plants harder to replace coal power and meet capacity. Eventually, the plan suggests, some utilities might opt to build new gas plants primarily to cover demand peaks occurring literally a few hours a year.

The Council needs a new approach, one that incorporates dispersed renewables’ (including distributed solar power’s) contribution to meeting peak demand, enhanced energy storage and other factors, rather than letting “capacity” become the excuse for slowing clean energy progress. Ultimately, a diverse set of clean energy resources and technologies rather than post-2025 investments in new natural gas plants will contribute the most to building a clean energy economy. We will work with the Council to get it right by the 8th Plan.

Second, the Council again has punted on doing a full cost-benefit analysis of removing the four lower Snake River dams to help wild salmon avoid extinction. The 7th Plan looks at the cost of replacing a generic 1,000 aMW power source (about what the four dams produce), which is irrelevant since it doesn’t subtract the upgrade and maintenance costs avoided through dam removal.

Preliminary analysis in the NW Energy Coalition issue paper Restoring Wild Salmon puts the power-system-only cost of dam removal to the average public utility electric customer at about $1 a month. We have asked the Council to put its significant analytic capabilities into a more data-enriched study, but until it does, our conclusion will have to stand.

For more information, contact NW Energy Coalition policy director Wendy Gerlitz at wendy@nwenergy.org.


[1] Capacity is measured in megawatts (MW), the total amount of power needed at the peak moment; energy is typically measured in average megawatts (aMW) or megawatt-hours (MWh).

[2] Next generation renewables include wind, solar, geothermal, ocean and biomass resources. Hydropower, of course, is a renewable resource that already satisfies more than 55% of the region’s electricity needs.