Surge in electricity demand poses tricky path ahead for PNW utilities, report shows

by Conrad Swanson at

Demand for electricity is spiking across the Pacific Northwest and its potential to outpace our supply in the years ahead is growing, according to a new energy forecast, detailing the tricky path ahead for utilities across the region.

Without new power sources, transmission lines and battery storage, the region’s long-standing and reliable energy system could falter when people need electricity the most, according to a report published this week by the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, whose members include public and private utilities serving some 80 million customers.

In April, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an interstate agency representing Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, also raised alarm.

Not only is demand for energy rising faster than expected, it’s also surging more severely and at new times. Clean-energy goals are forcing the closure of power plants run on fossil fuels — but renewable projects aren’t outpacing that lost power by much, if at all.

Plus, poor snowpack and ongoing drought threatens the region’s biggest source of electricity: hydropower.

The region’s electrical grid is more complex than it’s ever been before, said Crystal Ball, the committee’s executive director. And so planning for the years or decades ahead poses a complicated challenge.

At risk is the affordability and reliability of the region’s power.

Utilities here have moved fast in recent years to bring more sources of renewable energy online, the committee’s report says, but they have not kept pace to “meet the anticipated rise in electricity demand.”

That ever-increasing demand stems from a few factors.

First, people are shifting away from fossil fuels with things like electric vehicles and heat pumps.

Second, new data centers and high-tech manufacturing plants draw massive amounts of electricity, Ball said.

And then there are moments of extreme weather.

Take Seattle City Light, for example, which typically sees peak energy demand in the winter. City Light saw record-high demand during the cold snap this January (breaking the previous record from late 2022) and brought the region “dangerously close to having an inadequate supply” of power, the committee’s report says.

The utility is also increasingly seeing new peak demand during heat waves as more people turn on air conditioning.

It’s during these winter and summer spikes that the demand could outpace supply.

The committee’s latest forecast indicates such a gap would arrive by 2030.

On the supply side, poor snowpack and earlier-than-normal melting seasons are cutting into Washington’s ability to generate hydropower, the state’s largest source of electricity by far.

The problem was so bad last year City Light had to buy supplemental power off the grid, which burned through its $70 million emergency fund and forced a rate increase to make up the difference.

This year’s snowpack sits so far below normal that Washington’s Department of Ecology declared a statewide drought emergency last month.

Even in years when snowpack is good, utilities no longer have unilateral control over when and how they use water to generate electricity because of restrictions to protect fish, said Glenn Blackmon, manager of Washington’s Energy Policy Office.

An added complication is the closure of coal plants. This is an important step to combat the worst effects of climate change but it also cuts the amount of electricity the region is able to generate, Blackmon said.

So what can power providers do to avoid this dreaded gap between supply and demand?

Perhaps the most obvious is to build new generation like wind farms or solar arrays.

Developers face challenges finding the right site for big projects across the state.

But not all new renewable projects need to be in-state, said Nancy Hirsh, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition. In fact, it’s crucial they’re not.

“That’s what Texas has and that has not served them well during times of crisis,” she said, referencing the widespread and fatal power outages across the state as temperatures sank to record lows in February 2021.

Rather, a diverse cross-section of wind and solar projects across the region can assure that while one area faces a lull, others will be able to compensate, Hirsh said.

New transmission lines must then be built to bring in that power from other places, Blackmon said. And to send it out.

On top of it all, battery projects can store electricity, lessening the load during times when demand is high.

Utilities across the region have plans for a wide slate of projects that would add another 29,000 megawatts into the grid, Ball said.

That’s enough to power more than 23 million homes

But whether all those projects will be built (or when) remains to be seen, Ball said.