To meet these goals, utilities are retiring coal plants. By 2030 – just over 10 years from now – a total of 18,000 megawatts of coal generation will have been taken offline in the Western Interconnection. That’s equivalent to 18 average-sized nuclear plants, or about 18 Bonneville dams.
Coal plant retirements will drive down greenhouse gas emissions but create a new challenge: ensuring the region continues to have an adequate supply of power resources and transmission to deliver the power. Not just clean resources, but reliable, controllable resources that can meet energy demands across all hours.
Meeting the peaks
Resource adequacy is the ability to meet consumers’ energy needs. It’s like making sure there is enough money in your bank account. Ideally, you’ll have enough money to cover your known expenses as well as the cost of unforeseen emergencies, like a broken down car or a trip to the hospital. You also need to be able to access your money when you need it. Similarly, utilities must be prepared to meet energy demand under all scenarios, not just average conditions. In other words, we need capacity – available energy that can be called upon as needed to meet the extremes. The transmission system is also critical to making sure the power can be delivered.
How is resource adequacy measured? In the Northwest (Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington), resource adequacy is measured by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Analysts take many factors into consideration – from the streamflow variation to weather, which drives power demand, and to the potential for generation or transmission line outages that could keep power from being produced or delivered. They study thousands of potential scenarios. If more than 5% of those scenarios result in a power shortage, the region has a resource deficit.
The most recent study done by the Council shows that the demand for energy is already starting to outpace supply, and the Northwest could experience capacity shortages as soon as next year.
What happens without resource adequacy?
Without sufficient energy resources, the region would experience power shortages. Sometimes, a power shortage can mean the lights stay on but electricity becomes more expensive, just as the cost of other goods increases when demand rises and supply is tight. Other times, a power shortage means the electrical grid crashes and there’s a complete loss of power. This type of power shortage is called a blackout.
What’s being done now to keep the lights on in the future?
The region is building new renewable, carbon-free generating resources – namely, wind and solar. These power plants can produce energy if the weather is right, but by themselves won’t supply the flexible capacity the region will need.
Thankfully, the Northwest has an abundance of hydropower. Hydropower is not only carbon free, it supplies valuable capacity, as it can be ramped up or down quickly to meet changing energy demands. This reliability and flexibility makes hydropower the perfect partner to other renewables like wind and solar, allowing their seamless integration into the grid.
In addition, the region is coming together through the Western Power Pool to create a regional resource adequacy program. This program will address the segmented nature of the region’s power grid, where many different entities are responsible for different portions of the grid and have historically done resource planning on an individual basis. By coming together, we can define how much readily available power is needed in the region to meet future demand and look for ways to be more efficient with our existing resources, such as by sharing capacity so that we could use a surplus in one area to serve a deficit in another.
By addressing the issue of resource adequacy now, the Northwest is on the right path to meet the energy needs of the future.