Science & Technology



Winds of change: What will power the Northwest's future?

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

But the political challenges of that task have been starkly evident during the current legislative session in Olympia. Even with Democrats in control, lawmakers could not muster enough votes to pass a carbon tax, and a carbon-pricing bill also failed to move in the 2018 Oregon Legislature.

There are also big questions about how fast some utilities will move off coal, and how big a role natural gas, which also contributes to climate change, will play as a substitute.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Washington's largest energy utility with more than 1 million customers, still gets nearly 60 percent of its electricity from these two fossil fuels.

Company officials are now charting a course that includes stepped-up conservation, Washington solar power and moving off coal-fired power generated in Colstrip, Montana, by the early 2030s, maybe sooner.

But the current planning document that looks ahead 20 years also favors building more natural-gas plants -- and does not find Montana pumped storage or wind power as the best bargain for renewables.

"By law, we have to look at the least-cost view," said John Mannetti, the utility's director of operations planning.

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Fresh interest

Wind and solar -- bolstered by declining costs and favorable government policies -- already form the hottest growth sector in the global power industry.

But the output from these renewable-energy farms may vary hour by hour and minute by minute. This creates big challenges for utility managers, who must ensure that demand and supply are constantly in balance. Otherwise, they risk blackouts.

So more energy storage could make power generation more consistent. Investment has poured into developing technologies such as large lithium-ion batteries or the solar heating of sand that can release its energy at night.


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