Can West learn to share renewable power?

March of 2019 opened with a deep chill across Cascadia. Arctic air poured south, jacking up energy consumption and straining energy supplies in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It conjured a “perfect” storm for the region’s electricity grid.

As temperatures plummeted, Cascadia’s hydropower reservoirs sat at record lows following weak fall rains and an exceptionally cold winter. Mechanical trouble had halved output from the Centralia, Washington, coal-fired power plant — the largest generator between Seattle and Portland. A low-pressure weather system was hampering Cascadia’s wind farms. And maintenance work on lines in Los Angeles limited the amount of power that could flow north.

Utilities appealed to citizens to conserve energy. Industries cut back as power prices spiked. And the grid held.

Utility officials call it a near miss and a sign of a new normal. “We really had a very close call,” says Scott Bolton, senior vice president for transmission development at Portland-based PacifiCorp.

“Future events could have direct impacts to the reliability of the bulk power system,” concluded an assessment by Western Electricity Coordinating Council, the utility consortium that oversees reliability for the interconnected transmission network west of the Rockies.

Sharing renewable electricity across long distances is among the most cost-effective strategies for slashing carbon emissions, as InvestigateWest reported in April. Longer power lines with centralized control centers increase grid flexibility to carry high levels of wind and solar power.

A robust network would allow utilities to tap diverse sources. If inconvenient weather zaps Cascadia’s power supply, for example, utilities can import electricity — maybe solar power from the Southwest or wind power from Montana and Wyoming. And if the tables turn, Cascadia can export solar, wind and water power.

A bigger grid isn’t the sole solution. Giant battery arrays on the high-voltage grid or smaller packs charged from rooftop solar panels could keep things running for several hours. Hydrogen gas produced from clean electricity and stored locally could back up the grid.

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