Empirically Yours

Outgrowing Hydroelectric Power


We in the Pacific Northwest have lived in a paradise of low-cost electricity for decades. It’s a mix of hydroelectric power (75%) supplemented by wind power (10%), natural gas (10%) and nuclear energy (5%). Peninsula Light Co. delivers us 90% hydropower and 10% wind.

During the extreme cold weather we experienced in January, the consumption of electricity around the Pacific Northwest nearly exceeded the supply. Puget Sound Energy asked its customers to voluntarily conserve. Our comfortable blend of power sources was maxed out. While hydroelectric and nuclear sources contributed without problems, scant wind, and very low temperatures posed big problems for wind farms and natural gas generation facilities.

We are now experiencing the challenge faced by the rest of the nation: the demand for power, aggravated by extreme weather, is greater than supply. It is made worse by the loss of traditional sources of electricity generation like CO2-spewing coal plants, aging transmission systems, stubborn for-profit monopolies and ossified permitting processes.

For decades, the climate and the terrain of the Pacific Northwest gave us the gift of clean, renewable hydroelectric power. It’s easy to forget that our hydropower infrastructure was built about 90 years ago by Seattle City Light and the Bonneville Power Authority. Thanks to renewable hydropower, we pay pennies per kilowatt-hour, while others pay much more.

So what are our options to get more power needed for population growth during increasingly unpredictable weather due to planet-wide climate change? Well, there’s nuclear, wind, solar, gravity-based generation (hydro), and maybe geothermal generation.

Texas planners are now confronted with the same dilemma. Their solution is to install renewables, mostly wind, with storage. They don’t want to repeat long, widespread blackouts in the winter of 2021 that directly led to the deaths of 240 people. Texas now leads the nation in installed wind power.

Then there’s nuclear energy, but we know this song. Remember when the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPS: pronounced Whoops!) proposed building five nuclear power plants in the early 1980s? Ultimately, only one reactor was built, and it has been working well since it was turned on in 1987. WPPS itself disappeared. For financing, WPPS sold bonds, but their market timing was tragic. WPPS had to offer coupons as high as 15% because of the inflation and recession in the early 1980s. WPPS defaulted on much of this debt and disappeared just ahead of angry investors with pitchforks.

Pros: nuclear energy can provide stable, baseload electricity while creating jobs to build and operate the plants. Cons: recent experience in the state of Georgia shows that construction and certification of new reactors can take two to three times as long and cost three to four times more than estimated; nuclear plants are designed to be safe, but accidents still happen (Three Mile Island; Chernobyl; Fukushima); fuel can be purchased on the open market, but the sole provider for years has been — wait for it — Russia; and highly radioactive spent fuel is stored “safely on-site in barrels.”

Nuclear would not be my first choice. I include the trendy idea of small nuclear reactors that would be made in a factory and shipped to a customer. These have been in the press recently, not because there are happy customers, but because some of the start-up companies have run out of money.

As for fusion energy, until they can show me the neutrons, fusion power will always be, as has been said before, “20 years away.”

We do need more electricity. Expanding wind and solar continues to make sense, especially since the costs of these renewable sources continue to decline. Utility-scale renewable installations built these days usually include on-site battery storage, silencing “the wind-doesn’t-blow-sun-won’t-shine” critics.

Most new utility-scale wind and solar projects nowadays include enough battery storage for the entire plant for a day or more. A farm of lithium batteries at Moss Landing, California, can power an estimated 136,500 homes for several hours during periods of high demand.

Even better, a newer type of battery called a flow battery has emerged that is both safer and less expensive than lithium batteries. It works by storing electricity in a solution of metallic salt in one tank and releasing it by pumping it to another tank. I think of it as reversible rust. There is no lithium, cobalt, or any other expensive, rare or hazardous material. A 2-megawatt, 8-megawatt-hour (about enough for 500 homes) vanadium redox flow battery has been working well for the Snohomish County Utility District for several years now.

Here are two options for carbon-free renewable electricity that rely on gravity.

First up is making electricity with dams and lakes, like the Grand Coulee Dam. The dam and all the water above it can be thought of as a natural water battery. Electricity is generated as water moves downhill. This is the basis for “storage generators” where water is pumped from a storage lake at a low elevation to a lake hundreds of feet uphill. When water is released on demand, its kinetic energy turns a generator at the base of the hill, and the water is saved in a lake. When demand is low, the water is pumped back uphill to be used again. A pumped storage project has been proposed for Goldendale.

Then there’s the moon and its gravitational pull on us, including all the water in Puget Sound. At least one tidal generator is in operation in Europe. This idea has been modeled for the tidal flow under the Tacoma Narrows several times. The models suggest that carefully designed underwater turbines would not harm salmon and would generate a great deal of energy.

Last year was the hottest recorded in human history. To cope with the weird weather that we know is coming, we can rely on renewable electricity combined with storage to stay alive, as we learn to shift everything else toward zero carbon released. That’s our only future.

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist for the Institute of Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.

For further reading:

Cliff Mass’s blog post on recent energy demands: https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2024/01/the-cold-truth-about-renewable-energy.

Pumped storage for electricity: How giant ‘water batteries’ could make green power reliable | Science | AAAS

Moss Landing battery storage: Moss Landing Battery Storage Project

Tidal power: Why don’t we use tidal power more? | MIT Climate Portal

A proposed pumped water energy storage facility near Goldendale, Washington: https://www.opb.org/article/2024/02/10/controversial-energy-project