While Washington State has some of the most aggressive climate goals in the United States, the inadequacy of the current electricity transmission infrastructure and slow permitting processes threaten the state’s ability to achieve its objectives.
Electricity Transmission Bottlenecks Threaten Climate and Resiliency Goals
Requirements for electric utilities to shift to solar and wind for their power generation are key parts of what gives Oregon and Washington some of the best climate plans in the country, Sightline Institute observed (Northwest States Need to Build New Power Lines, Fast - Sightline Institute). Indeed, the goal for the state of Washington is to use only clean energy by 2045. Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC) concurred (Transmission | Northwest Power and Conservation Council (nwcouncil.org), saying the Northwest is blessed with such abundant and inexpensive hydropower, solar and wind power that they are beating the price of practically every other type of power.
However, the potential for insufficient transmission capacity combined with inefficient transmission contracting has the potential to derail swift progress toward ambitious clean energy goals.
Glenn Blackmon, manager of the Energy Policy Office for WDoC, told the Senate energy committee this year that the state’s power needs will increase 97 percent by 2050. The existing transmission infrastructure may not be sufficient, Harrison explained, to move the thousands of megawatts of new renewable energy from the remote locations where it will be generated to the places where it will be consumed. Even if it is, the current system of contracting for access to transmission sometimes leaves lines fully contracted and not fully utilized.
The Washington State Department of Commerce 2023 Biennial Energy Report notes the same issue, saying that constraints in power transmission pose one of the greatest challenges to Washington's energy and climate goals. Transmission constraints increase the likelihood that resource supply will be inadequate at critical times.
The result, Moore said, is that even if all utilities agreed to switch to renewable energy tomorrow, the region’s transmission system couldn’t support the energy load. Moreover, hundreds of proposed wind and solar projects are already languishing because of a lack of transmission lines “We may fail the climate test because we’re missing some wires.”
Admittedly, Washington State isn’t the only place with a problem. Nationally, the Washington Post reports (Why the U.S. is so bad at building clean energy, in 3 charts), projects accounting for more than 1,200 gigawatts of clean energy and 650 gigawatts of storage have already been proposed and can’t get connected to the grid.
The Power Grid in Washington is Insufficient for Future Needs
So far, Washington has had sufficient electricity transmission capability. Additionally, NPCC explained, the Northwest spent billions building transmission to connect to the rest of the West. High-voltage transmission enables power to be bought and sold across vast areas and helps avert shortages. When one area needs power, another area usually has it to sell. The high-voltage transmission lines connect with 14 western states, two Canadian provinces and a portion of Mexico. And for years, Crosscut writer John Stang opined (By 2050, Washington might need to buy energy from other states | Crosscut), Washington exported some of the electricity it produced. The state sent more than 18 percent of its generated power out of state in 2021.
The fundamental problem now, according to Bill Gates (The surprising key to a clean energy future | Bill Gates (gatesnotes.com), is that the way we move electricity around in the United States isn’t designed to meet modern energy needs. Since the beginning of the electric grid, power companies have placed most power plants close to cities. That model doesn’t work with solar and wind, because many of the best places to generate lots of electricity are far away from urban centers.
In Washington State specifically, a fundamental issue is that the best sunlight and wind for producing power are east of the Cascade mountains. Transmission lines are needed to take that power to the western half of the state where it is most needed. However, installing new transmission lines takes time and can be controversial. Approval often takes 8-15 years. And no power plant is built without available transmission to deliver its output because developers will only invest millions in a new power plant of any kind if transmission can be arranged.
Issues Impeding Transmission Line Expansion
One issue is that even though utilities are legally required to plan for future transmission needs, Nicolas Garcia, representing the Washington Public Utility Districts Associations, said at a hearing before the Senate’s environment and energy committee that many utilities do not have the expertise for transmission planning. They may then not have enough time to complete the studies, leasing, permitting, coordinating and construction of transmission lines by the time they are needed.
Another issue is unique to Washington State. Utilities depend on the lines owned and operated by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Sightline Institute explained, to bring far-away wind and solar power to their customers. BPA is a federal agency within the US Department of Energy that owns about 75 percent of high voltage transmission lines in the Pacific Northwest. BPA’s transmission lines are basically full. Even though BPA analyzed 144 requests for transmission of more than 11 gigawatts in 2022, up from 62 in 2020, it only approved 11. Most of the Northwest’ new wind and solar projects are idling in BPA’s transmission queue.
There are some short-term fixes that might help alleviate some of the issues with transmission.
One, NPCC suggests, is “non-wires alternatives” such as targeted demand response with a tariff or program to motivate changes in electricity use by customers at times of high market prices or when grid reliability is jeopardized. Another is utility-scale batteries that are built at known areas of transmission congestion.
Yet another, Sightline suggests, is to scale up “distributed solar” projects rather than building transmission lines and large renewable projects. These projects generate electricity close to where it is consumed, such as on home and business rooftops, over parking lots, or on unused fields. Realistically, however, distributed solar in most of western Oregon and Washington is insufficient because homes and businesses require at least some power from electric utilities during winter months between November and April.
While these concepts may be helpful stopgaps, the real solution is to build more transmission lines. To clear the way, Gates suggests, the United States needs to address the three main barriers that are to blame for the lack of progress: planning, paying and permitting.
In Washington State, the WDoC Report suggests that Washington must take deliberate action in coordination with its neighbors to expand transmission capacity to ensure it can affordably and reliably meet its clean electricity goals. Washington stakeholders must invest in new transmission capacity and renewable generation, and coordinate with other states.
Sightline Institute said policymakers need to create a 20-year transmission plan for the region designed around decarbonization goals, anticipated increases in electricity demand, the location of renewable resources, Tribal treaty rights, and environmental protection for sensitive habitats. Another option is for Northwest states to build and finance new wires themselves, learning from the experience of others. And NPCC suggests that one way to clear the transmission queues is to improve coordination of transmission access through creation of a regional transmission operator (RTO).
While there is a clear consensus that more transmission lines are needed, there is less clarity about how it might happen. Policymakers need to act quickly, though, if Washington State is to meet both increasing needs for electricity and the goals set out for renewable energy.