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Blackout risk in Washington state low but ‘not trivial’

(The Center Square)The Washington State Department of Commerce recently invited the public to submit recommendations on preventing blackouts, as well as any regulatory or statutory changes and utility actions to improve resource adequacy.

That doesn’t mean officials are anticipating blackouts in the Evergreen State. The ask for recommendations is part of a survey being conducted prior to the second annual electric power resource adequacy meeting put on by Commerce and the Utilities and Transportation Commission, which is set for June 17.

“It’s very important that the electric power industry maintain adequate resources to meet our electricity needs, but the meeting and survey are not based on any specific concern about the industry’s performance in this area,” said Penny Thomas, media relations manager for Commerce, in an email to The Center Square. “Commerce and the UTC hold an annual meeting with power sector experts and stakeholders about the status of electricity supply and demand.”

She went on to note, “The Washington State Legislature set this up in order to keep an eye on the power system as the state gradually eliminates fossil fuel-generating resources and replaces them with clean energy.”

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State law requires Commerce and the UTC to hold the annual meeting – focused on current, short-term, and long-term adequacy of the state’s energy resources to meet electrical needs – and to provide a summary to the governor and the Legislature. 

“We added the survey this year in response to a proposal by the Legislature,” Thomas explained. “While any member of the public could provide a suggestion, the survey is aimed at people with direct knowledge about how the supply and demand of electricity are planned and managed, such as electric utilities, power plant operators and developers, clean energy advocacy groups, and planning organizations.”

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the regulatory body that oversees grid operations across the United States and Canada, warned in its summer reliability assessment published on Wednesday that the entire West and most of the Midwest face at least an “elevated” risk in terms of an insufficient supply of electricity in coming up against high demand.

Devin Hartman, director of energy and environmental policy at the Washington, D.C.-based R Street Institute, provided some context regarding the NERC assessment.

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“The risk is elevated relative to the industry baseline for the last century,” he said, explaining that baseline is based on a 1 in 10 model – that is, 10% – that goes back to World War II, meaning being over that 10% threshold counts as “elevated.”

“The region is looking pretty good,” said Hartman, who used to do the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission summer assessments and served on NERC’s member/policy committee. “The system could buckle under certain circumstances with extreme weather. It’s unlikely, but not trivial.”

The biggest threat to Washington’s power system, according to Hartman, comes from a lack of coordination between multi-state/regional grid systems – which will only become more challenging in terms of incorporating renewable energies – and the need to consider new factors in making risk assessments.

“Electrons don’t stop at the state border,” he quipped in noting that some states have more power than others, but all share equally in a shortfall, sometimes leading to “tricky politics.”

“Emissions also don’t respect state boundaries,” he said.

Grid operators are starting to make noise about the system’s inefficiencies.

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“It’s incredibly fragmented,” Hartman said of a system in which, according to him, there is a gap between technical potential and actual performance of systems. “It’s no joke.”

In terms of assessing the risk to the electrical grid, Hartman said current assessments don’t consider things like the cyberattack last year that saw the Colonial Pipeline Company halt all pipeline operations to contain the attack, and the intermittent nature of solar and wind power.

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2 Comments

  1. John May 24, 2022

    So…. the biggest threat isn’t eliminating fossil fuels too soon? Before more power generating infrastructure is in place? Hmmm….

  2. J Smith May 24, 2022

    Maybe this will pull the covers off the huge issue we don’t hear about: Is there a comprehensive plan for transitioning away from fossil energy by the arbitrary, near-term deadlines set by our state and some cities, without disasterous impacts to public health, safety and the economy? Wishing and hoping aren’t a plan. Saying it’s a good thing, is not a plan. Saying we must do something, is not a plan. Show us the plan.

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