Energy Blog: Superheroes Without Cape: NW Energy Group Ponders Efficiency, Grids

by Andy Silber

Not All Superheroes Wear a Cape:

Energy Wonks in Seattle for NWEC’s Fall Conference

Thirty years ago a group of intrepid energy wonks realized the solution to our energy needs was not building a bunch of expensive nuclear power plants, but to aggressively capture the cost effective energy-efficiency measures available at a fraction of the cost, risk and environmental impact. These champions of truth, justice and the Northwest way continue their struggle. Few know them: they do their work in the meeting spaces of government commissions, utility boardrooms and wherever sound energy policy is being made. Sometimes they even do their work in the meeting rooms of a downtown Seattle Red Lion Inn. This band of super-wonks is known as The NW Energy Coalition, and I attended their meeting last week. Here are some of my thoughts.

A view from inside the regulatory process

The first panel of the conference consisted of members of the regulatory commissions for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In addition, there were enough members of the Montana commission in the crowd to meet quorum as well as many other present and past regulators. These commissions are very reactive organizations; they review the plans of the utilities and the comments by groups like the Northwest Energy Coalition and give thumbs up or down. The primary question before them is whether a cost (like investing in energy efficiency or building a new power plant) can be included in rate calculations and what rates a utility can charge its customers. They spoke about their goal to keep costs low and how energy efficiency is the best way for utilities to meet the demands of their customers.

I asked them whether they could internalize the impact of carbon emissions by requiring the utilities to include a high carbon cost for the purpose of planning, since the federal government hasn’t acted. This would change the behavior of the utilities without imposing a politically difficult tax or cap-and-trade system. They all agreed that it was proper for the utilities to include a carbon cost based on expected federal action, but not to internalize environmental costs. In other words, as the probability of federal action decreases so will the assumed cost by northwest utilities. All of the regulators felt that dealing with climate change was someone else’s problem.

Commissioner Jeffery Gotz read the law that governs the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) and it clearly allows them to factor in environmental concerns. And they commonly do. For instance, an Integrated Resource Plan that didn’t consider salmon habitat in dam operations would be rejected.  For some reason the continued survival of salmon is an appropriate concern for the UTC (as it should be), but the survival of human civilization is Someone Else’s Problem.

This discussion also made it clear that continued pressure in DC to create a carbon cost is important, even if it fails. The higher the probability (even if we’re moving from 0 to 20% likelihood) impacts the decisions of organizations across the country.


Both of the regular readers of my blog know that I’d be interested in a panel titled “West by Northwest Energy, transmission and ecosystem challenges”. I’m still convinced that any serious effort in shutting down significant numbers of coal plants will require a modern (i.e. HVDC) grid that is planned and paid for at the federal level. The discussion of the panel focused almost entirely on projects inside the northwest, with a brief mention of upgrading our connection to southern California and the Tres Amigos project, which allows power to be exchanged between the 3 US grids (East, West, Texas). Without more transmission that connects the Northwest to the rest of the country we’ll be seeing more occasions where wind turbines are turned off  to keep us from producing more power than the region can use. If we don’t figure out a way to take advantage of the wind farms we’ve built, it’s unlikely that more will be constructed.

I asked the panel about building a national green superhighway for electricity. The response by Tom Darin of the American Wind Energy Association was interesting. He said that there had been discussions of this idea, but it didn’t go anywhere. Instead the focus was on energy efficiency (which should be a higher priority) and local/regional renewable production and transmission planning. AWEA did not oppose a national grid and no arguments were put forward against it. It is just that inertia ways heavily against tackling this problem at a national level.

If our goal is to continue operating our existing fleet of coal plants while meeting increased electricity demand due to population increases and everyone having more gadgets (aka load growth) then this is a good plan. In other words, we’re following a path that’s bad (i.e. efficiency and local renewables), because it’s a lot better than the alternative (i.e. build more coal plants). Unfortunately, this plan still leads to unacceptable emissions of carbon dioxide. We need a plan that allows us to meet our energy needs while decommissioning all of the nation’s coal powered plants. As I’ve written about already, this is possible with current technology as long as we take a national view, rather than a local one. Unfortunately, national transmission planning is also “Someone Else’s Problem”.

Safeco Field

Now here is a counter example. We were given a tour of Safeco Field and their green initiatives by Scott Jenkins, VP Ballpark Operations. Here is someone who looked at the problem of energy and resource consumption at Safeco and said “This is my problem”. Since 2005 recycling rates have gone from 12 to 81%.  Energy Use Intensity (EUI) has dropped 25% over the same period. This was not done by any heroic effort, but just by someone accepting that it was his problem and working with everyone throughout the organization to make lots of little changes.  The improvements at Safeco weren’t expensive: to the contrary they’ve saved the Mariners about $300,000 per year, or almost enough for a relief pitcher.

In addition to the work greening Safeco, the Mariners are part of the Green Sports Alliance, which works to repeat the successes there at other sports venues. By raising awareness of how easy recycling and energy conservation are to sports fans, these issues move more into the mainstream, aiding adoption of these efforts everywhere.

I believe that what has happened, and is still happening, at Safeco is the model we need to stop the climate catastrophe; everyone saying “This is my problem” and doing whatever they can to solve it.  I don’t mean to be hard on the regulators who aren’t requiring utilities to consider climate change in their planning or renewable energy advocates who focus on local concerns rather than global ones. These jobs are hard enough without taking on the burden of the whole world. But we all need to ask ourselves, “If not me, who. If not now, when”.