Navigating a Complex Path to a Secure Energy Future

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Planning for the 2021 Power Plan

Planning for the power system is challenging. As planners, we try to determine how much electricity we will need over the next 20 years by evaluating uncertainty about weather, fuel prices, and changes in technology. As energy technologies, from solar to electric vehicles, have advanced, planning to ensure that the Northwest will have a reliable and affordable power supply has become an increasingly complex endeavor. Adding to the puzzle is the question of how the region’s hydrosystem can adapt to this changing mix of generation.

The Federal Columbia River Power System is a 20th century engineering marvel and the backbone of the region’s power system since the 1930s. But it is a multipurpose system, providing flood control, benefits to fish and wildlife, and irrigation, along with generating electricity. Regional planners must account for how the system is managed to meet these different needs; whether water is stored in a reservoir, allowed to flow down the river to generate electricity, or spill through the dams to help migrating fish.

The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets the system’s electricity, owns and operates more than three-fourths of the region’s transmission grid. It delivers federal power to public utilities, a significant proportion of electricity use in the Northwest. Accounting for the agency’s legal requirements and debt considerations for public utilities is critical for regional planning.

There are also a variety of legislative and utility goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and states and utilities have different approaches to implementing or measuring them. Planners integrate these goals into our expectations of how existing and future power plants will be operated.

The regional system also includes a major interconnection that exports power from the Northwest to California. That state’s ambitious energy goal to rely entirely on clean energy sources by 2045 has resulted in a large fleet of solar generation, affecting exports. Estimating the effects of California’s goals and policies on our regional system is now an important consideration.

We’re not alone. Planning challenges from new generation and storage technologies, ambitious public policies on greenhouse gas emissions, and changes to markets for energy and capacity have all converged to make an already challenging endeavor even more complicated.

But, if history is any indication, we know we’ve been able to come together in the past to work in collaboration to solve difficult problems. We look forward to working with our partners and fellow citizens to determine the best plan for meeting our future energy needs. Stay tuned.

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