NW Region on edge of energy crisis

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Region on edge of energy crisis

Power outage, cold snap could overload utilities


OLYMPIA -- Pray for rain.

That was one of the messages delivered to the state Senate Environment, Energy and Water Committee on Monday in a briefing dubbed "Energy 101."

Senators were briefed on how the region got into the energy mess it's in and some short- and long-term solutions out of the chaos.

Tight energy supplies and higher than normal costs are expected through the winter and beyond, said Dick Watson, director of the power division of the Northwest Power Planning Council.

"If nothing goes wrong we're OK," Watson said of the region's utilities ability to keep the lights on this winter.

However, colder than normal weather, an unscheduled power plant outage or a transmission line failure could leave the Pacific Northwest short of electricity.

And without more rain, the reservoirs that supply the region's hydropower system will be in poor shape to meet summer power demands, Watson said.

Gov. Gary Locke has called on state residents and businesses to conserve up to 10 percent of their typical energy consumption, an ambitious but achievable goal, the governor's energy policy adviser, Dave Danner, said.

In addition, the governor will be releasing a legislative package to encourage new generation and conservation within the next 10 days, Danner said.

The governor also will meet with California Gov. Gray Davis this week or next with ideas on how California can regain control of the topsy-turvy wholesale power market there that has contributed to soaring power prices up and down the West Coast.

Utilities and businesses buying power on the open market, rather than through fixed-rate power contracts, are in deep financial trouble, Tacoma Power Superintendent Steve Klein testified.

In recent weeks, the Tacoma city utility has spent $2 million to $5 million per day, but recoups only $450,000 a day in electricity fees charged customers.

He said the state should declare an emergency to allow the city and others to use air-polluting diesel generators to produce power until the prices drop.

In the long run, several things must happen to restore some sanity to the region's power picture, Watson said. They include:

-Reducing the region's reliance on spot market power purchases through use of longer-term power purchase contracts.

-Reinvigorating energy conservation programs that could supply the equivalent of 2,000 megawatts of electricity -- more than enough to serve two Seattle-sized cities.

-Correcting the California power market, which was deregulated in 1998, but has performed in recent months in a dysfunctional way.

-Building new power plants.

In Washington alone, gas-fired combustion turbines capable of supplying 2,700 megawatts of electricity are permitted and ready for construction, noted Dave Warren, assistant director for energy at the state Office of Trade and Economic Development.

John Dodge covers the environment for The Olympian. He can be reached at 754-5444.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 10, 2001


Sounds like the situation in Washington state is nearly as bad as in California.

-- Buck (bigbuck@trailways.net), January 10, 2001.

Yes Buck, it is bad in the Northwest, and they are understating the problem (probably to not create panic). The real concern is the dilemma the controlling agencies are facing. Without the reservoirs refilling it may come down to, do you use the water for electrical generation or for drinking, sewage treatment, industrial, farming, and ecological? With the abundant rainfall here, we have never really considered the shortage of potable water supplies, but the reservoirs are refilled primarily by snow melt and snow levels are very low (Mt. Baker, normal snow base 160 inches - this year 45 to 50 inches). Y2K supplies are a good thing. May the Lord have mercy.

-- Phil Maley (maley@cnw.com), January 11, 2001.

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