Studies: Renewable electricity can slash Cascadia pollution, ward off climate change

By PETER FAIRLEY (InvestigateWest)
April 24, 2021 1 p.m.

New research shows that renewable electricity can move Washington, Oregon and British Columbia off of fossil fuels, do so at an affordable price, and create jobs along the way

New research shows that renewable electricity can move Washington, Oregon and British Columbia off of fossil fuels, do so at an affordable price, and create jobs along the way.

After decades of reticence from fossil fuel producers and utilities, this may sound like a wishful vision. But building a cleaner and more equitable economy — and doing so in just a few decades to head off the worst effects of climate change — is backed by a growing body of regional and international studies.

Wind turbines, with Mount Adams in the backdrop. A new report from Stanford researchers says it won't pencil out to store surplus wind power in grid-scale batteries.

Wind turbines, with Mount Adams in the backdrop.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

Innovation and mass production have made wind and solar power installations cheaper than most fossil-fueled power plants. The key to moving Cascadia’s economies away from fossil fuels is to make renewable electricity the region’s go-to “fuel.”

The new research highlights three mutually supporting strategies that squeeze out fossil fuels:

  • increasing energy efficiency to trim the amount of power we need,
  • boosting renewable energy to make it possible to turn off climate-wrecking fossil-fuel plants, and
  • plugging as much stuff as possible into the electrical grid.

Recent studies in Washington state and British Columbia, and underway for Oregon, point to efficiency and electrification as the most cost-effective route to slashing emissions while maintaining lifestyles and maximizing jobs. A recent National Academies of Science study reached the same conclusion, calling electrification the core strategy for an equitable and economically advantageous energy transition.

However, technologies don’t emerge in a vacuum. The social and economic adjustments required by the wholesale shift from fossil fuels to renewable power can still make or break decarbonization, according to Jim Williams, a University of San Francisco energy expert whose simulation software tools have guided many national and regional energy plans, including two new U.S.-wide studies, a December 2020 analysis for Washington state, and another in process for Oregon.

Williams points to vital actions likely to rile those who lose money in the deal, like letting trees grow many decades older before they are cut down so they can suck up more carbon dioxide, forgoing quicker profits from selling timber. Or convincing rural communities and conservationists that they should accept power-transmission lines crossing farms and forests.

“It’s those kinds of policy questions and social acceptance questions that are the big challenges,” said Williams. And without policies to protect disadvantaged communities from potential energy cost increases, some could be left behind.

Related: Questions loom over the future of natural gas in Oregon

By 2030, the path to decarbonization shows Washingtonians buying about $5 billion less worth of natural gas, coal and petroleum products, while putting even more dollars toward cleaner vehicles and homes. No surprise then that oil and gas interests are attacking the new research.

Charging up

Key to decarbonizing Cascadia are computer simulations of future conditions known as models. Researchers run dozens of models, tinkering with different variables: How much will energy demand grow? What happens if we can get 80% of people into electric cars? What if it’s only 50%?

What most drives Cascadia’s energy models toward electrification is the dropping cost of renewable electricity.

Take solar energy. In 2010, no large power system in the world got more than 3% of its electricity from solar. But over the past decade solar energy’s cost fell more than 80%, and by last year it was delivering over 9% of Germany’s electricity and over 19% of California’s.

Once prohibitively expensive, solar’s price now beats nuclear, coal and gas-fired power, and it’s expected to keep getting cheaper. The same goes for wind power, whose jumbo jet-sized composite blades bear no resemblance to the rickety machines once mocked by Big Oil.

In contrast, cleaning up gas- or coal-fired power plants by equipping them to capture their carbon pollution remains expensive even after decades of research and development and government incentives. Cost overruns and mechanical failures recently shuttered the world’s largest “low-carbon” coal-fired power plant in Texas after less than four years of operation.

Innovation and incentives are also making equipment that plugs into the grid less expensive. Battery advances and cost cuts have made owning an electric car cheaper than conventional cars, fuel included. Electric heat pumps — essentially air conditioners that run in reverse to push heat into a building — may be the next electric wave. They’re three to four times more efficient than electric baseboard heaters and save money over natural gas in most new homes.

Merran Smith, executive director of Vancouver-based nonprofit Clean Energy Canada, says that — as with electric cars five years ago — people don’t realize how much heat pumps have improved. “Heat pumps used to be big huge noisy things,” said Smith. “Now they’re a fraction of the size, they’re quiet and efficient.”

Simulating low-carbon living

The computer simulation tools take an economy-wide view. Planners can repeatedly run scenarios through sophisticated software, tinkering with their assumptions each time to answer cross-cutting questions.

Evolved Energy Research, a San Francisco-based firm, analyzed the situation in Washington. Its algorithms are tuned using data about energy production and use today—down to the number and types of furnaces, stovetops or vehicles. It has expert assessments of future costs for equipment and fuels. And it knows the state’s mandated emissions targets.

The model finds the most cost-effective choices by homes and businesses that meet the state’s climate goals. Modelers then account for uncertainty by throwing in various additional constraints and rerunning the model.

That probing shows that longer reliance on climate-warming natural gas and petroleum fuels increases costs. In fact, all of the climate-protecting scenarios achieve Washington’s goals at relatively low cost, compared to the state’s historic spending on energy.


The end result of these scenarios are net-zero carbon emissions in 2050, in which a small amount of emissions remaining are offset by rebounding forests or equipment that scrubs CO2 from the air.

But the seeds of that transformation must be sown by 2030. The scenarios identify common strategies that the state can pursue with low risk of future regrets.

One no brainer is to rapidly add wind and solar power to wring out CO2 emissions from Washington’s power sector. The projections end coal-fired power by 2025, as required by law, but also show that, with grid upgrades, gas-fired power plants that produce greenhouse gas emissions can stay turned off most of the time. That delivers about 16.2 million of the 44.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions cut required by 2030 under state law.

All of the Washington scenarios also jack up electricity consumption to power cars and heating. For example, in 2030 Evolved Energy’s optimal case for Washington foresees sales of electric cars, SUVs and pickups roaring from 7.3% of sales in 2020 to 85.2% in 2030. By 2050, electricity is providing 98% of the state’s transport energy.

By 2050, the high-electrification scenarios would create over 60,000 extra jobs across the state, as replacing old and inefficient equipment and construction of renewable power plants stimulates economic growth, according to projections from Washington D.C.-based FTI Consulting. Scenarios with less electrification require more low-carbon fuels that cut emissions at higher cost, and thus create 15,000 to 35,000 fewer jobs. Washingtonians earn over $7 billion more in 2050 under the high-electrification scenarios, compared to a little over $5 billion if buildings stick with gas heating through 2050 and less than $2 billion with extra transportation fuels.

Rocketing to 2030

Evolved Energy’s electrification-heavy decarbonization pathways for Washington dovetail with a growing body of international research, such as that National Academy of Sciences report and a major U.S. decarbonization study led by Princeton University.

The challenge is accelerating the transition. Action by 2030 is needed across Cascadia to deliver on societal demand to fight climate change and to lay the tracks for the difficult, long-term task of squeezing out nearly all carbon emissions a few decades later.

Growing electrification of cars, buses, buildings and more, requires infrastructure such as charging stations, some quick growth in electricity generation, and power lines to carry it.

In Oregon and Washington, such investments may catch a tailwind if Congress backs President Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure package. But building transmission lines requires tough negotiations with affected communities, which can be time consuming.

The race to start cutting emissions also introduces an economic speed bump around 2030. Economic growth would slow due to increased energy costs as economies race to make a sharp turn toward pollution reductions after nearly a decade of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“Meeting that 2030 target is tough and I think it took everybody a little bit by surprise,” said Nancy Hirsh, executive director of the Seattle-based NW Energy Coalition, and co-chair of a state panel that shaped Washington’s recent energy supply planning.

Economic analysis for Washington state by FTI Consulting projects 10,000 to 15,000 fewer jobs to be created in Washington in 2030 relative to the climate-be-damned growth scenario. The state’s current employment is about 3.3 million.

Embracing the messengers?

Burning less gasoline, diesel and natural gas produces cleaner air — something that’s not factored into most economic forecasting. The cost of decarbonization in 2030 looks even more affordable when one considers avoided air and water pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Avoiding climate damage, meanwhile, would pay even larger dividends in the long run. Scientists expect action by Cascadia to help slow impacts of climate change, reducing future costs for damages to property and infrastructure from megafires, larger storms, and sea level rise.

For Smith at Clean Energy Canada, electrifying is also a potent business opportunity for Cascadia. Smith points to BC’s aluminum, which, thanks to British Columbia’s near-total reliance on hydropower, is gaining advantage as one of the world’s least carbon-intensive suppliers.

Companies like Tesla and BMW are looking for low-carbon aluminum, notes Smith: “I don’t think that most British Columbians realize that we have a nearly 100% emissions free electricity grid, nor what a competitive advantage it is.”

With more renewable power, the province can decarbonize all of its natural resource exports, including forest products and other metals such as copper, cobalt and nickel. “Branding BC that way, rather than as a fossil fuel exporter, will attract more investment,” she said.

Washington and Oregon could build toeholds in clean-energy manufacturing, such as the Daimler plant that makes electric trucks in Portland.

But not everyone embraces an electrified future. Fossil fuel interests in Washington have called the modeling biased and are raising the specter of electrification-driven blackouts.

Resistance to action toward accelerated electrification has been on full display in recent months as Washington’s Legislature considers an array of policies to encourage or mandate a transition to cleaner energy. One proposal backed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to restrict delivery of gas to new buildings by 2030 died early, under assault from the gas industry and some unions.

During a hearing on the Better Homes & Clean Buildings Bill, gas distributors raised the threat of energy shortfalls, citing a 2019 study suggesting that power demand could soon outstrip supply as the region’s coal-fired power plants shut down.

Environmental advocates point out that oil and gas producers and distributors have a vested interest in opposing rapid reductions in petroleum and natural gas consumption. Grid experts say the best way to ensure reliability is to get cracking on power system upgrades needed to support a larger supply of wind and solar power.

Spencer Gray, the Portland-based executive director for the Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition, which represents many renewable energy developers, says ensuring Cascadia’s power supply is “solvable” without slowing decarbonization. What’s crucial, he says, is to strengthen the grid.

Gray is among the many experts working toward creation of a regional power market for the Western grid, which interconnects all of the electrical systems in the U.S. and Canada west of the Rockies. They are also working to accelerate expansion of power lines so that Cascadia and its neighbors can access more low-cost renewable energy, such as the excellent wind resources in Montana.

“Five to 10 years from now is when we need it,” said Gray. “We need to start getting the stuff financed and sited now.”