Think Out Loud

Planning for Eugene’s power needs

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Jan. 4, 2023 5:54 p.m. Updated: Jan. 11, 2023 10:37 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Jan. 4

The Eugene Water & Electric Board, Oregon’s largest customer-owned utility, is moving forward with decommissioning the Leaburg Hydroelectric Project due to structural deficiencies and the high cost of future repairs. Meanwhile, the board has also released a draft plan to chart Eugene’s energy future. The proposal forecasts electricity needs for the next 20 years and navigates which energy sources, like wind farms paired with batteries, could best fit the region’s power needs. The board is currently accepting public comment on the draft. We dig more into these issues with Aaron Orlowski, a spokesperson for the board.

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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. From electric vehicles to heat pumps to induction stoves, the future, if it is going to be sustainable, is going to involve a lot more electricity, and utilities have to plan for that future load right now. That’s what Eugene Water & Electric Board, Oregon’s largest customer owned utility, is doing. They’re currently figuring out their electricity needs for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, just yesterday, the board voted to decommission one of their hydroelectric dams. Aaron Orlowski is the spokesperson for the Eugene Water & Electric Board, or EWEB, and he joins us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.

Aaron Orlowski: Thanks for having me on the show Dave, it’s great to be here.

Miller: Let’s start with the news from yesterday. What is wrong with the Leaburg Dam?

Orlowski: This is an issue that we discovered in 2018, and it’s actually some structural deficiencies with the Leaburg Canal, which is part of the Leaburg Project. We discovered that it’s not really seismically up to modern standards. It was built in the 1920s. So top of the line construction methods at the time, but today they don’t quite hold up to modern standards. So, our board last night, as you mentioned, voted to move forward with decommissioning the project as one of the least risky and lowest cost alternatives that we studied.

Miller: What other options did the board consider? I mean, for example, why not fix it up and just keep using this?

Orlowski: Yeah, that’s a great question Dave. Our board started with dozens of options and they narrowed it down to four. Those four options ranged from decommissioning it completely to returning it to service, fixing the whole canal and resuming electricity generation there. And the reason that the board went with the decommissioning route is because it would cost a lot of money to fully repair the canal. And then the electricity that we would generate again from that canal would be many times more expensive than electricity that we can buy from the Bonneville Power Administration, which is where we already get most of our electricity. So it was really a less risky option to do this decommissioning and get our electricity somewhere else.

Miller: How much power have you been generating from this dam?

Orlowski: Historically, the Leaburg project provided about 4% of EWEB’s power. We did need to take it offline in 2018 when we discovered those issues with the canal, so what that has meant since 2018 is that we’ve just had less extra power to sell to the markets. We’ve still been fine on our supply for the last few years. Historically, it’s provided about 4%.

Miller: This gets us to the broader issue I mentioned at the top, a big issue that the board is working on right now. What is an integrated resource plan?

Orlowski: So an integrated resource plan is a pretty common practice in the utility industry. Basically, utilities do this commonly to figure out what their energy needs are for the future and how they can meet those needs. EWEB, in 2022, we embarked on our first Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, in about a decade. And what we’re doing is forecasting our energy needs 20 years into the future. And then we’re using some advanced computer modeling software to assess different combinations of energy resources - solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, those kinds of things - to see what can best meet our needs in the future.

Miller: What are the big trends that you, as an electrical utility, have to pay attention to right now?

Orlowski: Well, there’s a lot, it’s a very dynamic time for the utility industry. One of the ones that we’re paying attention to the most, which kind of forms a foundation for our planning efforts, is that we know that demand for electricity is going to grow. People are trading out their gasoline powered cars and they’re getting electric vehicles, they’re switching off their gas furnaces and they’re getting electric heat pumps. And that’s gonna cause electricity demand to rise. And this is a good thing to be clear, because we need to electrify as a society to fight climate change. So for EWEB in particular, we’re forecasting that our electricity demand is going to rise by about 2% per year, starting in around 2030. So we have a little bit of time to prepare, but we need to be ready for that to come.

And then there are a lot of other trends that are affecting the whole industry in the whole region. We’re facing issues with hydropower becoming a little more limited. We’re facing issues with integrating these valuable renewable resources, like wind and solar, onto the grid. And these are presenting some challenges that we’re having to deal with.

Miller: I want to get to all those issues as we go, but in terms of the growth, starting in 2030 a 2% a year increase in the load and what your customers are going to be needing, is most of that because of electrification stuff that right now is basically being done by fossil fuels, as opposed to population growth?

Orlowski: There’s a little bit of both, but the main thing is that electrification, and especially that electrification for transportation, people switching out and getting electric vehicles, that’s really where the biggest cause of that demand growth is.

Miller: What about when people are going to be using electricity? With more electric vehicles on the road, those could be charging overnight, heat pumps in buildings are going to be, if not year round, [running] all day during the winter. Are peak usage times expected to shift as we electrify our world?

Orlowski: This is a little bit of an open question. You’re right that this peak usage time is a crucial concept for energy planners and for all of us as energy consumers to really bear in mind. As you alluded to, seasonally, at EWEB and across the region, our peak needs are during the winter. That’s when folks are turning on their electric heaters and that consumes a lot of electricity.

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And then there are different times of the day when energy use peaks as well. The thing with EV charging is that there are two ways to do it, in sort of an unmanaged way or a managed way. If you imagine someone who comes home from work at five o’clock during the winter, and they just plug their EV into the charger, they’re adding strain to the grid at a peak time right then in the early evening, because that is one of the peak times during the winter. What’s necessary, and what we’re discovering in our integrated resource plan, is that we’re going to need partnerships with our customers to make sure that, if they’re arriving home with their EV and they’re plugging it in, that they have some technology, that’s part of a demand response program for instance, that can allow their EV to charge overnight when that peak is not happening, and when the demand for energy is a lot lower. So that’s one of the key takeaways here is that, both at EWEB and for utilities across the region, we really need to figure out how to work with our customers to manage when they’re using electricity. Especially in that easier method like in EV charging. That’s a pretty simple piece of technology to change the way we use electricity.

Miller: And then the way it would work is it would sort of balance things out so that one car would start charging it at one in the morning, say, and another at three, another at five in the morning, just to simplify this greatly?

Orlowski: Potentially, yeah. Or just in general overnight, is a relatively low time for demand. So it could take a few hours overnight and that would also be fine.

Miller: Who would pay for that box that would ideally be in many of your customers’ garages?

Orlowski: That’s a great question and that’s something that we really do need to figure out. One thing that’s been important for managing our energy usage at EWEB and across the region has been conservation, and I’m bringing this up for some similar reasons. Basically, utilities have paid our customers to use less energy, through rebates, for weatherization on your home or more efficient windows, or rebates like what we have right now for electric heat pumps. And that’s basically a partnership between the utility and the customer to pay for a way to use less energy. If you take a heat pump, for example, the customer does pay for that and then they get a rebate. So it’s really a partnership where both the utility and the customer sort of taking ownership of that reduction in energy usage. So we hope that there’s something similar that can be done with EV charging or demand response.

Miller: So what are the hallmarks of the draft plan that you released for public comment recently?

Orlowski: There’s a few key pillars to it, and one of them I mentioned already, which is that we know that electricity demand is going to grow because of electrification. Another is what we just talked about, that we’re gonna need to work with customers to develop these kinds of programs that help us manage that energy demand.

And then there’s two other things that were really crucial that we were discovering in this draft plan, and the first is that hydropower is a great fit for us, and it is for utilities around the region. And when I’m talking about hydropower, I’m mostly talking about the large dams on the Columbia River where the Bonneville Power Administration, which is a federal agency, they sell that power generated by those dams to public utilities and others around the region. And that’s a really valuable resource. It’s low cost, and it’s carbon free, and it can be dispatched or it can be generated and sent to customers at a moment’s notice to meet demand, and that’s a really valuable characteristic. Right now, EWEB, we get about 80% of our energy from hydropower, and most of that from BPA. And continuing to do that would be a wise idea.

The second thing that we were discovering in this initial analysis is that we will need to supplement that hydropower, and one viable path is to do so with new wind farms and new batteries. And that’s really valuable because wind farms tend to generate energy during the seasons when we need it the most, like the winter. And so what we can do is generate energy with the wind farms when the wind is blowing. And then when the wind is not blowing, we can use the batteries to fill in those gaps.

Miller: Are you talking about buying wind powered electricity from some startup or some existing company? Or building your own infrastructure?

Orlowski: Both are an option. And at this point in the planning process we actually didn’t distinguish between the two. The two have different financing logistics and details to them. But really, the purpose of the plan here is to sort of identify the categories of resources that could be most valuable. So as we move into later steps in this planning process, we’ll look at things like actually getting a request for proposals from different companies, getting into the nitty gritty details about how to actually procure those resources.

It is worth mentioning though that, with something like wind for instance, there are different types and it depends on the geography. Right now there are a lot of wind farms that utilities in the northwest get their power from, and a lot of them are in the Columbia River Gorge area. And that has a certain profile, those wind farms generate energy at a certain time, at certain times of the year, certain seasons. A wind farm that is in Montana or Wyoming will have a different profile. So it’s really worth exploring the details. Do we, do we need to find a resource like a wind farm from the Columbia River Gorge that generates at these times? Or should we look at Montana or Wyoming, where it generates at different times? So, those are some of the details we’re looking at right now. And then the next step will be to actually sort of determine who should finance this and how do we actually get it built or buy it?

Miller: You haven’t mentioned solar. Does solar fit into the way you think about EWEB’s electricity portfolio going forward?

Orlowski: We had solar as one of the resources that we examined. We’re gonna be doing more analysis and getting more results in the months ahead. But in this initial result, solar was not selected. And we have a couple of theories for why that might be the case. As we talked about earlier, the peak energy needs here in the coastal northwest, Western Oregon, are really in the winter. It’s cloudy and the days are short, and solar doesn’t generate very much energy during that time. So it would be more valuable to build something like a wind farm that might generate more energy in the winter to meet those peak needs. Solar does have benefits. It can be local, it can help our customers reduce their bills. But as far as getting energy for low cost, there are better options out there.

Miller: I want to go back to hydro, because as you noted, that’s where you currently get the bulk of your electricity, 80% or more. You mentioned the centrality of hydropower going forward in terms of EWEB’s vision of the future. But at the same time you’re taking down this relatively small Leaburg Project, Klamath dams are going to be coming down. There has been perennial talk about dams on the lower Snake River that are much more significant for power generation. What does the board see as the future of hydropower?

Orlowski: Yeah, that is a great question. Dave. The future of hydropower is something that we’re all looking at really closely. A couple of the things to consider: as I mentioned, in general, hydropower has some really valuable characteristics for our energy supply. One thing that’s happening is that the requirements for hydropower projects to protect fish and wildlife, migrating salmon, those requirements are getting more and more robust to protect the fish and to help them, revive and and the populations to recover. And for some of those smaller projects, kind of like the Leaburg, ones like the Cougar Dam on the Willamette River, for instance, the cost of implementing those mitigation measures for fish and wildlife is pretty high per unit of energy generated. So it’s a lot easier, it’s more efficient to have the bigger dams on the Columbia River, for instance, that are generating lots of power at a lower cost, and there are some fish mitigation measures there that are helpful. And so one of the things that we’re wrestling with as a utility and as an industry is how do we make sure that we still have the benefits of hydropower while also protecting fish species? And one of the things that our team that’s doing analysis here is gonna look at really closely in some of their ongoing analysis is do we need to look at alternative resources because hydropower might be more limited in the future?

Miller: What about nuclear power?

Orlowski: Nuclear is an interesting option. Our plan, the initial results suggested that nuclear could be something we explore in 20 years. That’s a long time from now. And basically, the benefits of nuclear are kind of similar to the benefits of hydropower. It’s a resource that has firm generation, it can generate all the time. And it can also generate on demand. And so what we’re hoping for is we’re looking at nuclear as maybe a stand-in for, we need to, as a society and a region, be exploring these types of resources that offer the flexibility of hydropower and nuclear, but maybe don’t have some of the downsides.

Miller: Aaron Orlowski, thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Orlowski: Thank you.

Miller: Aaron Orlowski is a spokesperson for EWEB, the Eugene Water & Electric Board.

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