Pacific Northwest could experience ‘energy droughts,’ study finds

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Jan. 1, 2024 2 p.m.

Drops in solar and wind energy production, also known as energy droughts, could potentially last for hours in the Pacific Northwest. New research is aimed at helping grid planners better understand these energy gaps and where solutions, like battery storage, could be best utilized.

A study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that Oregon and Washington could experience energy droughts, but noted that those hits to energy production could happen less frequently than other parts of the nation.

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Solar panels and wind turbines work to create clean electric power, at Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility, May 24, 2022. Portland General Electric partnered with NextEra Energy Resources to build a first-of-its-kind facility that will use an innovative battery technology that supporters are calling a “game changer” for Oregon’s renewable energy transition.

Solar panels and wind turbines work to create clean electric power, at Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility, May 24, 2022. Portland General Electric partnered with NextEra Energy Resources to build a first-of-its-kind facility that will use an innovative battery technology that supporters are calling a “game changer” for Oregon’s renewable energy transition.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“For solar energy, it would be when it’s really cloudy or hazy, maybe even smoky. And for wind, it would be atmospheric conditions that just have no wind blowing,” PNNL research scientist Cameron Bracken said.

Bracken, who is the lead author of the paper, said researchers used historical hourly weather data dating back four decades to better understand weather patterns and which parts of the country could experience energy droughts.

The team also compared energy demands to identify how often an energy drought could occur when power is needed the most.

“The weather system is highly variable, and it can impact solar and wind generation in different regions of the country,” he said. “Depending on what type of energy, where it’s being used, there might be different impacts to the grid and there might be different ways to mitigate those impacts.”

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As the transition to renewable energy continues and more solar and wind farms are powering homes, researchers want to know where potential gaps in energy production are so grid planners can improve reliability.

Not all parts of the country experienced energy droughts, said Nathalie Voisin, PNNL’s chief regional water energy dynamics researcher.

“When there is a drought somewhere, there is not a drought in other places,” she said. “What we’re really showing is how to use climate services more efficiently to provide the reliability moving forward.”

That reliability could mean adding battery storage capacity to the grid or other renewable energy technologies like nuclear power.

Building out more interconnected regional transmission lines could also be a solution, she said.

“Transmissions are a key part to provide regional and cross regional reliability,” she said.

The data could also be crucial in ensuring there is enough power and storage in underserved communities as more transmission lines are built out, she said.

“It’s going to be pretty important to address the social equity and the environmental justice of the future power grid,” Voisin noted.

Energy droughts are not an issue in the Pacific Northwest currently due to an abundance of hydropower, Bracken said, but it’s important to begin to understand where the gaps could be.

Bracken said his team will now look at climate change scenarios and how extreme weather events, like the Pacific Northwest 2021 heat dome, could impact the duration and magnitude of energy droughts.

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