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The status quo vs a cleaner energy future


If things continue as they are now, a new report concludes, by 2050 the Western states will be using a lot more coal-fired power and natural gas than they would if companies invested the same amount of money in renewables, energy conservation and a more flexible grid.

Clean energy advocates released a report yesterday examining what the Western power grid could look like in 2050 under two scenarios: 1. the region continues business as usual, or 2. new policies drive more investment in clean energy.

The Western Grid 2050 report projects $200 billion will be spent in the electricity sector by 2050 to update aging infrastructure and meet growing demand for power. We will all be better off, the report concludes, if that money is spent on developing renewable energy and making the power grid more flexible. A former governor of Colorado and around 30 renewable energy advocate groups – including Renewable Northwest Project and the Northwest Energy Coalition – are supporting a new vision for what could be done with that money, if new policies offered the right incentives.

If things continue as they are now, they say, companies will invest in retrofitting coal plants and building more natural gas plants, and they won’t invest as much in overhauling the grid for more renewable power.

Under a different scenario, where new policies strongly encourage clean energy, energy efficiency and conservation, there would be less demand for power, less and less coal-fired power, a limited amount of natural gas and lots more large-scale renewable power.

There could even be 20 percent less hydropower under this scenario. The grid would be smarter and more flexible, more individuals would generate their own power, and electric cars and other storage devices could help balance the fluctuations in wind and solar power generation.

Ultimately, the report found, there would be less water consumption, fewer carbon dioxide emissions, more land used for renewable energy and less for fossil fuel exploration, more jobs and healthier people.

The report says to make the clean-energy future happen, numerous policies would need change, though I didn’t see many specifically mentioned. The report does note that right now utilities benefit from growth in demand for power and policies don’t encourage them to participate in regional projects. Utilities don’t coordinate with each other as much as they would need to under the clean-energy scenario, the report says. That fits with what I wrote earlier about how utilities are looking at pooling power and transmission resources in the Northwest to balance the ups and downs in renewable energy generation.

The report found that the grid would need to change a little to accommodate the “business as usual” incentives for renewable energy, but it would need to change a lot more to reach a cleaner energy future.