Total Electrification — Food for Thought

The old adage, “Never put all your eggs in one basket.” is as true for the energy system as it is for anything else. Diversity of energy sources is essential to ensure we can rely on the energy we need when we need it.

We enjoy a safe, reliable, and affordable energy delivery system here in the Northwest. The interdependence of two amazing but inherently different energy infrastructures makes it so. One system is the machine that instantaneously conveys electricity into our region’s farthest and most remote areas. The other is the natural gas system spanning 128,000 miles (206,000 Km for those of you who prefer the metric system) that delivers warmth and comfort to ten million residents of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and productive energy to almost 350,000 businesses, institutions, and industries that are the region’s economic engine. The two systems function very differently but are interconnected and operate seamlessly together.

That integrated system is at risk. One of the trendiest and most poorly understood concepts in energy – “electrify everything” – is ascendant. The idea is to eliminate consumer choice in the energy they can use by mandating that everything in our homes, offices, manufacturing facilities, and cars be powered with electricity. Several groups are pushing this idea with a vested interest in its success.

Anybody who experienced the recent Northwest “heat dome” knows first-hand the value of electricity in our daily lives. If you are one of the half-million people who lost power during the February ice storm or one of the hundreds of families who lost homes to the wildfires last summer, you are familiar with its vulnerabilities. You are also likely aware that the natural gas infrastructure continued to operate without interruption during each circumstance, providing hot water, cooking, and some space heat when the electricity was out and fuel for the electricity that cooled homes and businesses when the wind wasn’t blowing and after the sunset.

If our economy – and daily lives – will rely this much on electricity, we need to know the grid isn’t going to break down. Right now, we don’t know that — even just for today’s level of demand. In fact, the chance of a regional power supply disruption will increase to one in four in the next few years, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Their forecast of significantly increased risk of blackouts and brownouts across the region does not include aggressive policy-driven electrification of buildings and transportation currently being contemplated in some jurisdictions. That’s quite a gamble.

A study from Princeton University finds that electrifying nearly all transport and buildings could contribute to doubling — or more — the amount of electricity required in the U.S. by 2050. For example, over the past decade, the number of U.S. electricity outages has doubled. There is a long list of culprits, including retirements of dispatchable generation like coal and nuclear, high winds toppling tree limbs, wildfires, ice storms, even aggressive squirrels. And because renewable electricity like solar and wind is intermittent, there is increasing pressure on the grid to manage this variability.

The Princeton University study estimates the country will need between double and triple today’s electricity transmission capacity to accommodate the Biden administration’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. A number of analyses by local utilities demonstrate similar numbers. This objective will be extremely difficult to achieve in large part because no one wants high-voltage wires and substations near their home. Still, there can’t be the electrification of everything without a lot more of those wires and stations.

More interconnections also increase cyber-attack risks by providing more gateways and larger linked attack surfaces for hackers to enter undetected into a vital system to interrupt U.S. economic activity or safety. The more digitized and connected things to a plug, the more activities that have to increase cyber-protection tools and practices.

Not only is it risky to put all eggs in the electrification basket, it’s also unnecessary. The energy delivered by the natural gas system can and will change. Instead of building a whole new energy infrastructure on top of a safe, modern, and highly reliable energy delivery system that currently serves millions of residents and hundreds of thousands of businesses, we can adapt the existing system to more affordably and reliably address our region’s decarbonization goals.

Stay tuned for this series’s next installment when we discuss the promise and benefits of decarbonizing the fuel delivered by the natural gas system in the Pacific Northwest.

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