The power of reliable power

Don C. Brunell is a regional columnist.

  • Friday, November 8, 2019 8:30am
  • Opinion

Our state’s economy and way of life hinges on low cost and reliable electricity. Since Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams were completed in the early 1940s, Washington has enjoyed both.

We are accustomed to flipping a switch and our lights illuminate. Our state’s electricity supply is abundant and our transmission system is dependable.

Washington is heavily reliant on hydroelectric generators, many of which are located in powerhouses on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Only during the severe droughts have our electric utilities resorted to rationing electricity.

That happened 20 years ago. The Pacific Northwest experienced a severe drought. Mountain snowpack in the Rockies and Cascades was at all-time low levels. Water shortages reduce electricity supplies. The aluminum industry was hit hardest. Most aluminum smelters were closed and never reopened after the drought.

In 1998, Washington’s aluminum plants employed 7,510 workers who earned just under $50,000 a year with good health care benefits and retirement. However, unreliable electricity supplies and higher prices for power made it impossible to restart production.

Today, Californians are learning to live with the hardships of sporadic blackouts. “Wind-driven wildfires and mandatory blackouts have become a new normal for Californians,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and other power companies have conducted mandatory power outages in recent weeks to prevent more fires. Recently, PG&E cut power to 965,000 homes and businesses—or about 2.5 million people—in Northern California.

Fast moving wildfires are breaking out in Southern California as well. On Oct. 28, more than 15,800 customers’ electricity had to be shutoff in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, according to Southern California Edison.

Melanie Bagby, mayor of Cloverdale, told Yahoo Finance, she is pretty certain this is going to be our life for the next 10 years. “That’s about how long it’s going to take to be able to upgrade the electrical grid and our infrastructure.”

That could be catastrophic for California, the state with the world’s fifth largest economy. (In 2017, California’s GDP was $2.7 trillion compared to Washington’s $525 billion).

In both states, electricity is the life-blood of energy intensive industries ranging from Internet data centers and semiconductor fabricators to state-of-the art health care facilities and carbon-fiber manufacturers. Just one server farm in Quincy consumes as much electricity as an aluminum smelter.

PG&E’s electric transmission system has been heavily criticized over the last year. It is identified as one of the culprits sparking the 2018 wildfire season which was the most lethal and destructive wildfire ever recorded in California.

The massive Camp Fire was the deadliest of California’s 8,500 wildfires. It engulfed 240 square miles and wiped out the city of Paradise in the north central part of the state. It killed 85 people and caused more than $16.5 billion in damages. It started with a faulty PG&E powerline during high winds.

So far this year mandatory power outages have impact retailers from hardware chains to coffee shops in the business sector. However, as long as the Diablo (northern) and Santa Ana (southern) winds gust in California, people’s everyday lives will be disrupted.

What is happening in California is a good reminder that we cannot take our basic infrastructure for granted. It needs constant maintenance and upgrading which is expensive. Just as highways and bridges have been targeted for upgrading, elected officials, regulators and utilities (private and public) need to encourage and permit electric utilities to do the same.

“The overall impact of the California outages on the U.S. economy will likely be small unless it lasts for much longer or spreads to many more households,” economists told the Associated Press.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, and now lives in Vancouver.


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