The month of March began with a deep chill in Cascadia. In Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Arctic air streamed south, increasing energy demand and pressure energy sources. For the region’s energy grid, it created a “perfect” storm. Following light fall rains and unusually frigid winter, Cascadia hydroelectric reservoirs were at record lows as temperatures plunged.
The Centralia, Washington, coal-fired power plant — the most significant generator between Seattle and Portland — had been cut in half due to mechanical problems. In addition, Cascadia wind turbines were being hampered by a low-pressure weather phenomenon. The power that could go north was also reduced due to repair work on wires in Los Angeles.
Citizens were urged to save energy by utilities. As power rates rose, businesses cut back. And the grid stayed put. It was a close call, according to utility officials, and a sign of a new normal. Scott Bolton, senior vice president of transmission development at Portland-based PacifiCorp, says, “We actually had a very close call.” As InvestigateWest revealed in April, sharing renewable electricity over great distances is one of the most cost-effective solutions for reducing carbon emissions.
Longer power lines with centralized control centers boost grid flexibility, allowing for more wind and solar electricity to be carried. Utilities would be able to tap into a variety of sources if they had a strong network. If Cascadia power supply is disrupted by inclement weather, utilities can import electricity from other parts, such as solar power from the Southwest or wind power from Montana and Wyoming. Cascadia can also export solar, wind, and water electricity if the tables are turned. Of course, a larger grid isn’t the only way to go. Large battery arrays on the high-voltage grid or more miniature battery packs charged by rooftop solar panels may keep the lights on for several hours.