Comply with the Clean Power Plan? No problem for the Northwest

By David Ferris | 12/18/2015 08:08 AM EST

Correction appended.

As states and utilities across the country struggle with how to meet the demands of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the states of the Pacific Northwest will clear their hurdles with relatively little effort, according to a new regional strategic document.

The northwest corner of the country will see its carbon emissions drop significantly in the early 2020s as three coal-fired power plants are phased out and the area makes new strides in efficient lighting and appliances.


Without even trying to comply with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Pacific Northwest will see its carbon emissions drop from 55 million metric tons this year to about 34 million metric tons in 2035.

The projection came in the form of a 20-year draft plan published by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which coordinates the electricity needs of four states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The council updates its plan every five years and for decades has made energy efficiency a priority.

The draft states that in the current 20-year plan, "energy efficiency consistently proved the least expensive and least economically risky resource." Under almost every scenario the council looked at, energy efficiency will absorb the region’s growth in energy needs until 2035.

The plan’s serene conclusions, however, paper over significant differences in how its member states get electricity and how they view the Clean Power Plan. Montana has joined with 23 other states to challenge the plan in court, while Oregon and Washington support it.

Montana heavily relies on coal for its power, while that fuel plays a small and diminishing role in the other states. Under the federal plan, Montana is required to reduce its carbon emissions rate by 47 percent by 2030. The state is also a major exporter of coal.

Climate change cramps power outlook

One practical purpose of the Northwest council’s plan is to guide the vision of the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that operates many of the hydroelectric dams that serve as the Northwest’s power backbone.

All is not rosy, however. The area faces a risk of not being able to meet its peak power demand in the winter because dry years and severe storms are becoming more likely as the climate changes, interfering with the rhythm of the region’s water flows and dams.

Most parts of the country experience their peak electricity usage in the summer, when everyone is cranking the air conditioning. But the Pacific Northwest, with its mild summers, experiences its peak in the winter when all the electric heaters are on.

The region usually can meet its own peak needs, but if it can’t, planners say that salvation lies in demand response. In demand-response programs, utilities dampen demand on peak-use days by asking electricity users to voluntarily curb their energy use. Such programs are becoming more widespread and sophisticated.

The bulk of energy savings, however, will come from new generations of appliances and upgrades. The changes with the highest potential, the report said, include widespread adoption of LED bulbs, better weatherization of homes, more efficient water heaters and intelligent power strips that turn off gadgets when not in use.

"It’s the connection between the digital world, the Internet, and pretty mundane activities like heating or turning your lights on" that will save most electricity, Tom Eckman, the council’s director of power planning, said to the Associated Press.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Montana’s carbon-reduction requirement under the Clean Power Plan.