Where's the power?

REMEMBER the energy crisis?

This time last year, the looming electric-power crunch was all over the headlines. Months before the 2001 legislative session began, electricity rates and supply were no. 1 government priorities.

What happened? Well, as any ratepayer can tell you, electric bills went up fast last winter, stayed up all summer, and are showing no signs of dropping. But what happened to the crisis? Is it possible that jacking up the cost of keeping Christmas lights burning and toasters toasting made it go away?

Alas, no. Gasoline may be back scraping $1 a gallon, but rainfall and snowpacks are less amenable to bribery and manipulation than OPEC ministers, and the Northwest continues to teeter on the verge of a cycle of brownouts and blackouts like the ones that hit California last winter, and without deregulation to blame. Though it looks like circumstances have conspired to deliver a breather before the inevitable next round of hunt-the-electron.

Higher prices for the consumer have undeniably had an impact on consumption—in fact more of an impact than expected. By the middle of last year, the price of power for an average Northwest household had gone up close to 10 percent, and the average household had surprisingly cut its power consumption by an equal amount.

But retail customers account for only 30 percent of electricity use in the Northwest, and the really big savings—nearly 3,000 megawatts, enough to run a couple cities the size of Seattle—had more to do with a collapsing economy than corporate calculation. World prices for aluminum have been falling for years; in a contracting market, nobody wanted it at any price, and Washington state's energy-spendthrift aluminum smelters closed in response.

It's likely that some of the less efficient will never reopen. Even the Bonneville Power Administration has admitted that there may be a better use of Columbia River hydropower than melting bauxite for soft-drink containers and kitchen foil. But the aluminum plants still have powerful friends in Congress and contracts for federal power at sweetheart prices, and some are making noises about heating up the production lines again as soon as April.

The Northwest's reprieve from an energy shortage is likely to last as long as the current recession. But every month counts. Thanks to technological efficiencies, we get a much bigger bang for every energy buck these days than we did 50 years ago, but still, during the booming '90s, demand for electricity grew by an average of 220 megawatts a year. Thanks to higher electricity prices, in 2001 the Northwest added nearly 10 times as much generating capacity, and there are more plants—mainly gas-fired, but a few powered by renewable sources like wind—due to come on-line soon.

A decade's worth of capacity in one year: Sounds great, doesn't it? But it comes, unfortunately, after more than a decade's neglect of the need for more power sources. And not all the 2,140 megawatts that came on-line in 2001 are "permanent": A lot of that "new" capacity comes from small, often diesel-powered backup generators; and when demand (and therefore profit) falls, the capacity in question evaporates, until a new supply and price crunch brings them back on-line.

Most of the statistics I've been quoting come from a November up- date of the power-supply forecasts of the Portland-based four-state Northwest Power Planning Council. But the council's forecasts are only as good as the data that go into them, and thanks to the ferociously competitive nature of the power business in the era of deregulation, good data is getting a lot harder to find.

When the council's planners recently asked regional utilities about their long-term contracts to buy and deliver electri-city, they received "a very poor response. . . . [T]here are concerns about the competitive value of such information that were apparently not satisfied by the council's willingness to hold such data confidential." If utilities are unwilling to tell planners the price they've agreed to pay for electricity they've already bought, let alone how much of it they've got on order, predicting the public impact of same is something no computer model can cope with.

By comparison, willful old Mother Nature is an accommodating antagonist. And it's she who offers the best hope at the moment that we'll get through the next nine months or so without disruption or discomfort. So far, in the traditional precipitation calendar that begins in September, rainfall, snowpacks, and stream flows are all averaging about 95 percent of normal—"normal" being an average of such figures over the last 30 years. Ninety-five percent may not seem like much, but after 2000-2001, the second driest year of the same period, it looks like heaven.

The Northwest Power Planning Council's November 15 update on Northwest energy use and production:


Current statistics on Northwest river flows, snowpacks, etc.:



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