Op-Ed: Plan now to keep the lights on affordably and reliably for future generations

Most people hardly give it a second thought.  Flick on a switch, the light comes on. Plug in a computer, it powers up.  We depend on electricity for our day-to-day tasks, our jobs and the quality of life we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest.  On rare occasions when a storm knocks out power, we begin to recognize how difficult life would be without electricity. That’s why it is wise to plan now to ensure an adequate electrical supply well into the future.

One of the greatest challenges facing electric utility companies here and across the nation is how to keep the lights on, reliably and cost effectively.  Consumers are using more electricity to operate computers, televisions, server farms, and other equipment. We live in a high-tech economy dependent on increasing energy supplies to sustain its growth.

Utilities are being told they must expand the transmission system, improve delivery, deal with cyber-security issues, provide enough power for the electrification of vehicles and find renewable energy to purchase.  But they are also approaching the impossibility of supplying for increased demands while complying with regulations that have the potential to cripple their ability to generate the amount of power needed.

Nearly half the nation’s baseload electric generation is fueled by coal. Shut it down under ambitious government-imposed carbon reduction deadlines and we lose nearly 50 percent of our nationwide power supply.  Regardless of the political debate over greenhouse gasses, it’s unrealistic to so quickly eliminate such a large percentage of electrical generation without risking outages or brown-outs. Our electric infrastructure took almost 100 years to build, and it cannot be reengineered and rebuilt overnight.  It will take time to restore that lost generation.

Another concern is the imposition of additional regulatory forces, such as government cap-and-trade proposals. Under cap-and trade, companies (mostly utilities) which emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses would be required to purchase permits for each ton of carbon they emit annually.  As permits are reduced (capped), the price to obtain them (trade) would become very expensive. Some predict auctioned carbon allowances could create a $2 trillion commodities market that would provide Wall Street and the federal government with huge profits. This “carbon market” could also very easily dwarf the consequences in California 10 years ago when a similar competitive scheme resulted in severe electricity shortages and higher costs as energy traders, such as Enron, manipulated grid generation to create enormous income at ratepayers’ expense.

If you think Benton PUD’s recently announced 32 percent rate increase is high, wait until cap-and-trade policies kick in. Consumers would be forced to offset carbon auctioneering costs through immensely higher energy bills.  A recent study of Oregon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals anticipates resulting rate hikes of 38 percent for Portland Gas and Electric (PGE) customers, 45 percent for Idaho Power, and 19.6 percent for PacificCorp by 2020. Some increases may even extend to PacificCorp customers in Washington.

If we are to ensure a future of reliable, affordable electricity, we need to immediately develop an energy policy that identifies the long-term needs of our society, recognizes the complex engineering requirements of a continent-wide electrical grid, and sets us on a course of solutions that help to achieve these goals.

This includes revising carbon reduction timelines so that half the baseload generation is not jeopardized.  As coal-fired generation is reduced, we must move toward protecting the integrity of the grid with a stable replacement of non-carbon emitting quality generation.  While wind and solar may be helpful components, they can’t be exclusive sources, primarily because their power is intermittent.  We need a broad energy policy that emphasizes nuclear, which is one of the most reliable, clean, non-emitting generation sources, as well as hydro and natural gas, wind and solar supplements, and combined with robust conservation. To ensure on-demand quality electricity, this policy must also acknowledge that time and technology will be necessary to replenish lost generation.

Finally, we must resist costly, ineffective “feel-good” schemes and mandates that risk saddling consumers with unintended consequences.

Now is the time for all stakeholders –utilities, elected officials, consumers, employers, environmentalists and others — to come together to create a long-term cohesive energy policy.  We know from past experience that getting it wrong may lead to massive transfers of wealth, extreme rate increases, unproductive costs and goals not realized.  However, getting it right can mean a cost-effective, clean electric grid that, along with a balanced digital smart grid, reduces greenhouse gases, supports domestically supplied energy, provides long-term jobs, and ensures affordable, reliable electricity at your fingertips.

Editor’s note:  Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, serves the 16th District and is a member of the House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, serves the 8th District, and is the assistant ranking Republican on the House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee. They can be reached through their Web sites at: houserepublicans.wa.gov.

State Representative Terry Nealey, 16th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
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