The great clean energy transition is officially on.

With the passage of a federal climate bill, a 2035 deadline to phase out sales of oil-powered cars in Washington and the climate crisis hot on our heels, we’re off to the races. Utilities are gearing up for a big wave of renewable power development to replace coal, gas and oil. But while power supply development is ramping up, many Northwest utilities have been curtailing their energy efficiency investments. That’s no way to run a successful energy transition. If there’s anything we’ve learned from energy booms of the past, it’s this: Conservation first is the best policy.

We learned this lesson the hard way. The Northwest nuclear power program in the 1970s (Washington Public Power Supply System) ended badly, touching off the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. In response, Congress passed the Northwest Power Act. It revolutionized energy planning by making conservation the top priority. Since then, we’ve saved more than 7,500 average megawatts of electricity in the Northwest. It’s as though we built a power plant of saved energy and every year it delivers about seven times as much as Seattle uses or nearly three times what Grand Coulee Dam produces. Conserved electricity — from more efficient buildings, lights, appliances and motors — is now our second biggest power source after hydro. It saves the region billions of dollars every year, and it works hardest when we need it most, in cold snaps and heat waves. 

Now we face an urgent energy imperative: To stop climate disruption from spiraling out of control, we need to cut emissions from fossil fuels by roughly half by 2030. The keystone strategy is “clean electrification”: “decarbonizing” power supplies and electrifying everything we can, including transportation.

It’s a tall order. We can’t do it all with conservation; we’ll need a lot more clean electricity. Fortunately, after decades of clean energy progress, solar and wind power are cost-effective. And replacing dirty, expensive oil with cheap, locally produced electricity will boost the region’s economy. Gasoline costs roughly five times more than Northwest renewable electricity on a per mile basis, draining more than $10 billion annually from Washington’s economy. So, by switching to electric vehicles and transit we can keep a mountain of money in our pockets and local economies instead of shoveling it into Big Oil’s coffers.

As the Washington State Energy Strategy shows, energy use overall will decline as we decarbonize, because electric vehicles and heating systems are much more efficient. But as we displace oil and gas with renewable power, our electricity needs will nearly double by 2050. It’s a power move, you might say: Expensive, climate-destroying fossil fuels are the Achilles’ heel of our energy system, and affordable clean electricity is our strength. But it’s a big lift for the electric power system — too big to solve on the supply side alone. We’ll need smart solutions on the demand side, too.

The challenges are real. Renewables are clearly more sustainable than fossil fuels, but legitimate concerns about potential environmental and cultural impacts of renewable energy development need to be addressed. Northwest tribal cultures were decimated by the hydropower boom; siting and permitting of new renewables must protect their resources and honor their treaty rights. Solar and wind are plentiful but intermittent, so we need new storage systems and energy market reforms to reliably sync up supply and demand. The cheapest renewable resources are remote, so we need new transmission lines to deliver the juice. Supply chain challenges may slow new power development. These are significant hurdles, and we can lower every one of them by using our existing energy system more efficiently and reducing the need for new power infrastructure.

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But while demand is growing, many utilities have been cutting back on energy efficiency. Overall regional conservation expenditures and savings have declined steadily in recent years, with a big drop in 2020 and no rebound in 2021. As a region, we failed to achieve the five-year conservation target in the 2016 Power Plan, but the shortfall was concentrated in the smaller communities that rely on Bonneville Power Administration conservation funding. BPA missed its target by a whopping margin — over 160 average megawatts. That’s enough power — unnecessarily wasted — to supply more than 125,000 typical households on an ongoing basis. 

We’ve done a lot of efficiency already, with impressive results. Now’s the time to lean into this proven strategy, not slack off. Low-income households in particular face the greatest energy burden — the share of their income that goes to energy bills — and offer some of the best opportunities for electrification and efficiency. As heat waves and wildfires intensify, efficient, comfortable homes and community spaces are a public health priority. And they help keep the lights on for everyone by reducing the peak demand that can threaten power system reliability during extreme weather events. With a concerted effort from utilities and new federal funding, we could weatherize every low-income home in Washington, and we should.

The clean energy transition won’t be easy, but we can do it. We have to; we simply can’t afford continued fossil-fuel dependence and the climate chaos it’s unleashing. And we can afford clean energy … if we don’t waste it.