What keeps your lights on in the evening and your air conditioner powered during hot days? The answers may surprise but likely won’t keep you up at night, if you’re concerned about climate change.
That’s because renewable resources account for a stunning 75% of Washington’s total energy production, and Washington is third in the nation in utility-scale renewable energy from all sources. “In essence, a renewable resource is when the sun shines, the wind blows and water flows,” says Kurt Miller of Northwest RiverPartners, an organization representing not-for-profit, community-owned electric utilities in seven western states, including Washington. More of the resource always sits on tap and never really “runs out.”
At present, Washington creates more electricity than residents need, so extra energy can flow to British Columbia and 14 western U.S. states. Washington also benefits from some of the lowest average retail electricity prices in the U.S. Indeed, residential electricity prices are almost 30% lower than the U.S. average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
So what’s behind the magic of your home’s energy usage, and just how green is it? Let’s find out.
Thanks to Washington state law, utilities must tell consumers where their juice comes from — which any consumer can research on the utility’s website.
As an example, Snohomish PUD pulls energy from the following fuels:
- Hydroelectric 76%
- Nuclear 10%
- Wind 8%
- Other, including solar, biomass or other types 6%
This mix is fairly standard. Hydroelectric power fuels about 66% of Washington’s total electricity generation, which keeps emissions down while producing clean energy. Hydroelectric power represents almost 90% of the state’s renewable energy. Washington is also the U.S.’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, thanks to large hydropower plants owned and run by the federal government on the mighty Columbia River, its tributaries and Puget Sound-area rivers. Washington generates about one-fourth of the nation’s hydroelectric power.
The state’s second-largest source of electric power is natural gas, powering 12% of the state — but drawn primarily from Canada. However, we use less natural gas than half of other U.S. states and less per capita than all but four states.
Another renewable energy spins out from wind turbines. Biomass makes up over 1% of energy generation, primarily from wood and wood fuels harvested from the state’s thick forests. Solar energy is minimal at present — and primarily collects via residential rooftop solar panels. However, a large 150-megawatt Klickitat County solar farm will add sun to the grid in 2022, and more solar farms have been proposed.
Among the other energy contributors, nuclear energy offers 8%. While coal still sits in the ground, no coal mines have operated in Washington since 2006. One remaining coal-fired plant contributes less than 5% of Washington’s total electricity; one unit has already shut down, with the remaining unit to shutter in 2025.
Unusual, innovative green energy projects motor our state, too. At one biogas facility, cow manure is turned into energy — along with expired alcohol and soda pop, restaurant trap grease, and other biowastes. At another facility, a utility converts landfill gas into megawatts.
Utilities are actively exploring new solutions, too — Snohomish PUD is researching tidal and geothermal energy sources, which rely on ocean tides and the Earth’s internal temperatures.
Demand and supply
Washington’s 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act requires utilities to make electricity greenhouse gas emissions neutral by 2030, with 100% of sold in-state electricity from renewable or non-emitting sources.
However, consumers already fret as energy prices keep rising along with demand. Gas-powered vehicles are coming off the road, replaced by electric. More homes and businesses are shifting away from natural gas. “Inevitably, the demand for carbon-free energy will just skyrocket in next 30 years, and we may be shocked just how much will be needed,” Miller says.
Keeping air conditioning and heating on during extreme weather and temps is not just important for comfort, but also for public safety as the planet heats up and experiences more extreme weather — last year’s heat dome being a prime example. Still, the fluctuating output of wind and solar energy presents challenges. “Intermittency is a real challenge, because when we want electricity, we want it on demand,” Millers says. “That is one reason hydropower is so important. Hydropower production fills gaps for wind and solar power.” Even considering climate change, he notes climate experts predict Pacific Northwest rainfall should stay about the same, on average, ensuring hydropower as a renewable, dependable resource.
“The clean grid needs to remain reliable and affordable,” he says. “None of us wants the grid to go dark when we need it the most.”
How to help
Green-minded consumers hoping to become part of the solution have options varying by the utility company.
Altogether, more than 115 Washington rebates, grants, incentives, and other programs help consumers save money, conserve energy and boost renewable resources. These include:
- Increasing everyday conservation — turning off lights, turning down thermostats.
- Energy audits to upgrade your home’s heating and cooling systems and building envelope.
- Switching to energy-efficient appliances.
- Exploring adding solar panels to your home.
- Participating in alternative renewable energy investments or offsets.
- Driving an electric vehicle.
Don’t discount the importance of learning more about how your electricity was generated or how to help preserve energy on upcoming hot days, cold nights — and year-round. “Conservation is a huge part of the Pacific Northwest energy success story,” Miller says.
Northwest RiverPartners is leading the charge for the Northwest to realize its clean energy potential using hydroelectricity as the cornerstone.