PUD clarifications

I generally avoid publicly taking sides in my colleagues’ re-election campaigns. Who wins or loses is a matter for PUD customers. Besides, I would have to work with whomever sits on the board, incumbent or successful challenger.

When I penned my response to a Herald letter, my wife suggested upon reading it in the paper that I appeared to be supporting Commissioner Vaughn. While that was not my intention, I understand how one would could make that interpretation. After all, I did mention her name on several occasions, but only because of the writer’s direct accusations against her.

The writer chose to make the Sunset Falls project decision a referendum on the PUD race, alleging that Ms. Vaughn was an affirmative vote. As I stated in my reply, the decision has yet to come before the board, so it is at least premature to cast judgments. Utility staff continues to investigate the feasibility of the project, both economically and environmentally. Only after it concludes its work will it present the commissioners with a recommendation for or against. Then, and only then, will the board decide.

In addition to disparaging Ms. Vaughn for lacking the appropriate “skill sets” to do her job—which is odd since she was first elected in 1994 and been re-elected for two additional terms, suggesting that the voters have disagreed with that assessment—the letter writer included erroneous claims about the Sunset Falls project itself, that it was hugely expensive and would drain the river to a trickle. I felt compelled to set the record straight.

Of course, I had no pretense that my reply to the Herald would be the final word until next month’s election. So I was not surprised to read a rebuttal of sorts in this morning’s edition.

The writer:

Mr. Aldrich tried to hide his involvement in the upcoming election by taking a broad swipe at how Mr. Teegarden might vote on one of the current projects being considered by the PUD.

Well, there was no swipe and nothing broad about it. I had written that Mr. Teegarden opposes the Sunset Falls project. What was my evidence? The Herald:

The PUD has been studying building a micro-dam at Sunset Falls on the Skykomish River. Teegarden said he’s strongly opposed to the idea.

The recent writer, a former PUD employee, accuses the board of spending dollars on projects with “dubious benefit to the average customer.” He was following up on his previous letter to the Herald, in which he excoriated the utility for exploring geothermal and tidal power. Both ongoing projects fall under the PUD board’s stated energy policy, which is to maximize cost-effective conservation and pursue only renewable resources, preferably those in our own service territory so as to minimize transmission challenges and retain dollars within the local economy.

Preliminary data from a potential geothermal site suggested that we explore further. Unfortunately, the utility ultimately and unexpectedly encountered impermeable rock strata forcing the PUD to cease operations. Utility staff are now looking elsewhere, because geothermal is a firm resource emitting no carbons.

With federal grant money the PUD is indeed pioneering the investigation of tidal power on the West Coast. Tidal power holds much promise, given its predictability and sustainability. Moreover, Puget Sound lies adjacent to and within the utility’s service territory. It makes sense to explore its vast potential for PUD customers. Yet, even a minimal pilot project faces significant challenges that have delayed the deployment of two experimental underwater turbines and added costs.

And speaking of costs, the letter writer failed to note that the PUD is funding these explorations from the aforementioned grants and the utility’s resource reinvestment reserve, dollars acquired through the sale of the Centralia coal plant several years ago. Neither strategy imposes additional rate pressure.

But it’s not easy being green. Developing new renewable resources comes with risks, most of which relate to pushing the envelop beyond the status quo. Fortunately, the PUD has prudently set aside dollars to execute the board’s strategy while pursuing available grant money.

Nevertheless, PUD customers may prefer a different resource strategy. Mr. Teegarden, for example, would evidently nix small-hydro projects in favor of more solar power. Having talked with him in the past, I believe he would continue to support the PUD’s very successful conservation programs.

So, whomever the voters elect next month, I don’t expect to see coal or gas plants in our future, which is a good thing.

Sunset Falls and the PUD race

The current PUD board campaign features a contest between incumbent Kathy Vaughn and challenger Eric Teegarden. Both favor energy conservation and renewable resources, topics that often differentiate candidates, but not this year.

What may divide November’s competitors, judging by this letter to the editor, is the future decision on the Sunset Falls small hydro project, which the PUD is exploring. The writer appears to be sorely mistaken on key factors.

The writer:

Ms. Vaughn supports the Sunset Falls Dam because she has neither the skill set nor the drive to set the PUD on a course of sustainability.

There has been no decision by Ms. Vaughn, Ms. Olson, or myself. But what does one’s ultimate preference for or against the project have to do with a commissioner’s “skill set”?

And the writer has clearly not been paying attention to what the PUD has been doing for, say, the last half-dozen years. We’ve established annual records for energy conservation acquisition and pioneered development of solar energy, tidal power, and geothermal. The utility recently completed two small hydroelectric facilities that will bring sustainable power for years to come.

As for the Sunset Falls project, the writer commits egregious or misleading errors. Let’s see.

…it will reduce the river to a trickle, destroying one of the last wild rivers in North America…

I have no idea as to the source of this ridiculous notion. But it’s spectacularly wrong. If the project is approved then completed, I would defy anyone to visibly notice its effects on river flows. The falls themselves will remain as they always have—with the proposed weir located far upstream and out of view to the camera perspective below.

The writer claims that the proposed project “is hugely expensive.” Well, one must ask, Compared to what? The board has been apprised of the site’s preliminary economics: the levelized cost of the project’s output would range between $65 and $80 a megawatt-hour. Here’s a list of PUD supply resources and their nominal costs:

 

Small hydro, including the proposed Sunset Falls project, costs a bit over $60/MWH, which is much less than the other renewable resources listed. The PUD has explored utility-scale solar, which has an estimated cost of about $150/MWH. The tidal power estimates have been consistently higher than other resources, but we expect those costs to decline with further research and development. The point here, is that small hydro is economically competitive and, pace the writer, not “hugely expensive.”

While I have no doubt, based on both Mr. Teegarden’s declarations and the sentiments of his supporters, that he would vote against the project should he be elected, it is at least unfair, and certainly premature, to cast Ms. Vaughn as a supporter. I should add that however the board eventually decides, it will do so on the basis of actual facts and figures and not on unfounded hyperbole.

Wasting electricity

The New York Times is running a series on data servers, the massive centers that house bits and bytes generated by millions of Internet users. They started out small a few decades ago; today, they are massive and proliferating.

Though I am intimately engaged in energy issues from my perch on a utility board, I was unaware that, according to the Times, these data centers waste more than 90 percent of the electricity they consume to perform their intended function. Worse, they rely on dirty diesel backup generators, which themselves are giant and plentiful. And we should use “backup” advisedly. The Times:

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

Microsoft has built huge server farms in Quincy, Wash., to take advantage of cheap electrical power provided by Grant County Public Utility District, which owns two of its own dams on the Columbia River that generate nearly 8.5 million megawatt-hours a year. The town is small, with fewer than 7,000 residents. It’s a farming community, both traditionally and technologically.

Before the arrival of Microsoft and Dell and other Internet behemoths the town’s residents and agricultural enterprises consumed about 9.5 MWa, or about 83,000 MWH. Last year Microsoft and Yahoo combined to consume 41.8 MWa, or roughly 366,000 MWH.

If the Times‘ article is correct on the waste numbers, and if Microsoft et al. continue adding capacity, then there could be implications for the region down the road, especially if the economy recovers and demand for all things increases. At the moment, we may be collectively unmoved, because there is so much supply of electricity amidst stagnant consumption. But if demand rises, those waste figures could loom large.

Right now, the electricity is cheap. The Times‘ article says that the technology giants pay between 2.5 and 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Yet, even at those low rates, there’s got to be opportunity for efficiency measures that are much less expensive than the power.

I predict, then, that sooner or later a niche of energy conservation firms will step in to sharply diminish wasteful consumption and reliance on dirty diesel backup. The region, certainly, would be better off.

Tax the things you loathe

America’s love affair with all things fossil comes with inconvenient consequences. I’ll list a few:

  • carbon dioxide emissions
  • dirty air and water
  • cars
  • roads
  • sprawl

One could add to this list obesity and other health assaults, since spending so much time behind the wheel (rather than walking or bicycling) contributes to expanded waistlines and lousy circulatory systems. Add in the mobile Mickey D with fries and you’ve laid out a path to an early grave.

Economists, for the most part, recommend that we tax carbon. But Americans, for the most part, hate taxes, despite our paying fewer than our European counterparts. So, whenever a well-intentioned politician (small in number, certainly) proposes a carbon tax, he or she invites failure; colleagues won’t touch it.

However, we do love our subsidies and expect our own politicians to deliver them in support of local industries. Should we live in coal states like Virginia we appreciate whatever help the federal government can provide, whether in tax relief, subsidies, or fewer environmental regulations.

So, let’s take a look at energy subsidies over time (source).

 

Oil, natural gas, and coal receive the most help from Congress, with oil the runaway winner. It should not surprise us, then, that we use more of these resources than we would without the subsidies. Similarly, if subsidies increased for the green resources, we’d expect greater development of renewables.*

It makes economic and environmental sense to both eliminate all energy subsidies and impose a carbon tax. From the sourced article:

We can either tax carbon or incentivize non-carbon. Debate rages about which is better, but it has always been more effective to tax what you don’t want, rather than to pretend to know what will work in the future.

If Congress imposed an effective carbon tax, we’d see much more innovation in alternative fuels (e.g., geothermal and solar) and greater investments in demand-side resources, including conservation and distributed generation. But I said “effective” tax. It must be high enough to approximate the (negative) value of carbon’s pernicious consequences. (I’ve written about his here.)

I am not hopeful of seeing either a carbon tax or some cap-and-trade scheme in my future, which gets shorter by the year. Fossil-fuel interests are huge and politically well-connected. Moreover, we don’t like taxes. We’re suspicious of government. We’re dangerously ignorant. This unholy combination yields a toxic business-as-usual strategy that promises profits for the few and catastrophe for the many.

Got to go. Time for my walk.

___________

* I am forced to quibble with the “market activity” subsidy for hydro. That’s a euphemism for a controversial, yet longstanding function of federal marketing agencies like BPA. By law, and this goes back to the New Deal, the output from federal systems (in our case, the nearly two-dozen dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers) must go first to public utilities (e.g., Snohomish County PUD) at cost (technically, enough to recover Bonneville’s financial obligations—its revenue requirements). For years, politicians not served by the FMAs have demanded that the FMAs charge market-based rates. Not only would such a policy-shift (requiring a change in the law, by the way) jump up electricity rates in Washington and other states receiving preference power from the FMAs, it would generate more revenues for the federal government—a wealth transfer representing billions of dollars. We should keep in mind that Bonneville’s customers have fully funded the FMA’s statutory obligations over seven decades. To those who might argue that having to pay market-based rates (higher the current preference rates) would spur more conservation, please understand that the Pacific Northwest, along with California, leads the nation in conservation acquisitions. The Snohomish County PUD, for one, has set annual records over the last several years.

Lost and gained

The Snohomish County PUD was fortunate enough to land Bob Bolerjack for its corporate communications department. He had previously been the editorial page editor for the Everett Herald. I thought Bob was as good as they come writing for the newspaper.

He transferred from the sports section to the editorial pages just before I made my first run for the PUD board, back in 2002. I couldn’t have written a better endorsement of me than Bob’s. In his years as editor he remained intensely curious about energy matters in general and the PUD in particular, attending many utility events, including several board meetings, to learn more about the PUD’s conservation and renewable energy initiatives. He was impressed enough to give me a second glowing endorsement in my re-election campaign in 2008, then just recently going all in by joining the utility.

Yesterday the Herald announced his replacement. Peter Jackson, son of the late Senator Henry M. Jackson, will assume Bob’s pen. The paper will hardly miss a beat, as Peter is also an accomplished writer, most recently for Crosscut, the online paper founded and published by former Seattle Weekly creator David Brewster. Peter is an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist. Years ago he championed the PUD’s conservation efforts, which have been rejuvenated under this board’s leadership and the utility’s ultra-capable staff.

I look forward to reading Peter’s insights. I’m sure that he will not disappoint.

Sunset Falls [u][u2][u3]

[u3] I was trying to take pictures while listening to all the facts and figures. It seems that I got a few items wrong, as AGM Kim Moore discovered. In the interest of accuracy, here goes:

  • on fish handling 10,719 was the record one day haul of pink salmon (9/14/2009)
  • entrance to ladder rather than intake to ladder
  • transform Sunset Falls AREA into a better place than it is now [davald: the falls themselves will not be altered]
  • the trap and haul was built in 1958 by Department of Fisheries and not Puget Power and Light; the land was previous owned by Puget Power and Light and intended as a hydroelectric project
  • more than one home can see the intake [davald: a few will be able to glimpse a side view of the intake]

[u2]Video at the end.

[u]Correction below.

The Snohomish County PUD has a rather simple resource strategy: capture all cost-effective conservation and, if necessary to meet increasing load, develop renewable resources in our own backyard. This strategy allows us to comply with Initiative 937, reduce financial risk, add resources in small increments to match load growth, impose a smaller ecological footprint, and keep costs, and therefore rates, stable.

Over the last five years the PUD has broken its own historical records for annual conservation savings. Last year the utility saved 10.1 average megawatts.

On the resource front we’ve been exploring tidal power in Puget Sound, installing solar voltaic panels on rooftops, constructing new low-impact hydro projects (we’ve got mountains and rain in Snohomish County: a good combination for letting water and gravity generate electricity), and engaging in serious efforts to add a geothermal project to our portfolio.

As always, the bulk of our power—over 80 percent—comes from the Bonneville Power Administration. With the exception of the output from the state’s lone nuclear power plant (Columbia Generating Station), all of that electricity is generated by a series of hydroelectric projects along the Columbia and Snake rivers, including Grand Coulee.

We’ve begun exploring another hydro project, this one at Sunset Falls. It appears to be an ideal site. But by merely announcing our intentions to investigate we’ve encountered opposition from some of the local residents and various non-governmental groups. Unfortunately, much of their rhetoric is inaccurate, often wildly so.

This morning I joined my commission colleagues, the general manager, the clerk of the board, and the PUD’s assistant general manager in charge of generation in a visit of Sunset Falls and surrounding environs. We commissioners wanted to see for ourselves what the fuss might be about.

The falls are certainly spectacular. Here’s one shot I took from the shoreline opposite the falls.

Near the center of the photo is an existing intake structure and fish ladder. Puget Sound Power & Light The state constructed both about 50 years ago. The investor-owned utility, now known as Puget Sound Energy, did not build a hydroelectric facility. The Department of Fisheries uses the structure to capture adult salmon swimming upstream. The fish cannot negotiate the falls; they must be trucked up stream, where they spawn. The juveniles then make their way downstream and over the falls then eventually out to the Pacific Ocean.

Here is a closeup of the capture tank. Fisheries workers use nets to pull the fish out of the tank then place them onto a single, rather ancient truck. I was told that as many as a thousand adult salmon a day may be transported. Should we proceed with the project, we’ll greatly improve this structure to enhance both the aesthetics of the site and the capturing and transporting of the salmon.

Some of the opponents of the project, whose details are far from being finalized, imagine that the utility will construct a giant concrete dam to impound the water for hydrogenation. Hardly. The plans thus far involve constructing an inflatable weir across the stream, reducing flows by approximately 2,500 cubic feet per second. (Flows can exceed 80,000 during extreme flooding. This morning, I was told, the river was flowing at 6,500 cfs.)

Here’s a slide from an October 2011 presentation to the board. It’s a plan view of preliminary designs for the intake. The inflatable weir is the balloon-like object near the middle; the intake is at the bottom left.

I’ve been informed that only one local resident would be able to see the intake structure and the weir, which would be inflated during low-water periods. During the winter when the PUD would need the electricity, the weir would likely be deflated, since the water flows will be at their highest. (The weir would inflate and deflate automatically according to river flows. It will be monitored remotely in real time and can be operated via computer if necessary.)

Here’s a preliminary layout of the proposed project.

You’ll notice that the water flows around a peninsula. At the left-most point of that peninsula the PUD would construct the inflatable weir that would connect with the side opposite, where the intake structure would be located. The diverted water would flow downhill through a constructed tunnel under ground to the site of the current fish trap structure. There the PUD would build a powerhouse that contains the turbines for generating electricity.

Here’s a picture of the intake area from a location just to the right and near the same shoreline.

To the left of the picture is the tip of the peninsula. The water flows around the peninsula from the picture’s left to right, then toward the camera. It continues to Canyon Falls, which is above Sunset Falls.

As I said at the outset, the falls are magnificent. The PUD’s proposed project will have no effect on the appearance or operation of the falls, since the utility would divert only a fraction of the river flow above. No resident, with the possible exception of one, would see any difference after the project’s completion. That one resident, as I mentioned above, would have a view of the intake structure.

Construction, itself, is a different story, of course. Building things makes noise. There will be trucks and crews on site for a number of months.

But once the project is finished, the entire site will be visually improved. The power house, for example, will be built so as to resemble the existing rock formation the power house will replace. The Tulalip Tribes and government fishery agencies support the PUD’s plan to greatly improve the trap-and-haul component of the proposed project.

Nevertheless, the PUD, as always, will be especially sensitive to the concerns of those who now oppose the project. We’re still in the preliminary phases, gathering and studying data, meeting with local residents and other stakeholders. We have a well-deserved reputation for negotiating in good faith, accommodating the wishes of others. I can make this guarantee: should the project proceed, the PUD will transform Sunset Falls into a better place than it is now.

Renewables have not displaced fossil-fuel generation

Washington is different, the Snohomish County PUD even more so—in this respect: the majority of the electricity is generated by renewable resources, mostly hydroelectric plants along the Columbia River. There is only one coal plant still operating (Centralia), and that will be phased out over the next decade and a half. Natural gas facilities contribute a bit over ten percent (pdf) of electricity generation. With the passage of Initiative 937 (pdf), both private and public utilities with more than 25,000 customers (the PUD has over 300,000) must populate their supply portfolios with increasing percentages of renewable resources, save for new hydro, which does not qualify, for dubious reasons. The resource of choice is decidedly wind power.

Utilities are scrambling to meet the initiative deadlines. This year the percentage of the supply portfolio that must be in the form of qualifying renewables is three percent; it jumps to nine percent by 2016; and reaches its maximum of 15 percent by 2020. The PUD is well ahead of the curve.

Things are different for the U.S. as a whole and for over 100 other countries. A study by University of Oregon professor Richard York concludes that almost all of the renewable resources built over the last 30 years have been swallowed up by increasing demand for electricity; the green resources have not displaced coal and natural gas.

York found that each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced only 0.089 kWh of that from fossil fuels. To put this in perspective, displacing one kWh of fossil-fuel electricity would require over 11 kWh of electricity from alternative sources.

It’s not easy being green.