New thinking, new technology needed for ‘transformation’ to a greener future

The solar panel array on the south-facing roof of the Environmental Studies Building at Western Washington University gives an idea of what may be more common in the future, as energy suppliers find new energy sources to replace hydroelectricity and fossil fuels. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Heather Spaulding

— For over a century, hydroelectricity has provided the Pacific Northwest with clean energy. But over the years, salmon that once packed the region’s free-flowing rivers grew scarcer and are now threatened with extinction. If they don’t survive, the Southern Resident killer whales may not either. Can we meet the challenge of living better electrically with greener energy? 

“Hydropower’s impacts to salmon populations and to our Southern Resident killer whales are clearly not ‘green’,” said Christine Wolfe, co-owner of Orcas Island’s Rainshadow Solar.  

At Puget Sound Energy [PSE], there’s work to do to reduce the environmental impact of electrical energy use.

According Tyler O’Farrell, production manager at PSE, the average consumption for a residential customer is 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month. Each kilowatt has an emissions equivalent of 1.016 pounds of carbon dioxide, meaning the average PSE household produces an annual total of 12,197 pounds of the greenhouse gas a year.

The energy normally comes from a mix of fossil fuels and hydro.  Green power costs $8 more a month, according to their website, but comes from solar, wind and biogas. Switching over to the PSE’s 100% green power, O’Farrell said, reduces the customer’s carbon footprint to 0.58 of a pound a year. Only 7% of PSE customers are enrolled in their Green Power Program. 

Longtime renewable energy advocate and newly elected Whatcom County PUD commissioner Christine Grant wants to look at new energy-generating ideas such as micro hydro. (Courtesy photo)

On the global scale, reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change requires electrifying everything and then creating a clean, renewable energy grid, according to Christine Grant who was recently elected as a Whatcom County Public Utilities District [PUD] commissioner. 

Grant has been a longtime advocate of renewable energy. One of her goals as a Whatcom PUD commissioner is to look at innovative energy concepts such as small-scale, renewable sources including micro hydro-energy. Whatcom PUD, she said, serves its customers with about 14 million gallons of water a day through its pipes. By installing turbines in the pipes, Whatcom PUD could create an infrastructure that generates energy while delivering water. 

“We have a lot of opportunities here,” Grant said, adding that companies are also currently looking for renewable energy. 

Solar promise in the islands

San Juan County’s Orcas Power and Light Cooperative [OPALCO] is a member-owned, nonprofit energy provider. With few local energy sources, OPALCO contracts with Bonneville Power Administration [BPA] for power purchase, 100 % of which comes from hydroelectric sources and transmitted to the islands via underwater cable. 

Due to Washington state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act [CETA], the state’s only coal plant will be closed by 2025, according to Suzanne Olson, OPALCO Public Relations Administrator, and natural gas will no longer be economical due to carbon fees and consumer pricing. The OPALCO board is concerned regional energy demands will not be met. 

“As utilities throughout the region (work) to meet the mandate of CETA, demand for the limited capacity of our federal hydro system will be taxed,” Olson said.

To increase its local power supply, OPALCO has been taking steps to invest in solar energy. One microgrid has been installed on Decatur Island and OPALCO plans to scatter microgrids throughout the islands. OPALCO also has an energy buy-back solar incentives for homeowners. 

Solar promises both environmental and economic benefits. The downside, however, is whether enough energy can be garnered through the amount of sun the islands receive. 

“Solar seems well positioned to address the increase in demand because it is already commercially viable,” Wolfe said. She and her husband are avid sailors, she said, and have always had solar panels on their boats. 

A matter of scale

San Juan County Conservation District energy program manager Ryan Palmateer is confident that islanders’ ingenuity and determination can help find a path toward 100% renewable energy generation. (Courtesy photo)

One issue with trying to meet all San Juan County’s energy needs with solar, according to Ryan Palmateer, energy program manager for the San Juan County Conservation District, is the number of panels needed and the amount of land those panels would take up. 

“It would only work when the sun was shining unless we had huge battery systems to work with it, and I don’t think anyone would want to see that in their backyard,” he said.

Dana Brandt, founder and owner of Ecotech Solar in Bellingham, has watched the solar technology improve over the 16 years he has been in business. 

“Solar panels are smaller and more efficient” he said. Brandt has seen the technology not only become more efficient, but also significantly cheaper. Lower cost means solar is now accessible to the average household.

Solar panels for an average home cost approximately $20,000, according to Brandt, depending on how much energy the family uses and how much they want to invest in panels. Federal incentives of around 22% bring the price down to $15,000 he said. Private solar loans are also available at an average interest rate under 4%. 

“Generally, a homeowner may pay a few extra dollars a month at first,” Brandt said. Since the loan replaces their power bill, the investment is generally cash-flow positive, he said, and people own their own power. 

“The beauty of solar is the personal aspect,” Brandt said. “It engages people in green energy, and empowers them, gives them control of their finances, their home, and the environment.”

Increasing locally sourced energy production like solar, San Juan County’s Palmateer said, is important because it could create whole new local renewable support industries and jobs boosting the local economy.

Rainshadow Solar, for example, employs 10 people, according to Wolfe, and provides those employees with a living wage and benefits including healthcare.

But will it work in the islands? 

OPALCO’s Olsen is skeptical: “If [San Juan County set out the maximum solar arrays – rooftop, community solar, et cetera – we would still only be able to meet just a third of the county’s demand for power,” Olson said. 

Ingenuity for the inevitable

According to Brandt, one of the positive aspects of solar is that it meshes well with hydro as well as wind and other types of green energy. 

He also maintains that solar is more reliable than many people believe. Excess energy generated during sunny days, Brandt said, goes back into the grid, giving the customer enough credits to power their house the rest of the year without paying an electricity bill. 

Is using 100% renewable energy feasible? “Ultimately we are going to have to, but the path to get us there is up to us,” Brandt said.

One of the reasons Palmateer moved to the San Juans was the ingenuity and can-do attitude of the community.  

“It’s kind of the island way, right?” he said. “We just make what we have work.” 

Using ingenuity, islanders could create an energy grid consisting of a variety of primarily local sources that would toggle from source to source. 

“It may be expensive at first, but it is possible,” he said. Palmateer described how Samsø Island in Denmark achieved a similar outcome — with exceptional local, regional, governmental and financial support. 

Allowing the grid to toggle easily between sources could also flatten peak energy demand spikes — an important piece of the overall strategy, Palmateer said. These spikes usually occur in the evening when lights are on and people are cooking dinner, for example, or during winter when daylight is shorter and temperatures colder so people are using more lights and heat. 

OPALCO is exploring several energy technologies in addition to solar. Wind and tidal are two potential options, according to Olson; wind, however, like solar, is intermittent. Tidal needs more research.

“Tidal has the potential to be for our area what solar is for Arizona,” Olson said. “When and if tidal generators are feasible, OPALCO could hit 50% or more in local energy production.”

OPALCO is planning on collecting flow data but is waiting for costs of installation and maintenance to come down.

Like OPALCO, Snohomish PUD has said that while tidal energy is clean, renewable and reliable, the challenges of location, installation and maintaining turbine structures make it unfeasible.

PSE and Snohomish PUD green energy sources include wind and biogas as well as solar. Like solar, the intermittency of wind remains a disadvantage. 

“Every bit of renewable power must have a firm resource to keep the lights on when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow,” Olson said.

Biogas has emerged as one creative solution — 4% of PSE’s green energy comes from biogas technology, using methane from cow manure or other organic material. A farm containing 1,600 cows can power approximately 250 houses for a year according to O’Farrell. An added bonus is that biogas removes the manure before it washes off into streams impacting salmon. 

‘Greenest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t consume’ 

According to Olson, the BPA charged OPALCO $220,000 in February 2018 for a single cold-weather electric purchase.  Such instances led OPALCO to launch its Switch It Up campaign. The program provides on-bill financing at two percent to encourage members to switch away from fossil fuels plus participate in an array of conservation assistance.

Many utility companies like PSE also have demand response programs that encourage people to use less electricity during peak hours. 

“Conservation is a constant drumbeat,” Olson said. “The more we manage the total load for the co-op as a whole, the greater control we have over the cost we pay for power.”

“The greenest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t consume,” PSE’s O’Farrell said.

Grant also mentioned new technology like hot water heaters that heat water throughout the night, when less energy is being used. 

“We have the technology right now,” she said, “We have buildings that create more energy than they use.”

“There are some cool things down the pike that will help save energy,” Palmateer said.  

 “There are a lot of tricks to conservation,” Grant said. “But that is a lot of pressure to put on the individual when there are a lot of policies in place that make it difficult to have meaningful change.”

“Change is hard. It’s easier just to maintain the status quo,” she said. 

Not that people shouldn’t conserve electricity, Grant said. But policy makers need to step up to the plate. 

With current technology and creative ingenuity, the Pacific Northwest could break down barriers in energy, not only by combating global warming but also by bringing salmon and orcas back from the brink of extinction. 

“We just need to think about using energy in more sophisticated ways.” Grant said.

Heather Spaulding is a freelance journalist who lives on San Juan Island. She has written for the weekly Journal of the San Juan Islands, a community newspaper based in Friday Harbor, for five years. She specializes in stories about science and the environment, as well as general human interest. 

This is her first article for Salish Current.