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A 100% Renewable Electricity Vision for Oregon: We can do it!

The key elements necessary for a 100% renewable grid in Oregon are being developed or are already in place. While we are not talking about 100% renewable grid by 2020, we are looking at approaching this goal by 2050-2075, which in the time frames of power system planning is “pretty soon”. This article is simply a “30,000 foot” introduction to this possibility.

A 100% Renewable Electricity Vision for Oregon:  We can do it!

Renewable Energy Availability in OR by season

By Doug Boleyn
Solar Oregon Board Member

The dream of many of us who have worked in the renewable energy field for years has been to conceive of an energy system that is 100% renewable and sustainable. That dream is now being developed by visionaries and planners throughout the Northwest. The key elements necessary for a 100% renewable grid in Oregon are being developed or are already in place. While we are not talking about 100% renewable grid by 2020, we are looking at approaching this goal by 2050-2075, which in the time frames of power system planning is “pretty soon”. This article is simply a “30,000 foot” introduction to this possibility.

What are these elements that are converging to make Oregon 100% Renewables a possibility in a short half century? Here are some key candidates:


1. Visionaries are “working the problem”
2. Oregon’s incredibly diverse renewable energy mix: Solar, Wind, Wave, Geothermal, and Biomass
3. Refined tools for characterizing and managing the behavior of the variable renewable sources: wind, wave, and solar.
4. Strong opportunities for energy efficiency improvements and conservation
5. The advent of the “Smart Grid” concept and technologies
6. Distributed generation technologies with grid-sensitive controls
7. The arrival of cost-effective solar energy broadly available
8. Experience in creative ways of operating grid systems


 “Working the Problem”- Clean Energy Vision

The Clean Energy Vision project ( recently released its Western Grid 2050: Contrasting Futures, Contrasting Fortunes  which studies in detail the design of our Western electric supply system by comparing a “Business as Usual” scenario with a “Clean Energy Vision” scenario. This is a must read for all who are committed to moving the Northwest to a completely “green grid”.

The diversity of players must be expanded, however, so that the scenario of choice becomes the “Clean Energy Vision” and not the “Business as Usual” track we’re all currently on, unless we change.


Oregon’s Incredible Renewable Energy Mix

Oregon is one of the few states in the union that has an abundant mix of renewable energy resources that can be converted to electricity.  Oregon has large rivers for hydroelectric production, windy gorges and ridges for wind electric production, abundant solar energy for solar electric production, a coastline which can provide wave-powered electricity, biomass resources in the form of wood and fiber that can be combusted to spin electric turbines, and volcanic activity which can be captured to produce geothermal electricity.

No other state – with the possible exception of California – has this broad mix of renewables. If we look at a chart (See chart below) of when these renewables are available in Oregon, we can see that the mix substantially covers all the seasons. (Geothermal and biomass are not included in the chart, as they can provide baseload.) It then becomes a matter of how many Megawatts of each resource are developed to match the seasonal loads.


Early in its history, Oregon had used a combination of hydroelectricity and biomass (hog fuel) to produce electricity. The first electricity use in Oregon was powered by the TW Sullivan hydroelectric plant at Willamette Falls in the 1880’s. Until the mid 1960’s, Oregon’s electric power was substantially produced from renewable energy – hydroelectric power from the mighty Columbia River power system. But by the mid-1960’s, the large hydroelectric sites had been fully developed, and yet the use of electricity was growing. The 1970’s brought both nuclear and coal-fired electricity to the Northwest. The 1980’s brought natural gas-fired power plants, which is now the new power plant fossil fuel of choice. The default new power plant of choice is Natural Gas turbines and continuing use of coal. The only criteria used in the selection of these bulk electric power resources was cost of production. The cheapest (regardless of environmental impact, as long as it was legal) determined the power source to be used.


Managing Diverse and Variable Renewable Energy Resources

Among hydroelectricity, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and wave power resources, all available in Oregon, there are some that are intermittent (vary seasonally, daily, hourly such as wind, solar and wave) and some that can be managed as baseload (geothermal and biomass). The availability and management of the hydroelectric system is well known and characterized well. Large scale wind generation has been working in the Northwest long enough that its energy production characteristics (seasonal, diurnal, by location) have been characterized in general terms. Wind energy predictive techniques have been developed, and alternative methods of managing the rest of the NW Power Grid to accept intermittent Wind electric resources have been and continue to be developed.

Solar energy data has been gathered across the State for over 40 years. General characteristics of solar energy are well known: Solar energy is only available in daytime, peaks in mid-day, and most of solar energy is available in the summer months. Scientists have been working on developing daily and hourly predictive tools to determine day-ahead production. Broad area dispersed solar energy systems have been studied to see how solar energy production (minute to minute, hour to hour) varies when a whole group of geographically dispersed systems is considered. Solar electric generation has the distinct advantage of coming in two different “packages”, one in the form of large scale utility generation; the other in the form of distributed generation. The latter provides the opportunity to provide energy generation at the point of use without the requirement for new (and disruptive) transmission lines and infrastructure. SEGIS is a promising effort to combine into the inverter platform the means of control and energy management for both the grid operator and the host of the system.

Scientists at Oregon State University and other partners are deeply engaged in the study of wave energy resources, and have characterized wave power availability and density on a monthly basis.

Methods of biomass and geothermal production of electric power are well known. Both of these resources can be run as baseload as long a fuel (biomass in particular) is available.







Lots of Low Cost Energy Efficiency Still Available

The current electric grid still has hundreds of Megawatts of conservation still untapped. It goes without saying, as prices for grid electricity rise, more energy efficiency technologies will become “cost-effective”, and thus worth investing in. The Energy Trust of Oregon is assigned the task of marshalling these energy efficiency resources from all sectors, and there’s a long ways to go. These conservation resources need to be fully “developed” if we are to cost-effectively implement a 100% renewable electric system. Demand reduction, as well as implementation of this large portfolio of conservation measures and technologies, is critical so that unnecessary investment in more costly renewable generation resources – and the attendant costly transmission lines, is avoided as much as possible.


Smart Grid: Fine tuning the OregonRE100 System

 EV Charging Station Up to this point, the electric suppliers have had only one tool to manage the balance of generation and load: varying the supply (generation) of electric power. However, the last decade has brought the Smart Grid concept (with attendant technologies). The underlying premise of Smart Grid is that it costs a lot less to invest a system to control and manage the loads and distributed resources  placed on the grid than it is to invest in building more generation, transmission, and distribution facilities. Technologies (control systems, sophisticated 2-way communication systems, pricing schemes, energy storage technologies) are currently being studied and tested to determine their feasibility.

Needless to say, using a Smart Grid concept in conjunction with a potentially variable renewable energy grid system is key in maintaining energy generation/load balance 100% of the time. How would this be done? Renewables would be allowed to run at maximum output possible at all times, but the smart grid would adjust by a portfolio of actions, ranging from storing electricity in the form of batteries (electric vehicle batteries) or thermal energy, or possibly cycling non-critical loads for short time periods (for example, air conditioning, refrigeration, water heating,).

Distributed Generation Technologies Maturing



Long gone is the time when utilities were very hesitant about allowing customers and others (than themselves) to place electricity generating equipment on the utility lines. Now in 2011, valuable experience with tightly controlled distributed generation systems such as inverter-based photovoltaics, small/medium/large wind generation, and others, is abundant.

Small distributed electricity generation systems, properly managed add a level of robustness and reliability to the entire grid. By placing generation much closer to the loads, additional transmission and distribution lines can be avoided. Smart grid control (turn on/turn off) of these nimble technologies can fine tune the dispatch of generation exactly when and where needed.


Boleyn home with PVT System

Solar Energy Prices Decreasing Dramatically

No discussion of a 100% Renewable electricity system for the Northwest would be complete without addressing the future of the most abundant and broadly available renewable resource, solar energy. The price of solar electric systems has, for various reasons, decreased dramatically in Oregon over the last two years. Experts who follow solar energy prices are saying that the installed system prices will continue to decrease as more competition, higher factory output, better installation techniques, and lower raw materials prices continue to occur.

Already in southern California, the cost of utility scale photovoltaic power plants is competitive with current other sources of grid power. 20-year contract electricity prices of approximately 10 cents per kWh have already been offered to southern California utilities. Given this, it won’t be much longer when utility scale prices cross the rising retail cost in Oregon (6-9 cents per kWh).

Price Per Watt

When solar electricity, in all its forms and potential applications, becomes cost-effective relative to (fossil) grid power, then the only impediment to widespread use is having enough ground and roof area – and enough laborers to install it. While some estimates vary, this crossover point is as little as 5 years away for most of Oregon. This can lead to a sea change in solar energy used.


Reinvesting and Changing the Structure of the Western Grid System

Supplying all the electricity consumed at exactly the times it’s demanded is the challenge of every electric grid system. The system is always “in balance”, that is, generation always equals load. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The patterns of electricity use are well known throughout the Northwest, but vary from place to place (E vs W of the cascades, southern Oregon vs Puget Sound), season to season as temperatures vary, weekday vs weekend as work varies, and daytime vs nighttime as human activity varies. The current electric grid system is controlled in such a way that as a load comes on or drops off, the generation does the same.

The Western Grid 2050 report calls on utility planners to rethink how the western grid (transmission system, generation system and distribution system) is structured and implemented. Changes in the way the grid is managed are also key to making the system work.


Challenges and issues to this 100% Renewable Vision

What are the key challenges to overcome as we move toward implementing such a vision?

Getting all the players to the table: The Northwest’s grid system is complex with many moving parts and players. These players have managed a reliable electric supply system for over 100 years. So, these expert (and entrenched) players need to convene, discuss and commit to such a Clean Energy Vision, work through the technical, political, economical, and infrastructure problems and issues to make this a reality. It would take too long to list all those who should be “at the table” here.

Resolution of Environmental and community issues: We’re already seeing these issues coming to the fore. Large scale wind generation and coastal wave generation are likely to continue to provoke concerns of competing interests, namely viewshed and potential noise impacts (wind generation), construction of new transmission infrastructure of energy from generating areas to load areas (NIMBY, wind generation), competing ocean fish harvest concerns (wave power), and intrusion on pristine/public lands (geothermal). All will provoke community discussions and ultimately difficult decisions.

Continued technological development: This continues for all technologies, but the Oregon renewable resource most challenged with technological development is wave power. Many technologies exist now and are competing for least cost, most robust, and most productive technologies. This will work itself out in the next decades, but given the wide range of technological creativity and innovation in the wave energy arena. I’m convinced that this will be a viable resource.

Improved cost; High cost relative to cheap (but “dirty”) fossil fuels continues to be the “elephant in the room” for renewables. While hydroelectric power (existing facilities) and large windpower are considered to be currently competitive (or nearly so) with fossil fuel electric generation, the other resource conversion technologies (wave, biomass, geothermal) combined with difficulties in financing and siting still are higher on the cost curve. Further development of these is necessary to meet cost goals.

Fuel availability, reliability and cost: This is the key issue for biomass resources. While biomass resources are considered to be abundant, they’re located generally in remote areas and have potential competing uses for the fiber. How certain and reliable can we keep the fuel supply steady with reasonable cost?

Handling continued growth – Can we live within our means?: Oregon’s economy (we hope!) will not stand still. The population will continue to increase, and hopefully industry and jobs. Can a 100% Renewable system keep up with growth without resorting to fossil fuels? Perhaps this is handled better by Codes requiring cost-effective renewables for each building built, or by industry investing in additional renewable infrastructure as it expands. Tough questions.

Role of fossil fuels: The ultimate goal of a 100% renewable system would be to shift the only use of fossil fuels to just those times that renewables (or “stored” renewables) are inadequate to meet the loads, and that where “smart grid” adjustments cannot be implemented in adequate quantity to balance generation/load. These fossil fuel systems are “valley-filler”, short term, and well dispersed (micro-turbines) across the region so as not to require additional transmission infrastructure.


Actions we can take to make Oregon 100% Renewable a Reality

Embrace the Vision, Think “Systems”; Read the Clean Energy Vision paper Western Grid 2050: Contrasting Futures, Contrasting Fortunes  Without this new vision, broadly accepted, the only direction will be “business as usual” with fossil fuels. See the two charts below from this Report: One shows the mix of resources in the Business As Usual case (BAU) and the other the proposed mix offered by the Clean Energy Vision scenarios. These define a sharp choice in direction which needs to be supported if we are to get beyond fossil fuels.

Get diverse renewable developers collaborating with one another and grid operators: Solar, wind, geothermal, wave, grid operators (BPA, PGE, Pac), Smart Grid proponents, Renewable advocates (RNP), NW Power Council, and energy storage technology proponents would be encouraged to hold a 100% Renewable “design charette” to map in further detail what a system might look like and how it might work. All these talents are represented in the Northwest and in Oregon, but they probably haven’t considered the paradigm of a completely integrated, highly reliable 100% renewable electric generation/load system. Now is the time!


 Tomoko at Salem Solar Rally

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