By Casey Bage, Law and Policy Clerk
|By Alyson McPhee|
The writing is on the wall. Climate change is here, now, and the extreme weather events this past year are only a sampling of what is undoubtedly going to get worse. The Oregon wildfires and smoke events of Aug.-Sept. 2020 destroyed towns and choked out our air, leading to evacuations and heavy reliance on indoor air filters. The 2020 fire season was the most expensive in Oregon’s history costing $514 million in firefighting efforts as well as billions of dollars in healthcare costs for Oregon. The winter ice storm of Feb. 2021 cut power to over 330,000 Oregonians leaving residents without heat during the freeze. The record breaking Oregon heatwave this last June 2021 left over 6,000 PGE customers without power to cool themselves and at least 94 Oregonians dead from the heat. These events will increase with frequency and intensity. We need swift action to stave off the worst changes to come and to adapt our communities for a more resilient future.
One of the key pivots Oregon must make quickly is toward full electrification of our society with renewable energy, and batteries are key to that shift. Some will say, batteries are too expensive to roll out broadly and immediately. I’m of the opinion that those people blacked out during this historic last decade of climate-change disasters. The cost of delay is catastrophic and far beyond the costs of moving fast to install batteries. Half measures involving burning more fossil fuels, natural gas in particular, only speed us toward more firestorms, mega-droughts, massive ice-storm power outages, and furnace-like heatwaves.
The question is where do we install the batteries within our communities to be as cost-effective as possible, equitable to all Oregonians, and address issues on both the supply and demand side of the equation. Right now, we see a few options. One that an Oregonian home-owner could adopt is an in-home battery pack like the Tesla Powerwall. Battery packs like this provide you with power to heat and cool your home when the next ice storm or heatwave creates a power outage. But these batteries don’t address the large-scale storage of industrial-size wind and solar electricity, which is needed in order to electrify all of Oregon. Homes adopting battery storage and solar are wonderful and somewhat of a status symbol, but leave large swathes of low-income communities behind. Placing energy storage on the other side of the chain in conjunction with utility scale wind and solar farms has the opposite set of benefits. We can see these projects in Oregon already like PGE's Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility and the Swan Lake Energy Storage Project near Klamath Falls. These projects will help us eliminate natural gas-fired power plants and fight against climate change by providing on-demand power for peak power demands. But this clean electricity still travels through our grid, just like any industrial electricity source, which means our homes and businesses are still without power when the next ice storm or heatwave comes.
There is potentially a third solution: meet in the middle. This concept is being discussed among many smart people including Saul Griffith with Rewiring America. Placing batteries in substations or other sites across Oregon could be the answer. We would effectively have mini-grids throughout Oregon, so a downed powerline wouldn’t necessarily lead to a power outage for neighborhoods thanks to a community battery back-up. On top of that, those batteries could be regularly used to supply peak power demands when everyone turns on their air conditioners at the same time. The heroic effort of utility linesmen during the past ice storm, restoring power for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, affirms also that our electric utilities and their logistics are a reliable location for regular monitoring and maintenance of these battery stations. This placement also provides equity benefits, since you no longer need an in-home battery to keep the lights on and stay warm during an ice storm.
There’s no doubt that this battery transformation will be expensive, but nowhere close to the costs we will experience if we abstain from battery adoption. By placing the batteries within our electricity infrastructure, we open up a combination of funding sources, including state, county, city, and utility funding, to subsidize investments and ensure resiliency for all Oregonians, while combating climate catastrophe.
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