The Electricity Mix in the Western Power Grid Is Changing Rapidly

Transmission lines crisscross the landscape in Adelanto, Calif.

Image via Flickr user jose|huerta shared with a Creative Commons license.

Transmission lines crisscross the landscape in Adelanto, Calif.

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How we get electricity in the West is changing rapidly. And we can see this change in data about power plants and the grid. The major trends:

To understand what these changes mean for the West and our Inside Energy’s focus states Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, Inside Energy talked to grid experts from academia (Colorado School of Mines), industry (IHS) and government (EIA). Here’s what they had to say:

Natural gas is on top – and will stay that way for a while

The amount of natural gas we use to generate electricity has been creeping up for years. EIA predicts that in 2016, it will peak before leveling off a bit in 2017. Why? In the wake of the U.S. shale boom and the surge in drilling, natural gas prices have been low. This means it’s cheaper to make electricity from natural gas than from coal.

The electricity market is fierce. Parker Littlehale, an analyst with IHS, says that when it comes to power markets, “You have kind of a rivalry between fuel sources.”

Coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables all compete for a share of the electricity market. And natural gas is caught in the middle of this rivalry: “On one hand it’s losing market share to renewables, but on the other hand it’s gaining market share from coal-fired generation,” said Littlehale.

The U.S. Environmental Information Administration projects that 2016 will be the biggest year ever for natural gas-fired power - except in the West.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that 2016 will be the biggest year ever for natural gas-fired power – except in the West.

 

The West is the only region where EIA predicts natural gas use will drop from 2015 to 2016. That’s thanks to California, where we can already see natural gas use is down this year:

North Dakota experienced a huge rise in natural gas use for electricity. But California saw a sizable drop.

North Dakota experienced a huge rise in natural gas use for electricity. But California saw a sizable drop.

 

What’s going on? California has been experiencing a major drought, which has limited the ability of dams to generate hydropower. Natural gas picked up a lot of the slack. But as California slowly climbs out of drought, hydropower is coming back online and natural gas use is dropping.

In our focus states, looking at electricity generation for 2016 year-to-date:

  • Colorado has used 26 percent more natural gas than last year
  • Wyoming has used 20 percent more natural gas than last year
  • North Dakota has used 67 percent more natural gas than last year

North Dakota’s natural gas-fired power growth is the second fastest in the country – behind only South Dakota.  Why is this happening?  We’ll be looking into it and will report back.

The way we use natural gas is changing – and renewables have a lot to do with that

As we bring more renewables onto the grid, we have to worry about what happens when the sun stops shining or the wind stops blowing. Remember, the grid always has to be in balance—at any given moment, the power coming in has to equal the power we’re drawing off. Ian Lange, an economist at the Colorado School of Mines, says the intermittency of wind and solar means that often, “you need to hurry up and get something generating something right away, and that’s what natural gas can do very well.”

Natural gas-fired power plants can start and stop quickly, much quicker than coal or nuclear power plants. So they are a good complement to the slew of renewables that are coming onto the grid.

Renewable additions are going to keep on coming

As our electricity mix continues to change, renewables are going to take a growing role. Many states now have renewable energy standards—in Colorado the goal is to generate 30 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020. And don’t forget the Clean Power Plan, currently stuck in litigation, which outlines state-by-state goals for reducing carbon emissions. (Curious what it means for Colorado? Here you go…in video form!) As a result, most of the planned additions to our grid are wind or solar:

  • In Colorado, 92 percent of planned new generation is wind or solar
  • In Wyoming, 81 percent of planned new generation is wind
  • In North Dakota, 83 percent of planned new generation is wind

This chart shows planned new power capacity by type. Wind dominates the planned new capacity. Keep in mind that many of these planned projects are still awaiting permits and other regulatory approval.

This chart shows planned new power capacity by type. Wind dominates the planned new capacity. Keep in mind that many of these planned projects are still awaiting permits and other regulatory approval.

Tyler Hodge, an analyst with the EIA, says we’re seeing, “a big buildout of large scale renewables plants. Not just wind, but also utility scale solar.” Plus, more distributed generation is coming into the mix – think rooftop solar or tiny wind. (A sign that the times are changing: Historically, the EIA didn’t even collect data on distributed generation. Now they do.)

The Western grid is fragmented, but efforts are underway to change that

In the eastern and midwestern U.S., the electric grid is integrated at a large scale. But in the West, “we have a lot more of a piecemeal grid,” says Lange. Because grids in subregions (the Pacific Northwest, the Mountain West, California) don’t talk to each other very well, Lange says, “it’s more like each state by state managing their grid. And that makes it harder to use excess production from renewables.”

But that may be changing. Plans are in place to integrate the Western grid, although this plan does have opponents in places like Wyoming. Either way, stay tuned – the outlook for energy in the West is changing under our feet.

Have a question about the future of the electric grid you’d like us to answer? Submit it below or email us: MyIEQuestion@insideenergy.org.

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