Fuel Mix for Electricity Consumption in Spokane County is Hardly All Hydro

by Dr. Patrick Jones

For decades, the most well-known Spokane corporation was Washington Water Power. Many people still refer to Avista as “Water Power.” So it might come as a surprise that the most recent (2017) breakdown of fuel sources for that electric utility puts hydro at less than 50% of the company’s fuel mix.

Since Avista is by far the county’s largest electricity provider, its results dominate indicator 4.4.2 - Share of Electricity Consumption by Type. This measure aggregates consumption for all the electric utilities in the county, including Inland, Vera, Modern and Cheney. A quick perusal shows the 2017 overall hydro share of county electricity generation (and consumption) to be about 56%, about the same as a decade ago. The four smaller utilities rely much more on Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) electricity that is largely sourced from hydro. Consequently, the county mix tilts a little more toward hydro than Avista’s.

The second most important generation source for the county is natural gas, with about 25% of the overall mix. This wasn’t always the case. In 2008, its share was 16%. It might also surprise that the current third most important source is coal. Perhaps many here think that coal smokestacks are found only in the East and Midwest. But, at 11%, coal provides a considerable portion of our power. But compared to a decade ago, when its stood at 21%, “king coal” has become a prince.

Currently in fourth place are renewables. This category represents a basket of various types, ranging wind, to solar to biomass. On a percentage basis, green fuels have grown the fastest over the past decade, rising by over 250%. But that is on top of a low base:  only 2.4% of the mix in 2008. Finally, nuclear power has averaged about 2% of the County mix over the decade, with little year-to-year variation.

Spokane Trends offers a more granular view of renewables in indicator 4.4.3 - Share of Renewable Energy Consumption (Excluding Hydroelectric). The only two components in the County have been biomass and wind. Notable is the rapid growth in wind since the start of the series in 2002. Notable, too, is the larger share of renewables here than statewide. Spokane may not be meeting Governor Inslee’s green goals, but we’ve got a head start.

The comparison of Spokane to Washington is also revealing in overall fuel mix: they are quite different. Consider the 2017 shares for hydro:  56% here versus 68% in Washington. Natural gas plays a correspondingly weaker role statewide, at 11%, far less than half of Spokane’s reliance on the fuel. The one element of the mix that could lead Spokane to proclaim itself greener is our slightly lower reliance on coal, as Washington’s share stood at slightly over 13% in 2017.

How might the mix in the County shift further? It will depend largely on Avista, since the other electric utilities will undoubtedly source from BPA. Influencing Avista decisions will be recently passed legislation in Olympia, mandating no coal in the mix by 2027 and a completely “carbon neutral” portfolio by 2045.  According to the company, Avista aims to achieve carbon neutrality by “either utilizing non-carbon emitting resources, or investing in or acquiring carbon offsets to net-out emissions created from carbon emitting resources. An example of a carbon offset is acquiring renewable energy credits from a renewable energy resource.”

In the company’s long-term plans, wind, solar and energy will serve as primary replacements to carbon-emitting fuels. Key will be further advances in the technologies of these strategies: “Meeting this goal will require a continuation of declining costs for clean energy and improvements in technology as well as regulatory support…... We believe that is all possible within the next 25 years.”

Brian Henning, co-chair of 350 Spokane, a leading environmental group, largely agrees with Avista on this issue. He stated, “This (the timeline) is achievable thanks to two important facts: 1) At both national and local levels, electricity usage stopped rising about 12 years ago due to efficiency gains, and; 2) the price of electricity from wind and solar has plunged much faster than expected -- by more than 70% in the past decade -- so that new wind farms now produce the nation's cheapest power by far, even as costs continue dropping. Meanwhile, solar costs are falling even faster, and storage costs are declining as well. The Inland Northwest also has world-class opportunities for pumped storage…..We can do this.”