How the PUD kept things humming during the record heat wave

EVERETT — Faced with the prediction of unprecedented June heat — 100-plus degrees in Everett? — groaning people around North Puget Sound dusted off fans and loaded freezers with ice. Mike Shapley’s approach was to stockpile massive amounts of water.

Shapley is the Snohomish County Public Utility District’s short-term power scheduler, part of a team that kept lights on and — for the minority of folks who have them — air conditioners running during the historic heat wave.

The PUD provides Snohomish County and Camano Island with electricity, mostly from a combination of regionally and locally produced hydropower. The latter is generated by the Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project along the Sultan River, and is fed by the Spada Lake reservoir, where the utility kept water levels high in June. Shapley’s plan was to release more water when the massive “heat dome” arrived, to compensate for the strain on regional hydropower supplies.

“You talk to anybody within Washington and Oregon – we all saw loads outside of our modeling forecasts,” he said. Power demand was 20% higher than the PUD’s previous high peaks, which came in July 29, 2009 and Aug. 17, 2020.

The unheard-of Northwest heat would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change, international scientists say. Utilities everywhere are faced with the need to adapt and plan for even more extremes.

One of two Pelton turbines at the Jackson Powerhouse in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snohomish County PUD’s efforts include both operational changes and customer support in the interest of conserving energy. The PUD has had a climate change strategy since 2007. The three commissioners who set policy agree on the need to update it soon, according to commission President Sid Logan.

Logan declined an interview request but said in a statement that it is “crucial that we plan for a changing climate to ensure we provide our customers with power that is not only affordable and environmentally sustainable, but reliable as well. We are fortunate that we have such gifted engineers and planners that have been working on these challenges and continue to look ahead decades to ensure we can deliver power to all of our customers during extreme weather events.”

The recent extreme event arrived the last weekend of June. Planners saw it coming 10 days ahead. Four days out, Shapley was certain that temperatures would exceed 100 degrees and peak on Monday, June 28. Advance knowledge is critical, because the regional power trading market is closed on the weekends. Shapley makes decisions affecting Monday’s power supply on Friday.

And extreme events always seem to happen on Mondays, said Shapley, who has been in the business since 2000.

With the sizzling weekend approaching, power generation on the Sultan River was kept at its minimum of 25 megawatts of power. As temperatures soared into the 90s, more water was released from Culmback Dam and the turbines roared, producing 96 megawatts, nearing capacity. That was 8.5% of the 1,134-megawatt record demand. Spada Lake continued to rise, thanks to the heat and ample mountain snowpack. By Sunday night, it was full.

The heat peaked at 102 around 6 p.m. Monday. Then night-time temperatures plummeted 40 degrees, causing a regionwide sigh of relief. Spada Lake was still full, ready to supply both power and municipal water for the rest of the year.

The Culmback Dam and spillway on the Spada Lake reservoir on Friday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Culmback Dam and spillway on the Spada Lake reservoir on Friday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The PUD had a bit of luck and a lot of help in staving off outages. Wind picked up in the Columbia River Gorge —something unusual when it’s very hot — so wind turbines near there contributed power to the grid. There was good snowpack, so it wasn’t just Spada Lake, but also big reservoirs like Grand Coulee that were high. It was June, before the reservoirs would begin their annual decline. And California wasn’t suffering historic high temperatures.

“Usually this time of year, we’re exporting power down to California,” said Shapley. Instead, the Northwest was importing power from California and other Southwest states. (The utilities’ trading area is the 14-state, two-province Western Interconnection.)

Fortunately for the Northwest, it wasn’t until July 8 that fires shut down transmission lines between Oregon and California, which required the Golden State to look elsewhere for power. In the energy business, Shapley said, potential fire-related outages are “on everybody’s mind every day.”

“The lines will trip off due to heat or smoke. Eventually, they have to do a physical inspection to make sure everything is OK,” he said.

As required by state law, Snohomish County PUD files a comprehensive integrated resource plan every four years and updates it every two years. Garrison Marr, senior manager of power supply, oversees that rolling process. Planners are now looking out 24 years, to 2045. By then, the state supply is supposed to be free of greenhouse gas emissions, per Washington’s Clean Energy Transportation Act. Those gases are driving rapid climate change.

“We are fortunate to have a carbon-free portfolio of resources, most of which come from hydropower,” Shapley said. “We need to understand how the resources we have are going to perform in the future.”

For example, warmer winter weather is causing mountain snows to begin melting before the usual spring runoff. On the plus side, that provides more hydropower just when ratepayers need to heat their homes and businesses. But it could mean less available hydropower in the summer, just as air conditioning demand is picking up, Marr said.

“A lot of the contracts we have in place position the PUD well over the next 10 years,” he said. But for the 15 years after that, the demand and supply are less certain. More resources may be needed by then.

A comparison of the energy use between the peak power days in 2021 (June) and 2020 (August). (Snohomish PUD)

A comparison of the energy use between the peak power days in 2021 (June) and 2020 (August). (Snohomish PUD)

Non-hydro sources of electricity are limited. Snohomish County PUD gets about 8% of its energy from imported wind power. It experimented unsuccessfully with tidal energy. The county’s maritime climate, with intermittent wind and frequent cloud cover, aren’t favorable to large wind or solar farms. But a PUD solar microgrid near Arlington has been a success; customers have been eager to buy into it, and the utility uses it as a vehicle recharge station. Another community solar array is in the works, in Everett.

Snohomish PUD continually promotes conservation. After all, any power not required is power that doesn’t have to be generated. The utility offers rebates on energy-efficient appliances and electric vehicle chargers and is urging drivers to buy electric vehicles, or EV for short. It is putting a fast-charging EV station at its Everett headquarters using money from the Volkswagen diesel settlement to pay for it.

A comparison of the energy use between the three hottest days in June 2021 and the same days of the week in 2020. (Snohomish PUD)

A comparison of the energy use between the three hottest days in June 2021 and the same days of the week in 2020. (Snohomish PUD)

The utility also seeks customers’ help in reducing periods of high power demand by running appliances and charging cars in off-hours. That way, it can save money by not buying power on the energy market at peak hours — for example, when everyone gets home from work. One way to do that is by using smart meters, which indicate not only how much power customers are using, but when they’re using it. That allows the PUD to charge on a sliding scale — more during peak hours, less during off-peak.

Smart meter installation begins in 2023. The commissioners’ decision to approve them sparked some controversy. Some people fear that the low-level radiofrequency they require jeopardizes their health or privacy. Marr offers assurance that cyber security will be robust and the American Cancer Society agrees with him that radio waves from the outdoor meters are safe and comparable to those emitted by a cell phone.

Gayla Shoemake is among those skeptical about both the safety and the $90 million cost of the new equipment and its installation. “We could have solar projects in every community. Instead, they are spending millions on smart meters.”

As chairperson of the Edmonds-based Interfaith Climate Action group, Shoemake is among local environmentalists who closely follow PUD decisions. She would like to see the utility do more public outreach regarding conservation. The June heat wave turned the tables, prompting many people to reach out to the PUD. During the week of June 27-July 3, traffic to the utility’s web page about energy efficient heat pumps, which also cool indoor air, was double that of the previous week. Installers reported getting many more inquiries than usual. And customer service reported an uptick in calls from customers asking about incentives for air conditioning units. (It doesn’t, but has rebates for the dual-function heat pumps).

Megawatt meters inside the control center at Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Megawatt meters inside the control center at Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Whether out of concern about climate change, their energy bills, or both, 2,400 customers have installed rooftop solar panels that power their homes and feed excess energy into the PUD grid. Two hundred of those have been installed in the last six months. There were 49 applications in June alone, which is the most since an incentive program ended several years ago. Based on increased interest, PUD planners forecast that, by 2045, rooftop solar will provide 108 megawatts of power, perhaps as much as 143 megawatts. Either figure is more than Sultan River hydropower provides, with the critical difference that solar provides no energy when the sun goes down.

Everett City Council member Paul Roberts praises Snohomish County PUD’s efforts related to climate change. Roberts has drafted a city ordinance that would require new construction to provide electrical capacity to charge electric vehicles. The PUD has been a great partner in the effort, he said.

Roberts is also a consultant who advises cities on climate and resiliency planning and is chairperson of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency board.

“Every single electric utility has to be thinking ‘How do we make this transition to clean energy?’ There are a lot of technical and engineering issues they have to work through,” he said. “These are issues that have huge impacts in terms of investments. These financial decisions go out 10-20 years. And they have to pay whether that was the right guess or not.”

Julie Titone is an Everett writer who can be reached at [email protected] Her stories are supported by The Daily Herald’s Environmental and Climate Change Reporting Fund. To donate to the fund, please go to www.heraldnet.com/climatefund.

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