Seattle Week in Review: Northwest Energy, Space Education, & More

Xconomy Seattle — 

This week, we’re reviewing a new long-term energy plan for the Northwest that calls for more of the same: energy efficiency.

Also, a new regional space education effort is under way. Might it yield applicants to NASA’s next astronaut class (the latest one received a record 18,300 applicants)?

And check out some good reading and viewing recommendations on the economic impacts of the instant-gratification economy; the propensity of males to underestimate their female peers in undergraduate science classes; the merits of leaving your digital technology behind when exploring a city; and The Human Face of Big Data. On to the highlights:

The Northwest can accommodate growing energy demand over the next two decades largely through energy efficiency measures, as it has done since the late 1970s, as well as demand response, a small amount of new renewable energy, and new natural gas generation.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, which sets big-picture strategy that seeks to balance energy and environmental needs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, says that by 2035, the region’s expected population of some 16 million people, generating $170 billion in industrial output, can get by with roughly the same amount of electricity used today: 20,000 average megawatts.

Northwest energy resource development anticipated in the region's Seventh Power Plan. Source: Northwest Power Planning Council.

Northwest energy resource development anticipated in the region’s Seventh Power Plan. Source: Northwest Power Planning Council.

That’s because even though energy demand is expected to increase by between 1,800 and 4,400 average megawatts in the next 20 years, the Council, in its Seventh Power Plan, approved earlier this month, calls for adding about 4,300 average megawatts of energy efficiency. About a third of that is needed in the next six years. That’s good news for companies making and installing everything from insulation and efficient windows to smart thermostats and LED lighting.

Deep in a draft version of the plan’s appendix (PDF) is a discussion of the “cannabis load”—increasing energy demand from the region’s newly legal marijuana industry. The plan estimates that indoor production of a kilogram of marijuana uses anywhere from 2,918 to 6,100 kilowatt hours of electricity. The plan forecasts that marijuana production in 2035 could consume 180 to 300 average megawatts, or about 1.5 percent of total electricity use at the, ahem, high end. All the more reason for the industry to establish better efficiency practices now, as a new report advocates.

The plan also calls for more demand response to reduce peak energy demands in summer and winter by paying large energy users to cut power consumption during those times. The software and systems necessary to implement demand response—including, potentially, on-site energy storage to enable industrial customers to undertake their own energy arbitrage—represents another area of commercial opportunity.

But what of carbon emissions? Relying heavily on efficiency has natural emissions-reduction benefits, of course. There are also plans in place to retire three Northwest coal fired power plants in the next 10 years.

The plan anticipates replacing them with natural-gas fired plants. These factors alone are expected to reduce annual emissions from the Northwest power system from 54 million metric tons in 2015 to 34 million metric tons in 2035. (There’s an ongoing debate over when and whether to retire coal-fired plants at Colstrip, MT, which by themselves emit 13.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses each year.)

The plan outlines scenarios in which emissions could be reduced further still, down to 16 million metric tons in 2035 by retiring all the region’s coal power, and adding even more energy efficiency and demand response. Replacing those coal plants with renewable energy could reduce emissions further, but the plan suggests this would require setting a price on carbon of $40 to $60 per metric ton.

Some critics called out the plan for giving renewable generation relatively short shrift. “The plan devalues the next generation of renewable energy which, despite 35 years of Council indifference, has grown enormously in the region, drawing investments, creating jobs, supporting local communities and reducing climate emissions,” writes the Northwest Energy Coalition, a broad group of organizations advocating for renewable energy and efficiency.

Meanwhile, the governors of 17 states including Washington and Oregon pledged to advance renewable energy and efficiency deployment on economic merits, without making mention of climate change. Here’s the “Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future” (PDF).

Astronaut Terry Virts conducts a spacewalk during an orbital sunrise on Feb. 21, 2015. Credits: NASA

Astronaut Terry Virts conducts a spacewalk during an orbital sunrise on Feb. 21, 2015. Credits: NASA

Turning our attention to the heavens, NASA received more than 18,300 applications for its 2017 astronaut class, a record number of would-be space explorers and scientists eager to push out the human sphere toward Mars. Only eight to 14 individuals will ultimately be selected, trained, and assigned to missions aboard the International Space Station, the Orion deep-space exploration spacecraft, or spacecraft under development by Boeing (the CST-100 Starliner) and SpaceX (the Crew Dragon).

The surge in applications was pronounced, and perhaps unsurprising given growing commercial and public interest in space exploration. NASA received nearly three times as many applications for the current class compared to the 2012 class. The previous record for astronaut applications was about 8,000 in 1978.

Perhaps the Northwest will be fielding more would-be astronauts (and rocket scientists and astrobiologists and satellite engineers) thanks to … Next Page »

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