Eleven Western states will spend $200 billion in the next two decades to upgrade their electricity systems. That pot of money could spur major economic growth if invested in deployment of renewable energy and digital smart grid technologies, utility experts and advocates of clean power say.
Or, if it is spent on additional analog infrastructure and fossil fuels, it could prevent job creation and boost global-warming emissions.
A new report from the Western Grid Group, an alliance of 25 regulatory experts, environmental groups and renewable energy leaders, presents these two, vastly different choices as the region's electric sector plans its first steps for using the money.
The 180-page study is the first in a series of WGG reports to get regional grid planners, state legislatures and utility regulatory commissions to consider policies that increase efficiency, add more renewable resources and lure clean energy businesses and manufacturers out West.
"The choices that we make over the next 20 years are going to be key," Carl Linvill, co-author of the report, told reporters during a Wednesday web conference. "They're going to lay the foundation for the Western electricity system out to 2050 and beyond. Now is the time to consider what kind of grid the West wants."
Linvill heads the Aspen Environmental Group and previously served in Nevada on the Public Utilities Commission and as energy adviser to former Gov. Kenny Guinn.
Using the planning documents that utilities routinely submit to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, the WGG report determines how future power generation, distribution and transmission would look if current renewable energy targets and policies don't change. It then considers how more aggressive energy-efficiency and clean power goals could alter the picture.
"It creates a contrast where, for the first time, you're actually looking at where you could end up," Carl Zichella, director of Western energy for the National Resources Defense Council, told SolveClimate News. NRDC belongs to the 25-member alliance.
"The idea of illustrating the magnitude of the choice that we have right now is one of the great strengths of the plan," he said.
The WGG will distribute the report to various Western electricity players, including the nearly 40 authorities that operate the region's system, ahead of a second report, which is set for a September release.
The Two Scenarios
According to the August analysis, "Western Grid 2050: Contrasting Futures, Contrasting Fortunes," the Western electricity sector will have to spend about $200 billion by 2030, regardless of federal and state energy policies enacted between now and then.
Much of that will go to retiring or replacing older coal, gas and nuclear facilities. New generation and transmission will also be built to match rising demand as populations and state economies grow, and to accommodate electrified vehicles on the grid.
In the "business-as-usual" scenario, in which the West continues to rely on power from coal and natural gas, fuel prices and supply risk would likely tick up while air pollution and its associated health risks, carbon emissions and water use will all increase substantially, it found.
In this option, investments in renewable technologies, energy efficiency measures and electric car infrastructure are made, but only to the extent that modest legislation requires.
The authors anticipate that natural gas prices and the cost of carbon emissions will gradually rise over the next 40 years, making this course of action as much as $46 billion more expensive than the "clean energy vision" detailed in the report. If fuel and carbon costs stay low, however, the traditional approach could cost $12 billion less.
Under the clean energy scenario, states would aggressively scale back electricity consumption by updating the electrical grid to a digital grid with advanced information and communications technologies that can track and help shrink consumer power usage. The smart grid can also better handle large loads of intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind.
Electricity investments in the cleaner scenario would create up to 130,000 full-time jobs to build and operate new infrastructure and develop and export cutting-edge technologies. The installation of large-scale and distributed renewable energy projects — plus home efficiency improvements — can also put people to work locally, the report said.
Amanda Ormond of WGG said on the conference call: "There are myriad benefits from developing a clean energy economy. Part of that is being globally competitive and being able to develop the technologies and processes here than can then be [exported] around the world.
"By having a vision and a document that policymakers can gravitate around, we have a path that we're trying to follow." Until now, she continued, "that path has been completely abstract."
Western States Relatively Clean
Helping matters for WGG is that many Western states are already driving their own ambitious programs, though collaboration has traditionally been limited among the 38 "balancing authorities" that operate the electric systems in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.