Renewable energy can help affordably keep the lights on

Wind turbines rise up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital near Middleton, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In almost any conversation about shifting to 100% zero carbon energy, it is inevitable that someone will bring up reliability of the electricity system: “The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.”

What is left unsaid is that these energy resource limitations are only true to specific locations and apply to every type of energy resource. Multiple recent events in Texas show that gas doesn’t always flow. Closer to home, plants such as Colstrip are often down for both planned and unplanned repairs, including Unit 3 being down this April and May. 

Affordable technologies exist today that are zero-carbon and can offset the variability of wind and solar, such as hydro, demand-response, pumped hydro storage, and stand-alone battery storage. Existing hydroelectric resources in the region provide the flexibility needed to generate electricity when variable resources cannot. Demand response and energy efficiency have been used successfully in the West to prevent blackouts during extreme weather events. 

Many states in the West are developing plans for zero carbon energy while maintaining an affordable and reliable electricity grid. One of the keys to success in this region is geographic diversification. Often when the wind is not blowing in Oregon, it is blowing in Montana. Peak solar production usually occurs at different times in Arizona than in Montana or Idaho. This is one of the reasons why wind, solar, and battery storage developers are eyeing projects in Montana that will help meet renewable goals for utilities on the West Coast, while providing a significant economic boost to Montana. 

Regional electricity markets are being developed in the West and will allow utilities to unlock a greater amount of geographic diversity from renewables. Some of the biggest benefits to Montana from joining a regional market include greater reliability from being able to access and import electricity from more generation resources across the region, as well as allowing Montana to continue to export energy to other states as they transition away from fossil fuels. Additionally, western markets will likely save Montana utility customers significant money; since joining the Western Energy Imbalance Market, for example, NorthWestern Energy has benefited by more than $1 million per month. 

In fact, Montana is poised to transition to clean electricity during the next 10 to 15 years due to its world-class renewable resources. Recent modeling shows that doing this while also electrifying other sectors of the economy would result in nearly $30 billion in savings by 2050 compared to business as usual. Other states, such as Utah and Wyoming, are already embracing an “all of the above” strategy as they try to position their states to benefit from the increasing demand in the region for zero-carbon electricity. Montana can easily do the same by embracing renewable development and stand-alone storage — and Montanans can be confident that electricity will be affordable and the lights will stay on.

 Robin Arnold is with Renewable Northwest and Taylor McNair is with GridLab.

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