This week was filled with news of power outages for millions in Texas caused by an extremely cold polar vortex that dipped into the South and parts of Mexico. No heat in the freezing cold; Texans told to boil their tap water before drinking. As we witness what’s happening there, we’ve come to understand that maintaining a reliable energy system is key for public health, as well as a basic equity issue. 

We’ve learned some fundamental lessons from comparing the causes behind the Texas blackouts with our own energy system in Idaho and the Northwest. Our overall message is that eliminating fossil fuel pollution and ensuring stability in our energy system combats climate change and creates healthy air for everyone.

Also, as we unpack the details in Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s Northwest in Transition proposal, we’re learning that his framework would provide our region the tools and investment to achieve at least three co-equal goals for energy: reliability, affordability, and clean renewables. Simpson’s proposal would not only restore healthy salmon and steelhead populations to Idaho, it also ensures that removing four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state would not impact the reliability, affordability, and fossil fuel-free trend in the region’s energy system. 

Lesson 1: Relying on natural gas is very risky

In Texas, methane power (natural gas) holds the largest share of electricity generation. When temperatures plunged Monday morning, half of the gas plants in the state went offline due to needed repairs, frozen valves and pipelines, and gas supplies being prioritized for home heating. 

While some local and state officials claimed wind turbines froze, this is uncommon with basic upgrades to winterize them. Instead, wind and solar continued to operate as expected while pipelines and coal piles literally froze solid.

Idaho and the Northwest hold a rich diversity of nonfossil fuel-dependent resources, including vast amounts of wind and solar potential. Also, the Idaho National Laboratory and others in the region are quickly developing new battery storage technologies. Simpson’s proposed Snake River Battery Research Park for Lewiston and the Tri-Cities would expand this capability. And we have a suite of other hydroelectric plants to integrate into a diverse, reliable system that is not at risk of natural gas and coal supply problems and price spikes.

Lesson 2: Poor planning causes blackouts  

According to reports from Texas, energy system managers vastly underestimated how much electricity their customers would use during the extreme cold weather surge. Part of this is due to record-breaking cold, but the design of the Texas energy marketplace also is to blame. Texas planners and policymakers knew from prior extreme weather that the grid was vulnerable, but didn’t require a coordinated plan to address the issue. 

In contrast, the Northwest region is known to have very good energy plans. The North West Power Planning Council and Bonneville Power Administration develop a Power Plan for the region. Other Idaho utilities create Integrated Resource Plans for their systems. In both cases, these plans allow stakeholders to plan 20 years ahead to ensure a reliable system. 

One benefit of such plans is the closing of coal-fired power plants for economic and climate change reasons while keeping the lights on and lowering power bills. We can apply these same techniques to replace the energy from the four lower Snake River dams.

Lesson 3: Work with your neighbors

The United States has three mostly separate electric grids. One covers the East and another the West, with a line running roughly through the Plains. Texas has its own system. This isolation is a major reason its grid collapsed when extreme cold descended over the entire state at the same time, stressing the entire Texas system all at once. As the state has limited electric connections to its neighbors, the power in other states couldn’t flow into Texas.

Idaho and the Northwest are very different. Energy demand peaks in the winter in Washington, Oregon, and Montana, while Idaho demand peaks during the summer. That means we can share power within the region. Being connected to the western grid means that extreme weather will not impact the entire system at once. As the Northwest in Transition proposal envisions, additional investment and tools to improve regional energy system coordination can help further improve the reliability and resilience that a diverse, interconnected energy system inherently brings.

Lesson 4: Flexibility is essential

The key to electricity is that energy supply and demand must be precisely balanced at all times. During times when the supply of electricity is falling short, utilities ask their customers to do simple energy-reducing behaviors to reduce demand to maintain balance and avoid blackouts.

The Northwest in Transition proposal provides new funding sources for research and development on grid flexibility, a rapidly growing part of the clean energy industry. By helping energy users become flexible, operations become more efficient while making the energy system more resilient to extreme weather.

Lessons learned

What happened in Texas is very unlikely to happen in Idaho for the four reasons outlined above. Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s Northwest in Transition proposal also would enhance the tools and funds available to Idaho and the Northwest to ensure a reliable, affordable, and clean energy system. Eliminating fossil fuel pollution and ensuring stability in our energy system combats climate change, creates healthy air, and benefits everyone.

What can I do to support Simpson’s proposal?

Write Idaho’s Congressional delegation and Governor Brad Little to demonstrate your support for Congressman Simpson’s proposal. The concept is a framework that takes all stakeholders into account and seeks to make all communities whole, while restoring Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead to abundance and ending a long-standing cycle of litigation. ICL believes it’s the start of developing solutions together for Idahoans and the people of the Northwest. Urge your family, friends, and community members to speak up for a prosperous future for Idaho.

It’s also important to engage other elected officials at all levels — state legislators, county commissioners, and city councils and mayors — and utility board directors to let them know that this is an opportunity to lead their communities toward a better future as envisioned in Congressman Simpson’s concept.