by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
State and provincial leaders from the northwestern U.S. and Canada gathered in Boise this week for an annual summit between the region’s governments. They kicked off the gathering by considering the challenges and opportunities involved with decarbonization of the energy system.
The Pacific Northwest Economic Region is a public-private non-profit organization created by the states of Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories to collaborate on regional solutions to global issues. State and provincial governments statutorily created PNWER in the 1990s, and the organization quickly grew to include private sector participation as well.
Monday’s panel discussions focused on technological and regulatory changes that the U.S. and Canada will need to reach net-zero carbon emissions while also ensuring equity for their rural communities.
“The aspirations are ambitious, but they’re not intractable,” said executive director Dan Kirschner from the Northwest Gas Association. “We need to be thoughtful and deliberate as we move forward down this decarbonization pathway to ensure that we can continue delivering clean, affordable energy that we can rely on when and where we need it.”
“I think this past year the foot’s gone off the gas on that effort a little bit, because of the war in Ukraine,” said Justin Riemer, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta. “There’s a little bit more rational thought around the economic costs required to do these significant decarbonization agendas… We need to learn from one another if we’re going to be able to accelerate this and not develop these [advancements] in silos.”
Idaho Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Winder, the outgoing president of PNWER, said the focus for the 2023 annual summit was security and sustainability in the energy, food, and critical mineral sectors.
In remarks at the summit, Winder and Idaho Gov. Brad Little both referenced the Chinese government’s recent move to restrict exports of two rare earth minerals used in computer chip manufacturing. Those minerals could be mined locally here in North America, the state leaders said, but are currently imported from overseas, and losing access to them could cripple domestic electronic manufacturing industries.
“In most cases, for critical minerals, they’re our sole source,” Winder told summit attendees. “They’re critical to our windmills, to our generation of alternative energy, production of solar panels, microchips, about anything that’s related to energy. The Chinese have amazing control over natural resources that really are available in our two countries – but our countries have made the choice that we’re going to do it from a foreign source, we’re not going to have the impact on the environment in our countries.”
Those goals of secure and sustainable mineral, energy and food production align with the bi-national organization’s mission of increasing economic well-being and quality of life in the region while maintaining and enhancing the environment.
“I believe in the deepest part of my heart that we all want clean air, clean water, and we don’t want to pollute the land. There’s a way to do that if we work together,” Winder said.
“There’s a lack of understanding from the general public on how much it will cost to do all this. It’s going to cost a lot of money,” Winder said. “The goals are good, but where’s the plan?”
Many of the energy industry panelists sounded optimistic that they could achieve decarbonization in the near future. However, they were clear eyed about the hurdles ahead of reaching net zero or negative carbon emissions.
“We have a lot of work to do. We can’t set aside any of our options, including carbon capture with those fossil resources, nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal. We’ve got to use everything,” said Shannon Bragg-Sitton, Integrated Energy & Storage Systems division director for the Idaho National Laboratory.
“We first need to replace the high-quality heat that is being provided by fossil fuel resources to many of our industrial applications,” she said. “We also need a large source of clean hydrogen as a key energy carrier that becomes a feedstock for agricultural fertilizers, synthetic liquid fuels, chemicals, steel manufacturing. Finally, we need a large source of clean electricity that’s reliable, resilient, dispatchable – meaning it’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and that needs to be affordable to the consumer.”
Bragg-Sitton also discussed the importance of optimizing the different types of fuel available, rather than seeing them as disconnected systems. Nuclear reactors primarily produce heat, she pointed out, and it is inefficient to convert that heat into electricity for transmission and then back into heat at its destination. She also discussed the emerging technique of producing hydrogen fuel at already licensed nuclear sites, such as Nine Mile Point in New York. That demonstration project already produces enough hydrogen for the plant’s daily operational use, and two similar projects will come online soon in Ohio and Minnesota.
“Right now, our markets are looked at separately. We have our electricity markets, and then we have heat applications for industry, and we have transportation over here,” said Bragg-Sitton. “I think we need to be a lot more creative with regulators by looking at cross sectoral analysis, better understanding how we can use energy from one sector to benefit another.”
The discussions even included off-the-cuff questions and suggestions among the panelists about how their respective organizations could reprocess or take advantage of materials that other industries consider waste or a bottleneck in their own processes.
“There’s a lot of technologies, and we’re evaluating every single one,” said Kai Guo, West Region vice president of Hydrogen Infrastructure Development at Mitsubishi Power.
Other industry leaders pointed out that they need to look at the problem from both ends of the equation, both in clean energy production and consumption.
“In addition to decarbonizing the energy markets – you know, the grid – we have to think about other sectors; manufacturing, agriculture. How do we decarbonize all those sectors as well?” Jeff Morris of Schneider Electric said. “Do we have the technology readily available to use ammonia, hydrogen, and other forms of clean fuel? I think that’s probably a key challenge that will take some years to overcome.”
“It’s not just the technology,” said Renewable Gas and Low Carbon Fuels director David Bennett from gas company FortisBC. “It’s how do you commercialize it, and how do you put the business rules in place?”
A recurring theme among the panelists was that it can be tough to predict where the market will go because these technologies are evolving so quickly.
“We range from an extremely aggressive carbon policy like the state of Washington to no carbon policy like Idaho, and so it’s extremely disjointed,” said Jeff Kugel, power supply director at Oregon-based PNGC Power. “From a utility perspective, we need tools to attack this problem, to decarbonize and achieve our goals.”
Bennett gave an example of a low-carbon fuel credit in British Columbia, originally written for fuel physically delivered to the province. Currently, newer businesses producing clean fuels inside the province can’t take advantage of it.
“It’s the outcomes that policymakers need to be focused on – because the technologies will allow you to deliver those outcomes that you aspire to. But we get locked in technology silos, it drives me nuts,” Morris said. It’s tough for utilities operating across multiple jurisdictions when those governments have different priorities and metrics for evaluating power sources, he argued, adding policymakers should focus on outcomes rather than fighting over which fuel and transmission should or shouldn’t be legal.
“If we don’t want to have carbon emissions, then if the natural gas industry is able to come up with something like renewable gas or hydrogen, then they should be allowed to do that. We shouldn’t say, because something comes to your house in a pipe, that’s bad,” Morris said. “Don’t be too prescriptive.”
A number of American cities have banned gas infrastructure in new construction projects since 2019, including New York state earlier this year. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the first law of its kind in Berkeley, CA.
Lawmakers in Idaho on near-party lines this session passed a law that bans local governments from prohibiting or restricting natural gas energy and other types of utility connections.
“We absolutely have to think about the infrastructure,” Bragg-Sitton said. “What can we utilize from existing infrastructure? What do we need to put in place very rapidly to support this transition? How do we do so in a way that does not leave any of the communities behind that currently rely on those fossil fuels for their economies?”
The energy industry leaders repeatedly emphasized the need to minimize energy price impacts for everyday consumers, especially on tribal reservations and in rural areas whose economies have relied on fossil fuels.
Morris was optimistic that flexible renewable energy options and small-scale microgrids could offer affordable energy to areas in areas where it has been cost prohibitive for utility companies to run a short transmission line. “You’re looking at some of the biggest high-voltage lines anywhere in North America, usually within eyesight of the property, and yet, they don’t have adequate electricity,” he said.
“That is something that is really hard to change, and has established distrust in some of those communities,” Bragg-Sitton said. “We are getting ahead of that now. If there’s even a point of consideration for new energy systems, there are members of the national laboratory research team or industry in those communities from day one, saying, ‘OK, here’s the options we have available.’ It might be nuclear, solar, wind – whatever that might be – and [we are] making those communities part of that decision process from day one, rather than telling them what needs to be done.”
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.