Washingtonians spend over $20 billion on energy each year, and most of that leaves the state to fund oil and natural gas. This is about $8 billion more than Oregonians spend on energy each year. Washington consumes about twice as much energy as it produces, despite being a leader in hydroelectric production.
The largest capacity power plant in the U.S. is the Grand Coulee Dam on Washington’s Columbia River. It is the seventh-largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, and it produces around 21 million megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity annually, which it supplies to eight western states and parts of Canada.
However, energy production and use are evolving rapidly across the state. As a result, some clean energy technologies are becoming more prevalent, such as using electric vehicles (EVs) and solar photovoltaics. For example, Washington is part of the West Coast Electric Highway, which enables EV drivers to charge easily. Currently, less than half a percent of Washington’s electricity comes from solar energy, but this amount is increasing yearly.
If you want to learn about using solar energy to lower your power bills, contact Smart Solar Energy to request a quote. A solar energy expert can assess your home for solar and estimate your electric bill savings.
How is the Energy Mix Changing in Washington?
According to data from the Washington State Department of Commerce, the resource mix for producing electricity in Washington has shifted over the last decade and will continue evolving. In particular, hydropower, wind energy, nuclear, and solar power have increased, while the use of coal power plants has decreased dramatically.
Energy Mix in Washington:
The TransAlta Power Plant in Centralia, Washington is power by coal, and in 2011, the Legislature ordered the plant to close. This will happen in two phases, with the final one completed by 2025. Shutting down this coal power plant will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote air quality in western Washington.
Across the U.S., many coal power plants are closing, and one-quarter of the coal power plants are scheduled to close by 2029. These decisions are often driven largely by economics.
According to the Energy Information Administration, “Coal-fired generators—especially older, less efficient units—face higher operating and maintenance costs, which make them less competitive and more likely to retire. In addition, some coal-fired power plants must comply with regulations limiting the discharge of wastewater by 2028, which would require additional capital investment, likely influencing the decision to retire some of these coal-fired units.”
Renewable Energy Use in Washington
Washington ranks 2nd in the nation for renewable energy production, following Texas. Historically, the vast majority of renewable energy was from hydropower, but this trend is changing.
Puget Sound Energy is the largest producer of renewable energy in the state. This utility services all of Kitsap, Skagit, Thurston, and Whatcom counties, plus parts of Island, King, Kittitas, and Pierce counties, but not Tacoma or Seattle.
Currently, the majority of the renewable power produced in Washington comes from hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, “Today there are 281 hydropower dams larger than one-tenth megawatt in size in the Columbia River Basin, and about 200 more dams built for other purposes, such as irrigation and flood control.”
Washington is the top hydropower-producing state in the U.S., followed by Oregon. In fact, Washington is responsible for generating 37% of the US’s total hydropower. The largest dams are the Grand Coulee Dam, which produces enough electricity to power 2.3 million households, followed by the Chief Joseph Dam.
Although hydroelectric dams generate cost-effective clean energy, they do impact wildlife. In fact, some dams are being removed in Washington to restore salmon habitat. The federal government recently announced $40 million for dam removal in Washington. The funds are for culvert and dam removal, and studies on alleviating barriers to fish passage in the Olympic Peninsula, Yakima basin, Puget Sound region, and Columbia River watershed.
Another issue with hydropower is that it is reliant on water. Thus, droughts can decrease hydroelectric production. This is especially concerning because climate change is reducing rainfall in some areas of Washington, and increasing temperatures promote evaporation, which can also decrease hydropower generation. In addition, droughts in Washington can happen in the summer, when the electricity demand increases to power air conditioning units.
However, a 2022 report by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) found that even during a drought, hydroelectric dams sustained 80% of their average electricity production. “That’s a noticeable dip—but it’s still a lot of renewable energy,” said Sean Turner, water resources modeler at PNNL and main author of the report.
“When people read stories about one particular dam during a drought, like Glen Canyon Dam, or one particular state, like California, they’re left with the impression that hydropower will not be very reliable in the future, but one dam represents just a small portion of overall capacity,” said Turner. “This means that total western hydropower will still be a major source of power supply even during the worst drought years.”
Solar Energy Use in Washington
Solar power accounts for a small amount of Washington’s total electricity generation, or enough to power more than 58,000 homes. In 2022, almost all of the solar energy came from small-scale solar energy installations, such as rooftop solar projects on homes and businesses.
Solar Power for Homes & Small Businesses
Washington has net metering programs so utility customers can receive compensation for the surplus solar power they supply to the grid. Net metering helps dramatically decrease the payback period of the solar system while increasing the return on investment. Recent electricity rate hikes have helped make solar power more economical than ever before. Also, there is a sales tax exemption in Washington for the purchase and installation of small solar systems, which can save homeowners a lot of money.
If you want to dramatically reduce your electricity bills and help protect the environment, solar power is an excellent option. Contact Smart Solar Energy today to get started with a free solar audit. We install some of the best PV panels on the market, and offer long warranties to protect your investment. The Smart Solar Energy team has helped families throughout Washington, including Tacoma, Battleground, Vancouver, Thurston County, and Olympia, to virtually eliminate their electricity bills.
Community Solar Farms in Washington
These PV projects allow residents and businesses to benefit from the electricity produced from the solar PV panels, but without having them installed on individual properties. Often, the energy from community solar farms costs less than the energy purchased from the local electric company. It’s relatively new to the solar market and is a unique approach that allows more families and small businesses to join the clean energy movement.
Although development has been slow, community solar projects are a viable way for many renters, people with shaded properties, and low-income households to use renewable power. These photovoltaic projects provide clean electricity for a group of households or businesses.
Lawmakers in Olympia have approved $100 million in funding for community solar, which will help increase the use of solar power. This funding is specifically for low-income households, and Washington State University Energy Extension is managing the funds.
Although community solar farms are an excellent way to expand access to clean energy to more households, they aren’t always the most cost-effective option for many homeowners. Typically, community solar subscribers receive a small discount for using solar power, but owning a rooftop solar system can result in greater cost savings over time. Instead of using discounted solar power, solar homeowners can take advantage of free solar electricity.
Utility-scale Wind Power
There are 3,396 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity in Washington, with another 600 megawatts under construction. Some of the areas with the best wind energy capacity are in the Cascade Range in Washington and the Olympic Mountains near the coast. The latter is a good location for large utilities-scale wind farm developments because it is located closer to population centers, including Olympia and Tacoma, Washington.
Puget Sound Energy is a leader in using renewable energy sources in Washington and operates three wind farms:
- Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility in Kittitas County
- Lower Snake River Wind Facility in Garfield County
- Hopkins Ridge Wind Facility in Columbia County
However, some of the areas with the best wind energy resources in Washington are located in the Pacific Ocean, so offshore wind energy may become more widespread in the future. Currently, the majority of the wind energy capacity in Washington is from onshore utility-scale wind turbines, not small residential units.
Residential Wind Turbines
Some Washington homeowners use wind power to produce clean energy, but it is only a viable option for a small percentage of properties. Unfortunately, wind turbines usually need at least one acre of land, so many households don’t have enough space. It’s helpful for there to be sufficient space to raise and lower the wind turbine tower as needed to make repairs and perform maintenance. Plus, many residential wind turbines have guy wires for support, which also require space. Therefore, wind turbines aren’t an option for most urban or even suburban homes in Washington.
The energy output of residential wind turbines varies widely by location, and windy areas are obviously the best. Therefore, proper wind turbine siting is critical for maximizing wind power output. Obstructions, such as buildings, trees, and hills, can reduce wind speeds, so it is best to site wind turbines upwind from them. Also, unlike solar panel systems, wind turbines need regular maintenance and can even be a safety hazard when not adequately serviced.
Electricity Generation in Washington
Despite being a leader in renewable energy use, the state’s third-largest source of carbon emissions is electricity production. In 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a landmark piece of legislation into law to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045. Washington utility companies are required to switch to carbon-neutral energy sources by 2030 and eliminating fossil-fuel energy production by 2045.
Every retail electric supplier and utility company in Washington must disclose the mix of fuels used to produce power. Each utility in Washington has a unique fuel mix. For example, Clark County PUD, which provides power to cities including Tacoma and Battleground Washington, uses primarily hydropower, natural gas, and a little wind energy and nuclear power. Cowlitz County PUD, on the I-5 corridor north of Vancouver, uses more solar power than many counties.
In addition, some cities in Washington have set themselves apart as leaders in the solar energy transition.
Easy Solar Permitting in Olympia
The city wants to make it easier to install solar energy systems in Olympia. As a result, it has streamlined the solar permitting process, so home and business owners can quickly install solar panels. Many Olympia households are installing solar panels to lower their electricity bills and dependence on fossil fuels.
Tacoma Transitions to 100% Renewables
The City of Tacoma set a goal to get to 100% renewable energy by 2050. It created a renewable city strategy to highlight the needed steps to transition to clean energy from 2015 to 2050 through an increased supply of renewable energy sources, including solar panels and wind turbines. The Tacoma strategy also calls for greater energy efficiency and using solar shading and heating with solar orientation.
Vancouver Has an Excellent Solar Resource
Although the entire state is conducive for solar panel installations, the city of Vancouver, Washington, has an especially good solar energy resource for western Washington. Clark County has very sunny summer months, corresponding with higher energy use for running air conditioners.
Climate Change & Air Pollution in Washington
Two of the best ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and promote air quality are to transition to renewable energy sources and electrify transportation. However, when using EVs, it’s critical to consider the source of the electricity. As Washington utility companies reduce the consumption of electricity from fossil fuels and more homeowners install rooftop solar systems, it is becoming much easier to charge vehicles with clean energy.
The 30% federal tax credit significantly reduces the cost of installing a solar panel system, making clean solar power affordable to more families. To learn more about reducing your electric bills with clean energy, contact the Smart Solar Energy team today for a free solar audit.