How to turn the Pacific Northwest’s renewable resources into reliable, clean capacity


The Pacific Northwest electric grid faces a set of unique challenges and opportunities. With over 60% of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest coming from hydropower, the region is one of the country’s leading producers of inexpensive, zero-carbon electricity. However, the region is seeing electricity demand grow at the highest rates in decades, while many existing generation resources are retiring. Complicating matters, decarbonization targets set by several states and utilities require that new resources be low- or zero-emitting. Additionally, increasingly volatile weather patterns have created a need for the grid to be highly reliable, even during multi-day weather events. These dynamics are driving a need for clean, dispatchable resources to balance fluctuations in electricity generation and load. They are also intensifying the need for improved resource planning to ensure that the Pacific Northwest system, which has historically been rich in energy and capacity, has the most affordable and reliable portfolio in place for customers during this massive transition.

Despite these pressing challenges, traditional regional and utility resource planning models have not yet fully grappled with the region’s multi-day reliability gaps, nor have they considered the breadth of emerging resource options that will be available to help navigate them. Using Formware™, Form Energy’s grid modeling toolkit, our Analytics team assessed how the Pacific Northwest region could cost-effectively and reliably build and operate its grid through 2030, while leveraging clean, dispatchable resources. We modeled a diverse set of emerging technologies in detail, including 10-24 hour long-duration energy storage (LDES), 24+ hour multi-day energy storage (MDS), green hydrogen, geothermal, biomass, and nuclear power. As part of this analysis, we also captured a broad range of weather conditions that affect hydropower availability, renewable generation, and demand for electricity.

We recently published the findings from this analysis in a white paper, Navigating the Pacific Northwest’s Energy Challenges: How Clean Dispatchable Resources Can Secure the Region’s Energy Future. At a high level, our analysis found that incorporating emerging MDS technologies into the region’s energy portfolio could support grid reliability while lowering the costs of integrating renewable energy within this decade. The study also found that these resource types could help pave the way for helping states achieve future decarbonization targets.

Specifically, the study found that MDS could enable three key benefits for the Pacific Northwest:

  1. Clean portfolio cost reductions: At least 3 gigawatts (GW) of MDS was found to be part of the least-cost resource portfolio to meet decarbonization goals in the Pacific Northwest in 2030. These investments would create average annualized cost savings of 2.8%, or roughly $800 million on a net-present value basis. These savings would be driven by a reduction in the investments needed to maintain sufficient electricity supply and a more efficient use of available renewable energy.
  2. Improved value from renewable resources: MDS and LDES technologies were shown to enhance the value of the region’s abundant hydropower and renewable resources by storing excess energy during times of abundance and dispatching it during times of scarcity, such as during summer heat waves, winter storms, and lulls in renewable output. On average, it was found that these technologies could help reduce annual renewable curtailment by 51% via being able to store and shift energy on a daily, weekly, and even seasonal basis. In particular, MDS showed strong potential to be able to support seasonal shifting of energy from spring months with higher hydropower to the dry summer months with lower hydropower and high loads.
  3. 24/7 reliability support: During multi-day weather events, clean dispatchable resources like MDS could support grid reliability for many consecutive days even with limited energy available for recharging, whereas shorter-duration energy storage technologies would be constrained by limited opportunities for re-charging. In addition to more frequent severe weather events, the region also faces a growing need to manage uncertain output from renewable resources. Our analysis showed that MDS and LDES could enable 6x improvements in the region’s ability to manage unexpected changes in renewable output and support grid reliability with only new, clean resources.

Overall, we modeled 100 different possible hydrological, weather, and technological scenario combinations in our analysis, using full-year, hourly resolution. In all 50 scenarios in which all clean dispatchable resources were allowed, MDS was selected at the gigawatt scale, enabling both reductions in total capacity needed and lessened portfolio costs. The figure below highlights one of these scenarios, and underscores the overall role that these technologies could play in the region’s future energy mix.

New installed capacity in the Pacific Northwest by 2030


To fully realize the opportunity presented by clean, dispatchable resources like MDS and LDES, it will be important for Pacific Northwest utilities, stakeholders, and regulators to evaluate these technologies in their near- and long-term resource planning processes. Advanced modeling methodologies – using detailed, hourly, full-year capacity expansion data – can help better capture the risk presented by atypical, multi-day events and the benefits that emerging technologies can provide. With new resources like MDS in place, the Pacific Northwest can continue to lead the way and set a nationwide example on what a clean, reliable, and affordable energy grid for all looks like.

To see the full results of our analysis, please see our white paper Navigating the Pacific Northwest’s Energy Challenges, available at the link here.

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