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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Virta

What are Non-Wires Solutions and Why do they matter?

At a glance: Non-wire solutions can provide significant benefits for the Pacific Northwest (PNW) by optimizing the existing grid infrastructure, managing the demand-side, and integrating distributed energy resources. Implementing these solutions can reduce transmission line congestion and sprawl, lower energy bills, and improve grid reliability for ratepayers. Additionally, non-wires solutions can promote the adoption of energy-efficient technologies, reduce the region's greenhouse gas emissions, and support its climate goals. Furthermore, prioritizing non-wires solutions can foster increased collaboration between utilities and tribal governments, providing new economic opportunities for tribal communities and respecting their cultural, historical, and spiritual significance. Overall, embracing non-wires solutions can lead to a more sustainable, just, and environmentally friendly energy system that benefits all stakeholders in the PNW.

To start things off, It is important to state clearly that Cascadia Renewables is a developer of utility scale, commercial/industrial, and rooftop solar plus storage solutions. We stand to benefit from non-wires solutions as much as we do from utility scale projects and we emphatically believe that in order to combat the full scope of the climate crisis we need to take a "yes, and..." approach to clean energy projects (hand me that kitchen sink… as it were). In short, we believe that we do not have time for politicians, utilities, the solar industry, or ratepayers to be in opposition to one another. With that said, there are significant problems with the current land grab happening for utility scale project development which ignores opportunities in the built environment and the significant benefits of non-wires solutions. This approach often risks ignoring the perspectives and voices of the communities in which these projects are being proposed.

I have been reeling after the 2023 legislative session saw two incredibly important bills succumb to utility opposition: HB1427 (concerning fair access to Net Energy Metering) and HB1509 (concerning fair access to community solar). We are seeing the effects of climate change play out in our day to day lives and it was very disappointing to see the significant push back from some of the most powerful political factions in our region.

It is clear that the Washington Solar Energy Industries Asociation (WASIEA) and the broader environmental/clean energy coalition needs to better communicate the benefits of non-wires solutions and the risks our communities face if we let the policy and financial mechanism essential to their deployment fail. With all of that as context, I wanted to start a conversation in Washington about the benefits of non-wire solutions long before the start of the 2024 legislative session. Bear with me…this is going to get a bit wonky...

Non-wire solutions (NWS) are a variety of alternative strategies and technologies that can reduce transmission line congestion and sprawl in the PNW by optimizing the existing grid infrastructure, managing the demand-side, and integrating distributed energy resources (DERS). This is important given the load growth forecasts brought on by the move toward electrification of electric vehicles (EVs), heat pumps, hot water heating, and other machines (we highly recommend Saul Griffith's book "Electrify"). Electrification, while essential to decarbonization, is expected to increase energy consumption and place additional stress on regional transmission lines. Implementing non-wires solutions in the PNW can deliver significant benefits to ratepayers, utilities, and the environment.

Here's how non-wires solutions help address these challenges:

  1. Demand-side management (DM): By implementing demand response programs, utilities in the PNW can incentivize customers to shift their energy consumption patterns to off-peak hours, thereby reducing stress on the grid during peak demand periods. This is particularly relevant for EV charging, as vehicle owners can be encouraged to charge their vehicles during off-peak hours when there is less congestion on the transmission lines. This leads to more efficient use of grid resources, cost savings, and improved grid reliability for ratepayers.

  2. Energy efficiency programs (EE): These initiatives promote the adoption of energy-efficient technologies and practices in both residential and commercial sectors, leading to a reduction in overall energy consumption. As a result, the pressure on transmission lines is reduced, even as the electrification of transportation and heating systems continues to grow. Energy efficiency programs can lower energy bills for ratepayers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, benefiting both consumers and the environment.

  3. Distributed energy resources (DERs): By integrating localized generation sources like solar PV Systems, wind turbines, and energy storage systems, non-wires solutions can help reduce congestion on transmission lines. DERs generate and store energy close to the point of consumption, minimizing the need for long-distance power transmission and reducing the strain on the grid. This leads to lower electricity costs for ratepayers, increased grid resilience, and reduced environmental impact from traditional power generation. Check out our blog post all about DERS!

  4. Advanced grid technologies: The deployment of smart meters, grid sensors, and intelligent communication systems enables utilities to monitor and manage energy flow more effectively. This improved visibility and control over grid operations allows for better load balancing and congestion management, ensuring that transmission lines can handle increased demand without requiring costly infrastructure upgrades. This results in cost savings for utilities and ratepayers, as well as increased grid reliability.

The benefits of non-wires solutions in the PNW are threefold:

  1. Ratepayers (that is all of us!): Reduced congestion on transmission lines leads to cost savings by deferring or eliminating the need for expensive infrastructure upgrades. It also results in lower energy bills, improved grid reliability, and increased access to renewable energy sources. Win, Win, Win!

  2. Utilities: Non-wires solutions help utilities to optimize existing resources, better manage grid operations, and adapt to changing market conditions, ultimately contributing to their long-term stability and success. We need our utilities healthy in order to manage the clean energy transition!

  3. Environment: By reducing congestion on transmission lines and promoting the integration of clean energy resources, non-wires solutions contribute to a cleaner, low-carbon energy mix, reducing the region's greenhouse gas emissions and supporting its climate goals.

It is worth expanding on the environmental benefits of non-wire solutions for a the species that perhaps has the most to gain from non-wire solutions is the cornerstone of PNW identity: the salmon.

Traditional transmission infrastructure involves clearing land, constructing roads, and installing large transmission towers, which can disrupt ecosystems and degrade water quality. By minimizing the need for new transmission lines, non-wires solutions help preserve sensitive salmon habitats in the region. Moreover, non-wires solutions can reduce the potential impact on salmon-bearing waterways by optimizing the existing grid, preserving rivers and streams. As climate change poses a significant threat to salmon survival, non-wires solutions that promote energy efficiency and the integration of clean energy resources can mitigate its effects.

Perhaps the most important benefit of non-wires solutions, however, has been an increasingly controversial topic in Washington State. Preventing new transmission infrastructure in the PNW can support tribal sovereignty by minimizing the environmental impact and land use associated with traditional grid expansion. The increasing usage of the term green colonialism highlights WA lawmakers’, utilities’, and regulators' reluctance to adopt and encourage NWS in favor of traditional utility development practices.

As an example, for years now, the Confederated Tribes and bands of the Yakama Nation have been fighting to stop the construction of a pumped hydro facility by a Boston-based developer, which could destroy tribal cultural property located on privately owned land outside Goldendale, Washington. This developer intends to build a pumped hydro storage facility on Juniper Point, which forms part of the Pushpum area, where the Yakama people have treaty-protected rights. Proceeding with this project would have a significant impact on the Pushpum lands as detailed in a 2019 Tribal Resources Analysis. Although the tribe has objected to Rye's plans, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has yet to engage in formal consultation and the project is moving forward with the development regardless.

The Yakama Nation is under pressure from a number of renewable energy projects being proposed within its 10 million-acre treaty territory, with at least 34 wind and solar projects planned on its lands. Tribal Councilman Jeremy Takala has noted that the US government drags its feet when fulfilling its obligations to tribes, while developers' proposals are pushed through quickly.

Where do we go from here? Washington lawmakers, utilities, and regulators need to listen to the mistakes of the past. It is time for our leaders to recognize the role non-wires solutions play in a just, equitable, clean energy transition.

How do non-wires solutions support tribal sovereignty?

  1. Land use and cultural heritage: By preventing the construction of new transmission infrastructure, less land will be needed for utility corridors and substations. This reduces the likelihood of encroaching on tribal lands, which have cultural, historical, and spiritual significance for the Indigenous communities in the PNW.

  2. Decision-making and consultation: Emphasizing non-wires solutions can foster increased collaboration between utilities and tribal governments. By including tribal perspectives in decision-making processes, utilities can demonstrate respect for tribal sovereignty and work together to develop energy solutions that align with the values and interests of Indigenous communities.

  3. Economic opportunities: Non-wires solutions, such as distributed energy resources and energy efficiency programs, can provide new economic opportunities for tribal communities. By investing in localized renewable energy projects, tribes can generate revenue, create jobs, and promote energy independence, while maintaining control over their lands and resources.

Prioritizing non-wires solutions in the PNW offers a range of benefits for all stakeholders. These strategies support tribal sovereignty and protect salmon habitats, while also providing benefits to ratepayers and utility business models. By reducing congestion on transmission lines, non-wires solutions can accommodate the increased load growth resulting from rapid electrification, leading to lower costs for ratepayers and improved economics for utilities. Moreover, non-wires solutions align with evolving customer expectations and regulatory requirements, promoting a more sustainable energy system that mitigates the effects of climate change. Ultimately, fostering collaboration between lawmakers, utilities, ratepayers, solar installers and Indigenous communities can lead to a more efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly energy system that benefits all stakeholders in the PNW.

Let's keep the conversation going! Click here to get in touch.

- Markus and Callum


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