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Washington state’s new carbon-free law sounds dandy. Making it work will be daunting

Battery operated tiles take energy created by people walking and turn it into electricity.

Bank of The West has installed battery operated tiles outside of Golden 1 Arena. The tiles take energy created by people walking on them and turn it into electricity demonstrated by a green neon light.
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Bank of The West has installed battery operated tiles outside of Golden 1 Arena. The tiles take energy created by people walking on them and turn it into electricity demonstrated by a green neon light.

The governor and the Legislature hath decreed that Washington’s electricity supply will be “100 percent carbon-neutral” by 2030 and “100 percent carbon-free” by 2045.

But what do those terms even mean? Do nukes count? What happens when a regional electrical grid becomes less stable, less reliable, more vulnerable to attack and more expensive for consumers and businesses because of its growing reliance on renewables and distributed generation?

Hey, don’t bother them with such picayune matters. They’re the big-picture guys and gals. Details? Let the engineers and research scientists handle those.

It doesn’t often happen with a piece of bad legislation, but in this case the engineers and researchers might indeed bail us out.

If they do, it’s more likely to be the result of hundreds of small innovations and incremental steps forward rather than a handful of “eureka!” moments (although in the specific case of battery technology, a few of those wouldn’t hurt, either). Several projects proposed for Tacoma are illustrative of how this might work.

SB 5116 is a dog’s breakfast of a bill, an unappetizing hash of the latest political realities, enviro fads and opportunities to award favored groups. If, for example, you’re in the business of writing or interpreting rules and regs generated by 5116, or consulting on how to comply with or take advantage of said verbiage, Christmas came early for you and will keep coming from now to 2030 and to 2045.

The laborious, painstaking and often frustrating work of building, testing and refining the technologies that will make the glories of a carbon-free grid possible (never mind whether that prospect is desirable) won’t be cheap, either. But without it, the next-generation electric grid doesn’t happen.

People won’t be happy when they learn, in 2030 or 2045, they’ve shelled out a lot of money to wind up with a developing nation’s power grid. We’re accustomed to having electricity available when and where we want it; it’s what makes our comfortable lives possible. And it’s something we know how to build and run. If we need more power, we can build a big central generating station, powered by cheap and plentiful natural gas, plug it into the grid and be done with it.

What we don’t have, and what we’ll need places like Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland to build, is a grid smart, fast and resilient enough to handle tens of thousands of generating stations (as small as a residential solar panel and battery array or as big as wind-turbine farm) adding to and dropping off the system at a moment’s notice, all the while fending off the cybervandals and cybersaboteurs, who will have tens of thousands of additional points of entry to exploit. We’re not there yet.

So what’s to make us optimistic the engineers and scientists will get us there and clean up some of the messes wrought by goofy legislation? One is the breadth, depth and legacy of American ingenuity. Not to get too jingoistic or Pollyannish about it, but the U.S. has a pretty good track record of going after tough technology challenges. In July, we’ll be marking the 50th anniversary of one of the more notable instances — sending men to the moon.

The other is that there’s already a lot of work being done on energy tech, including right here in town.

The state Department of Commerce recently announced a grant to Tacoma Power from its Clean Energy Fund for a liquid-air energy storage system to be installed at a large industrial customer (identified as industrial-gases maker Praxair). The project would include an 850,000-gallon liquid nitrogen storage tank and have the capacity to produce 15 megawatts, or 450 megawatt-hours.

Liquid-air energy storage uses nitrogen, which comprises 78 percent of the air around us. Chilled to minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes a liquid. According to the Energy Storage Association, liquid-air energy storage “uses electricity to cool air until it liquefies, stores the liquid air in a tank, brings the liquid air back to a gaseous state (by exposure to ambient air or with waste heat from an industrial process) and uses that gas to turn a turbine and generate electricity.”

Those systems are attractive, the association adds, because they can be built with off-the-shelf components with proven long-term life and performance, while providing industrial-scale power.

For our other example of energy ingenuity, let’s go to the zoo. Tacoma Power and the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium are looking at a project to use saltwater discharge to generate electricity. The water is headed downhill anyway; why not put it to use by driving a turbine to produce some electricity?

That same principle of capturing energy that would otherwise be lost was applied last year when Covington in King County installed a generating turbine to capture the pressure difference between a supply line from Tacoma Water and its own municipal system.

Those projects address the supply side of the problem. There’s still a lot of potential on the demand side in the form of what used to get a lot of attention but which lately feels almost overlooked — conservation. LED lighting alone, just for offices and commercial installations, could wipe out huge chunks of demand.

Finding more supply while cutting demand still leaves the issues of coordinating, maintaining and protecting a much more complex electrical grid. Researchers and engineers are working on those problems, too, and they just might come up with something that, on the receiving end where it counts, works as reliably and affordably as what we’ve got.

Could they also engineer better politicians and legislation? C’mon, give ‘em something more realistic — like colonizing Mars.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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