Blazing a Path Ahead (BPA) for the next 75

.. originally published in Clearing Up

I drove through Eastern Washington last June, when the Columbia ran high.  I remember rounding a corner to a vista of Bonneville Dam, with water pouring over the spillways and mist rising on a bright windy day.  It took my breath away.  I remember how my 19-year-old son stood quiet and tall when he caught sight of Grand Coulee from the overlook.  “Damn!” I heard myself say, not intending the pun. “Look at that!”

Now, I’m a former river guide and an avid nature lover, so dams are a mixed bag for me.  But however you tally their costs and benefits, those bad boys are impressive.  I think what hit me was the sheer scale of ambition and collective human determination they represent.  They speak of a time and an ethos when we did big, great things together. 

That spirit seems sadly remote now.  We spend more time quibbling about how to divvy up the big juicy pie our grandparents baked than figuring out how to bake more, for our kids and grandkids.

You have to wonder, if we had to do something big and great together now, could we do it?  Turns out, it’s not a hypothetical question.

We actually do have a defining, existential challenge on our hands:  building a clean energy economy to stabilize the climate before we trigger catastrophic disruption.  These words sound edgy, “extreme” in relation to the political dialogue about these issues.  Yet they accurately represent our best scientific understanding of our actual circumstances…and the reality on the ground in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in the Farm Belt and Texas after this summer’s epic drought, in the dying forests of the Eastern Cascades.

Imagine that climate disruption presented itself not as a political football, but as the crisis that it is – the way Pearl Harbor turned a vague global threat into a national emergency overnight (or the way Sandy slammed into the East Coast).  Suppose we stop all the politicking and yapping and just deal with it.  Now what?

As we gather ourselves for the challenge, we’ll discover that one place has a uniquely powerful set of attributes that make it a natural proving ground for the transition to a clean energy era.  That place already has a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy.   It is blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played pioneering roles in the aviation, software, and internet revolutions.  It has a distant but still powerful memory of how ambitious collective investment in energy infrastructure cleared the path to broadly-shared prosperity.  That place is here.

Starting with these huge advantages, what could the Northwest do to lead the transition to a fossil fuel-free energy era, and how could BPA help us do it?  How can these assets be deployed to facilitate replacement of our aging coal plants with clean energy (and very little gas as a bridge) – effectively ending the use of fossil fuels to serve regional power needs in time for BPA’s 100th anniversary?  How can BPA help the region squeeze more work out of our low-cost power – meeting ALL foreseeable load growth by wasting less of the valuable resources we already have?  How could BPA accelerate deployment of new technologies that store energy, manage loads, and integrate more intermittent renewables? How could BPA help create a table where we end the perpetual cycle of litigation and hammer out a durable, comprehensive salmon recovery strategy?

I pose these as questions.   I’m not proposing a blueprint.  I’m suggesting we take this opportunity to step back and think hard about what’s right, what’s necessary, what’s possible.  What’s our job, in the big picture, and how can we use our assets and our history to help us step up and do it?

Think even bigger – as big as the climate challenge:  How could we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity infrastructure to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system?  How could BPA anchor a regional strategy to capture the economic advantages of global leadership in clean energy technologies and systems?     How could BPA empower and assist local communities in implementing the clean energy and carbon reduction initiatives that work for them?

These questions may seem to stray outside BPA’s current scope – but not nearly as far as building tanks was outside the scope of the auto industry on December 6, 1941.  And if we are to have any hope of preventing catastrophic climate disruption, we’ll have to get into a December 7 state of mind.  It’s a state of mind and a spirit that’s radically out of step with the cynical, sniping, “can’t do” politics of the moment.  But it’s a spirit that represents the best of BPA’s legacy – the ambition, the collective will, the profound commitment to a better future – that built the nation’s best power system.

Let’s renew it.

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