Will the Energy Economy of 2035 Mirror the Energy Economy of 2015?


My view of the Pacific Northwest’s energy economy in 2035 will surprise some people, because, in terms of the energy mix, what we’ll see then will be very similar to what we’re looking at today.

That means we’ll still be hydro-rich. We’ll still be using natural gas. There will be a small nuclear component. Wind power will keep growing. Solar will continue to grow, yet its contribution to the mix will remain small—unless there’s a carbon tax. I also expect to see slow and steady growth of distributed generation and large-scale generation.

The central question for the Pacific Northwest in 2035 will be the same as it is today—how do we take advantage of our abundance of clean energy and still keep electricity prices low? We don’t want to be California, which has energy costs that are two, three, and five times what ours are. We have to move our energy agenda forward and keep costs down.

A related question on the electricity side for 2035 will be similar to what we’re asking today—how do we create a state-of-the-art backbone for the grid with advanced data and predictive analytics, plus controls, performance management, and a significant ability to squeeze inefficiencies out?

This is important, because, in my view, the key to our clean energy future in the 21st century is a highly flexible grid that’s operated in real time, and that’s able to handle all we throw at it. Fortunately, as I look to 2035, we’re blessed in the Pacific Northwest with progressive utilities and a community-wide desire to deploy and use clean energy.

The keys, of course, will be embracing next-generation technology over the next 20 years; continuing to view the grid as a holistic energy system; and remaining focused on efficient, cost-effective and effective infrastructure—no matter what.

I also think that we’ve got to mention demand response in any conversation about the energy future of 2035. It’s definitely part of the equation, especially when you consider how important intermittent renewables are and will continue to be. Loads must participate in a transactional way, especially peak loads, so that we can successfully balance generation and demand.

Energy efficiency is another key. It’s the fifth fuel and will remain the fifth fuel. Our best analysis tells us that two-thirds of future energy demand could be met by energy efficiency. This approach could keep our region economically competitive and productive as we head toward 2035.

There are still a host of unanswered questions as we look out over the next few decades, however.

One area that we need to think about is transportation. We pay higher than average fuel costs. But people are still driving their cars a lot, and will continue to do so, even though their expenses for car fuel and maintenance are higher than their electricity costs.

The technology for plug-in electric vehicles (EV) is available—and will remain available—but it’s unclear whether we will see huge EV penetration by 2035 among average families until the cost comes down significantly. Part of the problem is the cost of the vehicles themselves. Another part is that if millions of people plug their cars in for re-charging every single night, it’s going to put a huge strain on the grid.

The numbers aren’t sharply penciled yet, but if we add transportation to the grid, we might need one-third more electricity. It may be that we’ll have to keep relying on CAFE standards to continue driving efficiencies into the transportation sector.

So, in terms of change, here’s a summary of what we can expect as 2035 approaches: small changes in our energy mix; large changes in the way the grid is managed and operated; and even bigger changes if a carbon tax is ever passed and implemented.

Read the other pieces in this series looking at Washington state’s energy sector in 2035 here. The essays were commissioned by the University of Washington Clean Energy Institute.


Jud W. Virden, Jr., is the Associate Laboratory Director for the Energy and Environment Directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He leads at team of 1,000 scientists, engineers and staff focused on delivering science and technology solutions for energy and environmental challenges. Follow @

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