Massive Snowmelt Pits Wind Turbines Against Water Power

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With weather warm and rivers raging, there is too much power available to the northwest's grid, threatening service and rate stability

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There will be a legal bill. That much is clear.

But little else is easily explained in a bizarre situation in the Pacific Northwest that's pit wind energy against hydropower, and caused the shutdown of thousands of wind turbines during a prime season of hard-blowing gusts.

Spring runoff has caused rushing waters in the Federal Columbia River Power System, making massive amounts of water power possible. In fact, there is too much power available to the northwest's power grid, threatening service and rate stability. Some generation has to be slowed or shutdown, or buyers outside the region found for the electricity.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which manages power transmission in parts of eight Western states and sells hydropower from federal dams, has decided to curtail windpower to solve its overgeneration problem.

Since May 18, the decision has disrupted operations at 35 wind farms with more than 2,000 turbines stalled almost daily in the Columbia Gorge along the border of Oregon and Washington. Those generators have contracts with BPA to transmit wind power. Now, they are tallying ongoing losses already in the millions.

"It looks like in the typical week they are curtailing in the mid-20,000 megawatt hours. And to put that in perspective, that's enough power to power about half of the houses in Portland," a city with a population of roughly 584,000, said Michael Goggin, manager of transmission for the American Wind Energy Association.

BPA's hasn't only shut down wind farms. It's also stored some power, curtailed other sources, and exported surplus electricity at very low cost. But the administration has stopped short of paying to get rid of surplus hydropower to make way for wind generation, with damages absorbed by the wind industry.

Critics of the curtailment dispute its necessity, instead charging BPA has used high water conditions -- and the potential to harm to salmon by spilling it over dams -- to craft policies that benefit its bottom line. "It will certainly harm our future in the Northwest for renewable energy development, but it could even have broader implications. If a monopoly utility can break utility contracts, it would be very hard to finance projects in a lot of places," Goggin said.

Officials at multinational energy company Iberdrola and six-state utility Pacific Power are planning lawsuits. Iberdrola and Pacific Power's parent company PacifiCorp were among five companies that filed a challenge at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission June 13 charging BPA violated the Federal Power Act. Meanwhile, the situation has riled salmon advocates and upset rural communities dependent on tax revenues from wind farms. In Washington, D.C., Congressional leaders have dispatched letters to the Obama Administration, noting the disconnect between its call to promote renewable energy and decisions on the ground at BPA, which is part of the United States Department of Energy.

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BPA operates and maintains a transmission system that encompasses all of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Western Montana, and small parts of Eastern Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. It is somewhat unique as a federal agency in that it generates revenue from power sales, even while offering low-priced power to ratepayers. BPA supplies about a third of the power used in the Northwest.

Since 2005, BPA has contracted to deliver wind power for an expanding number of wind farms, most keen to the advantages of its established transmission routes along the Columbia Gorge, where the wind currents are so strong that trees lean to the east. BPA has added 3,400 megawatts of new wind capacity since 2005 in this region and is projected to reach 6,000 megawatts by 2013. Agency officials note that the pace of integration is years ahead of original estimates, and that BPA has worked hard to integrate what are now among the highest levels of wind power compared to load of any grid-balancing authority in the country.

The agency has grappled mightily with the demands of managing that power, however, particularly as development centers around the Columbia Gorge. With turbines located mostly in one place, the wind either blows there or doesn't, and wind power's effect on the grid fluctuates widely. Tasked with balancing the power supply to meet demand, an exercise that keeps power delivery and prices stable, BPA has had the most difficulty in spring, when wind power and hydropower peak simultaneously. Though BPA can spill water over dams to release oversupply in some cases, fast-falling water makes for bubbles in rivers, which dissolve as gas and can threaten endangered salmon.

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Lee van der Voo is an independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon, where she focuses on enterprise and investigative journalism and covers renewable energy.

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