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.
This year, with weather warm and rivers raging, thermal producers -- coal, nuclear and natural gas producers -- have already powered down, and BPA said it has had no choice but to cut wind power off the grid next. But unlike thermal power generators, wind farms lose money in the exchange. When hydropower is so abundant there is little financial gain to producing more, thermal producers save money by conserving fuel. Wind companies, however, have no fuel savings, lose money from power sales, and also lose lucrative federal and state incentives tied to production. As of June 13, wind companies had curtailed 74,114 megawatt hours of power during select overnight hours, worth $1.6 million in production tax credits alone.
Michael Milstein, spokesman for the BPA, said the policy was a last resort. "It was something that nobody here wanted. There wasn't really a good option. Ultimately the administrator felt that this was the safest and the best balance between bad choices, the best for protecting fish, for protecting the stability of the grid, and for trying to keep power rates reasonable," he said.
The policy, however, has left wind operators fuming, including private companies and utilities, and stoked real fear throughout the industry that BPA's move could disrupt future wind development.
Patrick Reiten is president of Pacific Power, one of three platforms under PacifiCorp, a six-state utility that both owns wind farms and purchases wind power within BPA's service territory. He believes BPA is simply pushing wind power offline because it's the cheapest solution to its balancing problem.
Reiten points to open capacity on transmission lines connecting southern California to Canada, and says, "What that tells you is this is an economic event, not a matter of physics or fish."
Power transmission organizations from the Midwest ISO (MISO) and PJM Interconnection, to New York (NYISO), New England (ISO-NE) and Texas (ERCOT), which together manage about 40 percent of the power consumed nationally, regularly pay customers to consume surplus power, according to Andy Ott, senior vice president of markets at PJM, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia. Wind operators in the Northwest have loudly argued for BPA to adopt a similar strategy. Ott said PJM has found that paying customers to shift power to overnight use, when balancing low demand with abundant supply is most difficult helped maintain consistent rates, even as factories cleverly shifted production hours and earned cash.