Intelligent Energy

Snowmelt sparks a water and wind energy war in Pacific Northwest

Posting in Energy

Hydroelectricity from a gushing Columbia River overloads the grid, shutting down thousands of wind turbines. A government utility prioritizes hydro. Wind companies cry foul. Salmon get caught in the middle.

There can be too much of a good thing. A perfect storm of renewable energy has erupted in the Pacific Northwest. Environmental conditions are ripe for harnessing the energy of rushing water from springtime snowmelts and of winds gusting in their seasonal glory. The problem? The grid can only handle so much electricity at once.

Transmission utilities try to balance electric supply with demand to ensure reliable service and steady billing rates. In response to surging amounts of hydroelectricity, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency overseeing transmission in the Northwest, has been cutting off incoming power from wind farms. The scenario exemplifies why energy storage is crucial for the growth of the renewable energy industry. Over the last month, BPA has been storing some power and exporting some of the surplus on the cheap, but at night (when demand is lower) they've ordered 35 wind farms to power down.

The wind companies aren't happy. On Monday, five of them filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying BPA has breached contracts and violated the Federal Power Act for its own financial interests.

Michael Goggin, transmission manager for the American Wind Energy Association, tells The Atlantic:

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.

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.

The shutdowns, according to BPA, have cut wind generation by 15 percent. In addition to wind, the utility is not currently taking in coal, natural gas or nuclear power. Those facilities, however, can conserve their fuel resources in the interim. When the wind blows and there's no turbine to catch it, it still blows. And it does blow for wind companies, which are losing profits, production-based government incentives, and possibly, investment prospects. They have calculated their damages in the millions.

To justify their decision, BPA points to fish—the region's threatened salmon and steelhead trout species. These fish face a slew of troubles in the Northwest, but onshore wind turbines? At the 31 dams that BPA manages, the rising water can either go through hydroelectric turbines or spill over the dam's edge, or spillway. The falling water, however, creates bubbles and increases dissolved gas levels in the river below (think white water). This can harm the fish over time, and in the name of protecting them, BPA is required to keep the amount of dissolved gas below certain levels.

But Pat Ford of Save Our Wild Salmon doesn't see salmon safety and wind turbines to be at odds. He finds BPA's excuse to not limit the influx of hydroelectricity faulty, and in an op-ed for the Seattle Times, writes:

Normal spill management includes biological monitoring so spill can be reduced should fish exhibit too-severe trauma symptoms. That's what "safe spill" means. Conversely, consider what befalls salmon that are not spilled. Most are piped into barges and trucks for artificial transport — a harmful and risky practice that must be reduced.

Spilling more water and denying wind power transmission are just two of the approaches to the overloaded grid problem floating around. Longer term solutions could be a more robust transmission infrastructure and better energy storage. Still others include sending more power to other areas or paying customers to consume more of their electricity at night.

What do you think BPA should do?

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure