Project might tie California, B.C., provide Avista a link
Avista Utilities is studying ways to link with and gain benefits from a $5 billion power line that a California utility has proposed to build between Northern California and British Columbia by late 2015.
The California utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., of San Francisco, says it wants to transmit renewable energy from the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and Alberta to Northern California over the new line.
PG&E says it has identified “significant” new renewable generating capacity that’s being developed in those areas.
Don Kopczynski, vice president of operations for Avista Utilities, says Avista holds a federal permit to build a power line between Spokane and Selkirk, British Columbia, and PG&E would like to take advantage of the right of way Avista has under that permit to build its line.
“It’s a good project, well-funded,” Kopczynski says of the proposed line. “It will use our right of way. It will go right through our area. It will give us an ability to interconnect with one of our substations. It can help with electrical stability in our whole area.”
If the transmission line is built, Avista likely would upgrade substantially its Devil’s Gap substation in the Reardan, Wash., area, about 20 miles west of Spokane, so it could serve as an interconnection between its own 230-kv transmission grid and one of two 500-kilovolt transmission lines PG&E would build, Kopczynski says. The substation provides a 115-kv connection now.
Avista isn’t a direct participant in PG&E’s project thus far, but is on the project steering team along with PG&E, Portland General Electric Co. (PGE), Portland-based PacifiCorp, and the British Columbia Transmission Co.
PG&E posted an update on the project on its Web site Feb. 22, saying, “The project continues to move forward on schedule.”
Yet, the power line, which would be the first so-called inter-tie with Canada in Eastern Washington, is just one of seven proposed major transmission projects that would link points both within the Inland Northwest and outside the region, Kopczynski says. PG&E, Kopczynski, executives with three other utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) proposed in a Dec. 21 letter that the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, of Salt Lake City, coordinate for all seven of the projects “transmission planning studies that are a critical first step in developing a reliable and integrated transmission grid for the 21st century.”
The WECC has its roots in a similar organization founded in 1967 by 40 electric power systems and merged in 2002 with regional transmission systems from the West and Southwest. It coordinates and promotes electric system reliability in 14 Western states, British Columbia, Alberta, and the northern part of Baja California, Mexico.
“Generally, nothing gets built in the Western U.S. without their approval,” Kopczynski says.
The seven proposed major transmission projects snake across most of the Northwest, including big chunks of the Inland Northwest. The Dec. 21 letter and a map of the project developed two weeks ago say that:
•Idaho Power Co., of Boise, and several other utilities are seeking approval to build a 500-kv line from Boardman, Ore., where several coal-fired generating plants operate, to the Hemingway substation, near Melba, Idaho.
•PacifiCorp, which is controlled by legendary investor Warren Buffett, is proposing a 500-kv line roughly between the Captain Jack substation near the California-Oregon border and the Hemingway substation. PacifiCorp also is proposing a 230-kv line between Boardman and Walla Walla, although that isn’t one of the seven projects.
•The BPA has proposed three 500-kv transmissions lines in two projects to increase capacity across multiple congested north-south transmission paths, to serve requests along multiple east-west paths, to integrate additional wind generation into the regional system, and to increase system reliability.
•Portland General Electric has proposed a 500-kv line to integrate generating plants in the Boardman area and additional proposed wind generation into the system.
•Avista is looking at an interconnection at Devil’s Gap, which also would involve building two 230-kv lines from the substation to the company’s Spokane-area transmission system.
Also, Kopczynski says, Northern Lights Transmission, of Calgary, Alberta, still is interested in building a 1,000-mile transmission line from the oil sands in northern Alberta to Celilo, Ore., on the Oregon-California border. That line, for which the Canadian company already has one of the required permits on the U.S. side of the border, would carry sizable loads of excess power that would be cogenerated if huge amounts of natural gas were burned to create steam to inject into the ground to extract crude from deep within the oil sands.
If all eight of the projects were built, they would add up to about $15 billion worth of new construction—and because states have put so many requirements on utilities to meet part of their load with renewable energy, it’s “pretty likely” all of the lines will be built, Kopczynski says.
The eight projects don’t take into account a power line PGE has discussed with Avista to serve as a link to Avista’s Coyote Springs coal-fired plant near Boardman. They also don’t take into account 11 requests that Avista has received to construct smaller power lines in its own service area to link developers’ proposed wind-generation plants into its transmission system.
“Potential resources are wind resources located in various locations on the Avista system, including but not limited to wind farms near Spokane, Othello, Lewiston, and Clarkston, Wash., as well as Grangeville, Idaho,” an Avista report says. “ … up to three additional (requests) that may soon be in the queue.” Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof says none of those projects is the wind farm that Avista has said it plans to develop itself, for which it’s seeking a site.
PG&E, PacificCorp, BPA, and the Idaho Power-led group all have both a need for the big transmission lines they’ve proposed and the ability to finance them, Kopczynski says. That leaves Northern Lights’ project as the only one that’s reliant on investments by others. Northern Lights has said it might build its transmission line if natural-gas fields were developed in the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and an 800-mile pipeline—estimated four years ago to cost $5 billion—were constructed to carry the gas south to the oil sands.
For years, Kopczynski says, the utility industry didn’t pay much attention to building new transmission facilities. Parts of the industry were being deregulated, and there was talk of forcing utilities to sell off either their power-generating or power-transmitting divisions, so they didn’t know whether investments in transmission would pay off, he says.
“You’ve gone from having a whole bunch of people who didn’t know whether they needed to rebuild their transmission system to having a whole bunch of people who know that they do,” he says. “Transmission has been like Rip Van Winkle; it has kind of been asleep.”
PG&E’s line, which would continue south to Boardman en route to California, would give Avista a new pathway to move to its own service territory power generated at its Coyote Springs plant, which is near Boardman, Kopczynski says. It’s paying others to transmit that power now. Also, its interconnection at Devil’s Gap could give Avista access to other renewable power sources in the Northwest and Canada and enable it to import cheaper power when “economy energy” is available, Avista’s report says.
PG&E is so big that in some years, it must add as much power to its system as Avista supplies to its entire customer base, Kopczynski says. He says PG&E, like Avista and many other utilities, is under pressure from state mandates to increase the amount of renewable power it distributes.
Because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, Kopczynski says, utilities must have a backup power supply when they either build wind-powered generating plants or contract to buy wind-generated electricity. Yet, so much wind power is being developed in the Northwest that much of the capacity of the region’s extensive hydropower system, which serves well as a backup to wind power, already has been pledged for that purpose.
Nonetheless, Kopczynski says, utilities could pledge hydropower from British Columbia’s plentiful supply to back up additional wind power if PG&E’s proposed transmission line were built to Canada.
“Our hydro system is pretty well used up; so, you use somebody else’s hydro system to back up wind,” he says. “British Columbia has a pretty big hydro system. We can use that to balance things out down here.”
Issues could develop regarding whether the people of British Columbia want renewable power that’s generated in their province to be exported to the U.S. Yet, Kopczynski says, “The governor of California has been up there talking with them” about the availability of renewable kilowatts.
PG&E’s transmission line could have bidirectional capacity to move as much as 3,000 megawatts of power, and Avista would like to string its own 115-kv line on the giant towers that would carry PG&E’s 500-kv lines, Kopczynski says.
Still, a lot of water must flow under the bridge before final decisions are made on the slew of major transmission-line programs that has begun to emerge. The WECC will look at the PG&E line to determine if it’s sound, will work electrically, and won’t cause disruption elsewhere in the region, Kopczynski says.
The WECC’s first-phase study of the line should be done in August, and it will be followed by two additional phases of study, Kopczynski says. PG&E, meanwhile, would be responsible for performing environmental studies and for obtaining permits.
Power-generating costs already have risen sharply in recent years, and with the big volume of power-line projects that’s planned, “the same thing is going to happen with the transmission,” Kopczynski says. “It’s bad, but it’s inevitable. It has to be done, or the region won’t survive.”
By Richard Ripley
20 March 2008
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