Columbia Basin river managers had a close call this week when they were forced to cut back on hydropower after a surge in wind energy blasted through the system.
The surge forced them to spill more water over dams, risking the health of migrating fish. For the first time, it also exposed serious kinks in a plan that was supposed to deal smoothly with just such emergencies.
As it turned out, the spills weren’t heavy enough to harm fish. But the federal Bonneville Power Administration admitted that confusion and missteps by the agency and wind-farm operators marred proper handling of the situation.
“It was a wake-up call,” said Brian Silverstein, a BPA transmission vice president.
Wind energy has grown dramatically in the Columbia River Gorge the past several years. Though touted as a clean and renewable resource, it also has increased stress on the hydropower system, which is used to balance wind’s variability.
Problems began Monday afternoon when wind speeds jumped far beyond levels forecast by wind-farm operators. BPA, responsible for adjusting hydro generation to accommodate the wind, realized by evening that it could no longer handle the sustained surge without increasing spills to dangerous levels
Generally, spills are needed to help juvenile salmon make their way downriver. But too much water can prove lethal.
Following guidelines, BPA power managers began calling wind-farm operators about 7 p.m. with orders to dump the excess wind. It was the first time the agency has made such requests.
Calls to several wind-farm managers reached only answering machines, though dispatchers are supposed to be available around the clock. A dispatcher at another wind farm answered and reduced its generation. BPA declined to disclose the company’s name.
Another, Iberdrola Renewables (formerly PPM Energy), misinterpreted the request and kept the turbines turning. “It was a miscommunication,” said Don Furman, a senior vice president with Iberdrola. “Basically, we had the wrong people talking to each other.”
BPA’s Silverstein said his agency “could have been more clear in what we asked them to do.”
That evening marked the first time BPA has had to order wind operators to dump generation. But as more wind projects are developed, it won’t be the last, BPA said.
The agency can sanction wind companies that disobey pull-back orders. In this case, penalties were unnecessary, Silverstein said, but a serious fine-tuning of protocols definitely is.
Gail Kinsey Hill
The Oregonian Staff
5 July 2008
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