BPA may shut down windmills at peak river flows this year – and wind developers aren’t happy about it.
In years when a healthy spring runoff powers hydroelectric turbines around the Northwest, the region’s federal power authority often has more electricity than it can sell.
Add the boom of wind-generation plants that have come on line in the past four years, and the Bonneville Power Administration says it will be overwhelmed as flows on the Columbia River crest in the next few weeks.
In response, BPA issued a policy Friday saying it will order wind power producers to shut down generation – in exchange for free hydroelectric power – to meet state laws aimed at protecting migrating salmon.
But the policy won’t cover all the costs wind developers face, and some are expected to challenge it in court.
BPA Administrator Steve Wright said the decision was extremely difficult with no good choices.
“I believe we have adopted the option that best preserves reliability, protects salmon and avoids increased costs on average to Northwest ratepayers,” he said.
Washington and Oregon state laws require federal dam operators to maintain low levels of dissolved nitrogen gas in the pools below the dams. High levels can affect migrating fish similar to how deep-sea divers get “the bends.”
Water spilled over the tops of the dams creates more of that nitrogen. But it also goes around BPA’s hydroelectric turbines, so the agency sees no benefit.
BPA can lessen the amount of spillover by running its turbines at maximum, producing more power that it can give away to utilities like Idaho Power Co.
But salmon advocates say Oregon’s less-stringent nitrogen requirements are enough and want Washington to raise its limit, too. That would let BPA allow more spillover in the spring – which, they say, would help push the baby fish toward the ocean.
“To suggest that developing clean, renewable wind power and saving endangered salmon are somehow at odds is absurd,” said Sara Patton, Northwest Energy Coalition’s executive director.
When they get BPA’s nearly free power, utilities can reduce the power produced in coal and natural gas plants to a minimum and save the cost of fuel.
But wind generators don’t just get paid for the power they produce. Many of them get federal production tax credits and renewable energy credits when their blades are turning.
Shutting down costs them money – and they want BPA to cover their costs. If it did, the administration would pass those costs on to its customers.
“This agency is not prepared to let its customer base be the shock absorber for this,” said Elliot Mainzer, BPA executive vice president of corporate strategy.
“This is really not about wind – it’s a hydro issue,” said Rachel Shimshak, executive director of Renewable Northwest, which pushes alternative energy. “Wind adds to this, but the great majority of this is a water issue.”
The BPA markets about one-third of the electricity consumed in the region. It sells the power produced from 31 federally owned dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries and owns and operates 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.
About 15 percent of Idaho’s electricity comes from BPA, through rural electrical cooperatives and municipal utilities such as the one in Idaho Falls.
These consumer co-ops see themselves caught in the middle of a shift in the energy market, and they hope the issue is settled amicably.
“When wind developers don’t want to shut down, that hurts fish and costs us money,” said Will Hart, executive director of the Idaho Consumer-owned Utilities Association.
The issue is similar to the fight Idaho Power and other investor-owned utilities are having with wind developers in Idaho. Wind generation in the Pacific Northwest has grown from around 500 megawatts in 2006 to more than 6,000 megawatts today.
That’s more than twice the capacity of the four lower Snake River dams that have been at the center of the salmon debate for the past decade. It’s enough power for more than two cities the size of Seattle.
“We’re all looking for solutions to integrate wind,” said Lisa Grow, senior vice president of power supply for Idaho Power Co. “We’re sympathetic to where BPA is coming from on this issue, and we’re working with them to identify similarities and/or differences in our situations.”
One difference is that BPA has encouraged wind developers. Most of the year, wind power goes hand in glove with a hydroelectric power system, Mainzer said.
“We’ve kind of bent over backwards to get the wind on the system,” he said.
But Idaho Power has shown less support to wind developers, fearing it would be forced to turn off less-expensive power sources like coal plants when the wind is blowing.
“Not all megawatts are created equal, and integrating wind energy into the electrical grid requires additional resources to quickly react to moment-to-moment changes in this resource,” Grow said.
Renewables like wind are going to cost consumers less over time for the same reason that hydroelectric power has been relatively cheap, Shimshak said. “The fuel is free.”
But managing an electricity grid with many more intermittent sources of power will take more coordinated management, such as “smart grid” technology that uses computers to increase energy-efficiency. Demand-side management programs that encourage customers to use power when it’s bountiful and cheap also will help, Shimshak said.
More transmission lines, such as the 300-mile proposed line between Idaho and the Columbia River in Oregon also will ease the bottleneck.
“Nobody says this is not a challenge,” Shimshak said. “I think the best approach is to have a lot of tools in the tool box.”
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