ELLENSBURG – The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has curtailed wind electricity generation in the region by about 7 percent over the last seven weeks in an effort to balance the extra hydropower being generated from an unusually large amount of melting snowpack.
The BPA reduced natural gas and coal generation first, before calling for periodic shutdowns or the slowing wind-generated electricity production to reduce the load on transmission lines. Wind power producers saw the most curtailment during the first two weeks of May, losing approximately 50,000 megawatt-hours of potential generation time. Curtailment rates have since declined significantly, according to BPA officials.
This spring, the Columbia River has had the third-largest snow-melt runoff in 40 years and, according to the Northwest River Forecast Center, 38 out of 40 river data collection sites in Washington are seeing above-average runoff amounts.
The Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project, a wind farm northwest of Ellensburg and operated by EDP Renewables (formerly Horizon Wind Energy), is the only wind energy project in Kittitas County affected by the BPA’s curtailment policy. The policy unilaterally reduced all wind generation connected to the BPA’s grid.
Representatives from EDP Renewables declined to comment on the BPA’s policy.
“We weren’t sure how often we would have to apply the limit, and we were hoping we wouldn’t have to apply it that often,” Michael Milstein, spokesperson for BPA, said last week. “Fortunately, it has been fairly limited … several nights in the last week or two, we haven’t had to impose (wind production) limits at all.”
The BPA said that cutbacks in the past week were down to 2 percent.
Wind farm companies have filed a complaint with federal regulators charging that the BPA broke contracts and discriminated against them when it imposed the cutbacks, according to the Associated Press.
Renewable Northwest Project, a nonprofit renewable energy advocate organization, will also be filing a complaint at the end of the week, according to executive director Rachel Shimshak.
Shimshak said the policy “sends a very negative signal to the (renewable energy) market about investing in the Northwest. It creates uncertainty of potential costs and undermines the financial agreements necessary to allow projects to go forward and get financed.”
Milstein said the BPA’s contracts with utilities and wind farm companies were not breached. “We believe that the contracts recognize the fact that we also have legal obligations and mandates that we have to follow in terms of protecting fish and wildlife,” Milstein said.
Operators cannot let water through the turbines of hydroelectric dams without generating electricity because it can damage equipment. Though spillways are capable of reducing the amount of water that flows through the turbines, too much water spilled creates high amounts of dissolved gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. Dissolved gases kill fish and are therefore limited and monitored by state law.
Renewable Northwest Project, some utilities and wind farm companies recognize that the BPA made efforts to minimize the impact on wind power. However, Shimshak said the agency could have done more to find places for the excess energy to go – such as paying surrounding providers to take the region’s excess.
“These kinds of incentives are things that other regions around the nation do all the time,” Shimshak said.
While it has agreements with surrounding areas to absorb excess power, the BPA currently does not pay for – or have any guarantees for – such functions. Payments would result in higher rates for customers, Milstein said.
Milstein said BPA was able to minimize curtailment of wind power by working with officials from Alcoa to reschedule the high energy demands of its aluminum smelter in Ferndale. The plant agreed to perform some operations at night and during the weekends when the grid experiences an energy surplus.
To make additional room for hydro and wind power on the grid, the interim BPA policy also lifts requirements of transmission customers to replenish power lost through transmission lines.
“We’ve also continued and expanded some arrangements with dams on the Columbia (River),” Milstein said. “They will take some of our (excess) power and substitute it for their power.”
Wind farms and hydroelectric dams typically produce the most electricity during the spring and early summer. As more wind energy projects come online in the region, “it’s added yet another variable” to balancing the supply and demand of electricity, Milstein said.
“Our hope is that the BPA and the other regional stakeholder, will find an equitable solution to the current situation,” said Shimshak, “and they will prioritize solutions to this set of circumstances and a spectrum of others for the future.”
Kittitas County’s other two wind farms, the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility and the Vantage Wind Power Project, both east of Ellensburg, are not connected to BPA. Wild Horse is owned and operated by Puget Sound Energy, and the Vantage project is operated by Invenergy Wind North America LLC.
The Vantage wind farm is connected to PSE lines and sells its power to Pacific Gas & Electric of San Francisco.
PSE has not experienced an oversupply problem, PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said.
“From January to (June), we’re a little below forecast for our hydropower output,” Thompson said. The Cascade region has higher than average snowpack, but PSE’s Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Project is not currently operating because of a three-year upgrade project.
Kittitas County’s fourth wind farm, the proposed Desert Claim Wind Power Project, is planned about eight miles north of Ellensburg, but construction on the 95-turbine site has not yet started. David Steeb, project director for Desert Claim Wind Power, said the company has not decided on which transmission lines to utilize. Construction on the wind farm had been proposed to start in summer 2010 but was delayed.
“Based on our location, we are still looking at connecting to BPA or (PSE),” Steeb said.