For the second year in a row, spring rain and snow melt have led to an oversupply of hydropower on the Columbia River.
And for the second straight year, the government agency charged with both marketing hydropower from federal dams dams and running the region’s power grid has ordered the growing wind-energy sector to stop producing — and selling — electricity.
Now, as then, the industry isn’t happy with the situation.
The order forced wind farms along the Columbia River to shut down for about 10 hours over the weekend. Michael Milstein, a BPA spokesman, said there may be more periods this spring when wind farms have to shut down.
“Our folks are working as hard to try to avoid it, or if its necessary, to minimize it, but as the runoff continues, it is certainly possible that it will happen again,” he said. “It depends on a number of factors: the runoff, what the wind is doing. Certainly what amount of power people are using.”
Electricity supply and demand have to remain in balance: if power flows onto the electric grid and isn’t used, it can lead to blackouts and grid damage. The Bonneville Power Administration is in charge of marketing the hydropower from federal dams, but also keeping the region’s electricity grid in balance. Wind energy advocates say BPA’s two roles are in conflict.
A chart showing wind energy generation in the Northwest. The blue lines indicate the times when BPA curtailed wind generation. Credit: Bonneville Power Administration.
Milstein said the BPA has already asked thermal power plants, and a nuclear plant in Washington, to cut back on generation. But at night, there just isn’t much demand for energy.
Last year, federal energy regulators ruled that BPA’s wind curtailment policy was discriminatory. Milstein says this year’s policy treats wind farms fairly.
“They’re being made financially whole, that’s the difference. They’re being reimbursed for that lost revenue that they have incurred as a result of this.”
Milstein says the reimbursement will include lost revenue from renewable energy production credits.
In the near term, BPA will use a reserve fund of several hundred million dollars to reimburse wind farms. For the long run, Milstein says, BPA has proposed that its customers pay half the cost of losses when wind farms have to shut down, with the wind energy companies absorbing the other half.
Advocates for wind energy say the compensation is an improvement over last year, when wind energy companies weren’t compensated, but not a solution. They want guaranteed access to transmission lines. Rachel Shimshak, executive director of non-profit advocacy group Renewable Northwest Project, said the BPA should have done more to ensure fair treatment of wind generators:
“Given a full year to plan ahead, we are disappointed that BPA is choosing to curtail wind energy despite more equitable solutions within reach.”
Shimshak said the BPA should work to power down the Columbia Generating Plant, the Northwest’s sole electricity-generating nuclear plant in Richland, Wash., for refueling each spring. In addition, she called on the agency to collaborate with fish experts on additional spill, and do a better job pursuing advance agreements with coal generators.
“There are solutions that don’t require any hardware implementation, that could be done within the situation right now,” Shimshak says.
Both Shimshak and Milstein say that in the long term, encouraging some industrial electricity users to shift their energy use from the daytime to nights could help balance the grid in the spring when winds blow and the Columbia is running high.