Over the last three years, three dams have been taken out of the Rogue River.
Two dams that are even bigger are scheduled to be demolished in Washington soon. But that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning hydropower.
There’s already so much hydro and wind power along the Columbia River Gorge, that the Bonneville Power Administration has to literally give it away.
When a string of storms hit the Northwest this spring, there was so much water in the rivers — and so much wind along the gorge — more power was being produced than the BPA could sell. The BPA was even on the verge of paying utilities to take it off their hands.
The dams were at capacity and spilling water, and all the windmills that’ve been built in recent years, were spinning like crazy.
BPA spokesman, Doug Johnson, says it’s a problem that’s likely to get worse as more windmills are built.
Doug Johnson: “If you don’t have a whole lot of consumption on the other end to take all the energy that can be created by that fuel, you’ve got an issue. Because again, you have to have somewhere to put the energy.”
Now, when you start talking about free power, it doesn’t take long for people to come forward with suggestions about how they might take it off your hands.
At a recent BPA meeting convened to look at this problem, Randy Hardy of Hardy Energy, said farmers in eastern Oregon would be happy to use some of that energy to pump irrigation water uphill and across long distances.
Randy Hardy: “You’ve got a load that’s pretty flexible there that right now is mostly generating in the day-time. You could easily, with a few changes you could make that generate at night when Bonneville needs it more to absorb the wind energy which primarily generates at night.”
The BPA liked the idea and talks are underway. Other fixes include improving the transmission grid, so extra power can be sold to more Californians; or using the extra electricity to produce hydrogen, which can then be used to drive new high-tech cars.
There’s even a pilot project in Olympia where peoples’ water heaters switch on when there’s excess power.
So there are fixes available for BPA’s problem. But over-production isn’t the agency’s only issue.
Many wind farms were built using tax credits. The credits give utilities a specific dollar amount for every megawatt hour of electricity they produce.
So, explains BPA vice president Steve Oliver, those utilities don’t like to be told to cut production when a big storm comes through.
Steve Oliver: “So the wind parties are basically saying we have this production tax credit, so if you displace us with your hydropower, you ought to pay us. The situation is then, if we do pay them is that Northwest rate payers in effect would be paying for a production tax credit that Congress intended the US taxpayer to pay because it happened nationally. So we have a situation where there’s a sort of unintended, I think unanticipated issue occurring.”
It’s a situation that policy wonks are going to have to work hard to fix.
Meanwhile, the director of the Renewable Northwest Project Rachel Shimshack, says it’s much better to transmit more power to Californians or pump water for farmers, than to reduce wind or hydro.
Rachel Shimshack: “That ought to be a last resort because …. you always want to use them as much as you can and reduce fossil fuel.”
There’s one last wrinkle in BPA’s excess power problem.
And that’s that in today’s market, BPA lost about $22 million worth of “free electricity” last June.
And while that is a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the cost of some of the fixes — like building a new transmission line to California.
So if you’ve got any good ideas, the BPA would love to hear them.