Renewable energy | Ecotrope

Can California solve the Northwest's renewable power struggle?

Ecotrope | Aug. 19, 2011 11:06 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:36 p.m.

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This spring, power managers with the Bonneville Power Administration locked horns with the wind industry over who got dibs on a limited amount of space on the power grid.

A huge spring snow melt forced the BPA into an uncomfortable position; the agency, which runs three-quarters of the region’s power grid as well as 31 hydroelectric dams, had to choose between generating more hydropower than they could sell and paying someone to take it, spilling lots of water over the river’s dams and putting fragile salmon runs at risk, or shutting off wind turbinesand replacing their power with hydro.

If surplus power can’t go down to California in the spring it essentially gets trapped here in the Northwest.

 In the end, 6 percent of the scheduled wind power was shut down from May 18 to July 10, and wind farms lost some of the production tax credits they would have earned by producing that wind power. The shutdown sparked outcry from the wind industry, accusing BPA of abusing its control over the grid and opting not to send more power to California to free up space for wind power.

Is California the solution?

Bottlenecks in the transmission lines connecting Oregon and California can keep surplus power trapped in the Northwest, which leads to major headaches for grid managers in the spring.

Bottlenecks in the transmission lines connecting Oregon and California can keep surplus power trapped in the Northwest, which leads to major headaches for grid managers in the spring.

The power-hungry state of California plays a big role in using surplus energy from dams and wind turbines in the Northwest. But there’s long been a transmission bottleneck along the California-Oregon Intertie that has limited the amount of power that can travel between the two states.

In the past that line has filled up in the spring. BPA says there’s 3,000 more megawatts of power (the equivalent of three nuclear power plants) requesting transmission than there is space on the line to carry it. In previous years, the spring bottleneck has caused BPA to shut down wind power in the Northwest.

This year, BPA, PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric completed an upgrade to that transmission line that will widen the bottleneck by a few hundred megawatts. BPA says the relatively inexpensive upgrade will create more room for sending surplus power to California in high-water years and “may also help relieve generation oversupply situations such as the one the region just experienced this spring.” Efficiency gains will ultimately pay the tab so power rates won’t go up.

“What this will do is during the times of the day that we were having to curtail thermal and non-thermal resources like wind it might give us more ability to move power to another market such as California,” said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen.

“By no means a total solution”

Cameron Yurkowski, a transmission policy expert for Renewable Northwest Project, said the upgrade is “a good incremental step” toward improving transmission constraints that keep wind energy from reaching the marketplace. And it postpones the need to build more expensive new transmission.

“But it’s by no means a total solution to renewable energy development or the oversupply situation,” he said.

Renewable Northwest wants to see similar upgrades to the other major transmission line that connects Oregon and California, as well as the lines that link the Oregon and Washington to Montana and Canada.

Wally Gibson, manager of system analysis and generation at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council said the upgrade wouldn’t have helped this spring because California had its own oversupply of hydropower thanks to snow melt from the Sierra Nevada, and demand for electricity was down across the board because of the economy.

“But if we had a lot of water and California had warmer temperatures, then a couple hundred megawatts would’ve been useful,” he said.

But there’s another reason California probably won’t offer much relief from the wind vs. water fight in the Northwest, Gibson said. This spring, the state updated its renewable energy rules to restrict utilities from trading renewable energy credits for power generated by wind turbines in the Northwest.

“In general people are thinking California utilities will be more likely to meet their renewable portfolio standard requirements with in-state generation than imported from out of state,” he said, “and that photovoltaic panels cited in California might be more likely to meet the standard than wind in Oregon or Montana and Idaho.”

If not California … then where?

If surplus power can’t go down to California in the spring, Hansen said, it essentially gets trapped here in the Northwest.“The lines further east along the Rockies would need to be strengthened and upgraded if we were going to start using them,” he said.As more wind energy comes online in the Northwest, the transmission system is filling up and limiting where wind power can go.

“We could have as high as 6,000 megawatts of wind on the BPA system within the next couple years,” Hansen said. “There is all this additional generation and you’ve to to have a market and a way to move it to market.”But there may be another solution brewing for what to do with surplus power, Hansen said.

The BPA is talking with Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., a smelter located in Montana, to take an extra 140 megawatts of power on average.

“If we had had that load this summer, it would have been very beneficial,” he said. “If Columbia Falls accepts the offer and we decide to move forward, they would start receiving 140 megawatts April 1, 2012. Just in time if indeed we faced another spring and summer like we experienced this year.”

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