columbia-basin-turbinesWind farms up here in the Pacific Northwest may soon be shut down temporarily because there is no transmission capacity to move this green renewable power to where it is needed. A record snowfall in the mountains at the headwaters of the Columbia river system is about to begin melting and will send a surge of water down the river. Because this water cannot be sent over the spill ways without endangering already endangered Salmon and Steelhead fish it needs to be run through the turbines. There is just too much power for the regional markets and the existing transmission infrastructure to handle and thus wind farms are likely to be idled. What this exposes is the need for an improved Ultra high voltage long distance electric transmission network that is capable of moving surplus power from one region to another.

by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post Chris is the co-editor of The Green Executive Recruiter Directory. Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost

[UPDATE] Salmon protection groups, such as Save Our Wild Salmon, are disputing the BPA’s claim that it is acting in wild Salmon’s interest in threatening to shut down wind production during the Spring melt season claiming its assertion that it cannot increase the spill over the dam because this would raise dissolved gas is more rooted in self interest than science or any real desire to protect this endangered species. According to Save Our Wild Salmon the 115% saturation level that the BPA is using can be raised to 120%. This is the saturation level now used by the State of Oregon and is based on available science.

Save Our Wild Salmon makes this statement: “Contrary to BPA’s assertions, salmon protection in the Columbia-Snake River Basin are linked with wind power, not in conflict. In the Northwest, we can have both – a truly clean energy future and wild rivers teeming with wild salmon. ” More spill also helps pass juvenile salmon downstream quickly through the hydrosystem so increased spillage also has beneficial impacts for Salmon populations.

The Pacific Northwest is running such a surplus of power from hydroelectric dams that it put wind farms on notice Friday they may be shut down as early as this weekend. This is the ill fruit of an outdated transmission network that is unable to move surplus power down to California’s hungry power markets. Because a cold, wet spring in the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin is sending downstream one of the largest spring flows in years the series of hydro electric power plants along the Columbia/Snake river system is going to be running at full capacity. The spring surge is expected to be the largest of this century as the huge accumulated snow pack begins to melt.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) put wind farms on notice Friday that they may be shut down as early as this weekend. The BPA has more than enough hydro electric capacity during a cold, wet spring that has created a big surge in river flows where hydroelectric dams are located, and has announced its intentions to curtail wind power until the grid has more capacity. This will likely cost the nascent Pacific Northwest wind energy sector industry millions of dollars. BPA projections earlier this year showed that curtailing wind power over a three-month period, in a worst-case scenario, could cost them as much as $50 million.

This shines the spotlight on the growing lack of long distance power transmission capacity. If more UHV long distance transmission capacity existed the power could be sent down to the California electricity market. This is and will become an ever more critical road block to the development of renewable resources.

How soon and low long wind farms might be shut down depends on how quickly the region warms up and the water shoots downriver to the Pacific Ocean, said Steven Wright, administrator of the BPA. The farms that would be shut down are mostly in Washington and Oregon.

When water levels are this high, the agency said, it has no choice but to use the water to generate electricity in hydroelectric dams. Laws protecting endangered species prevent it from sending all the excess water through spillways and around the dams. That beats up salmon and steelhead. It also creates so much nitrogen gas bubbling in the water that the fish get the equivalent of the bends.

Grid operators say they have run out of capability to sell the surplus electricity, store the water or shut down gas, oil, and nuclear plants — leaving wind farms the unfortunate victim. Major wind interests, including utilities such as Portland General Electric, oppose the BPA’s proposal and are suggesting lawsuits are next. The utility says the move could violate antitrust and market manipulation laws.

Salmon advocates also lined up with the wind industry out of solidarity between two groups with a long history of common environmental interests.

“It is strange how a federal agency could make this kind of decision,” said Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon. She and other critics said the BPA hadn’t explored enough options. The BPA said those options would cost its traditional customers, such as public power districts, extra.

The Transmission Grid Is Showing Its Age and Needs Modernization

The transmission system of the Pacific Northwest dates to the dam-building campaign that began in the Depression and kicked into high gear after World War II. The voltage on these lines is too low for long distance transmission and so the power is trapped in the regional market with almost no way out to supply the much larger market in California.

There is a single High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) 500 kv transmission line — the Pacific DC Intertie — that has a 3.1 GW capacity and transmits electric power from the Pacific Northwest to the Los Angeles power market. Clearly that is not sufficient.

Long distance electric energy transmission capacity needs to be increased in order to meet the growing challenge posed by increased availability of renewable wind energy resources in this region.

To read more on the subject of the need for and advantages of a long distance electric energy infrastructure see our post “Ultra High Voltage (UHV) Transmission is the Renewable Energy Interstate“.

The Bonneville Power Administration handles about three-quarters of the Northwest’s transmission and has long dealt with high water in the spring.

Coal- and gas-fired energy plants often schedule downtime for maintenance in the spring to allow electricity generators at dams to produce more. That was the rationale for the current shutdown of the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear plant, at the Hanford nuclear reservation, for refueling and maintenance.

Last year, a spring storm sent a surge of wind power into the Northwest grid, and operators feverishly made adjustments.

The Bonneville Power Administration is a self-financed federal enterprise that manages three-quarters of the electrical transmission in the Northwest and sells power from 31 dams and the nuclear plant, accounting for about a third of the supply in the Northwest. Its area includes parts of eight western states.

© 2011, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

  • John Whitney AIA

    Chris, I read about this just the other day and was getting ready to put together a very similar piece. You beat me to it.

    That said, this is pretty crazy. I believe that the Pacific DC Intertie is the closest we come to in the entire country to a regional super grid. And it is just not up to the task. You are correct that it is a single 3.1 GW HVDC 500 kV line, but f it had been a UHV-DC 800 kV line the Intertie would have had a 6.4 GW capacity and would have had significantly reduced transmission losses.

    And if it had a greater capacity, not only would the BPA not be in this mess, but it would also be even more effective. As noted by Erik Tilkemeier in another discussion, with the addition of an intermediate converter station (say about halfway) the Intertie would be able to pick up geothermal power as it passes through northern Nevada and deliver power efficiently to Reno, Carson City, San Francisco, etc. Starts to sound like a well thought out mini-super grid + smart grid with the ability to balance intermittent renewable generation (utility-scale solar and wind) with reliable, high capacity hydro and geothermal.

    So, while I applaud the existence of the Pacific DC Intertie, I am appalled at the lack of long term planning. Good news is, I suppose, that the Intertie has worked out inter-state coordination and land use issues. Perhaps we have a ready-made corridor that can be expanded in capacity without the kinds of roadblocks that projects such as TransWest Express (Wyoming to Las Vegas) and Centennial West (New Mexico to southern California) are facing from states and utilities.

  • Chris de Morsella

    John — The transmission capacity of this single long distance HVDC 500kv line has been shown to be clearly inadequate, though imagine how much worse the situation would now be without it.

    One limiting issue with DC lines at whatever voltage is that they are point to point and are not easy to tap into — like AC lines — because of the need for high voltage static inverters. This limits their ability to service intermediate areas along the line length between the terminus points.

    A more robust UHV-DC line between the California market and the Pacific Northwest would also enable the big hydro reservoir systems of the Columbia river to absorb power for the nine months of the year when it is not the snow pack melt season that is. AND not just nearby surplus wind power — the installed capacity up here is expected to quite rapidly double, but also distant surplus renewable power from distant southern California solar thermal plants.

    • Svetlana Morozova

      would not the issue with the limits of the transmission capacity to be the same *within* California and in South West as well? — I wonder if this really limits us to rapid development of residential solar retrofits for quite some time without much add-on from other types of renewables…

      • Chris de Morsella

        Not necessarily.

        The capacity of the HVDC transmission line can be maxed out — the metal in the wires getting hot; while at the same time the AC network on the other side of the converter can have ample spare capacity.

  • Shel Horowitz – Green/Ethical Marketing Expert

    Sheesh–can’t they use that wind power closer in, like Portland? Shut down the nuclear and coal plants and let the wind turbines spin!

  • Chris de Morsella

    Shel — It is my understanding that the coal fired thermo plants are typically shut down during this period of the year precisely because planners know in advance that hydro is going to surge as the snow pack melt water surges through the Columbia river system. The utility that owns many of the affected wind farms services Portland and I am sure that if they could they would take the power.

    This illustrates the unique lose it lose it nature of electric current and how our aging electric grid effectively traps electricity in isolated regional markets.

  • daniel maris

    Well I would certainly like to see a detailed investigation undertaken of the economics of turning the wind power into storable methane that could then be transferred to places where the energy is needed without further loss.

  • Chris de Morsella

    Daniel — I assume you are referring to methane production based on electrolysis to produce H2 from water then using carbon captured CO2 in a reducing (I believe) reaction with the H2 to produce methane + water vapor. Methane is quite a bit easier to handle and transport than H2 so it makes sense. I wonder what the energetic cost is though of the second methanation step that reduces the CO2 using the H2 produced by the electrolysis step is?

    LNG has promise as a vehicle fuel… its energy density is acceptable. In fact the big energy crisis the world is facing and that is soon going to get much worse as depletion of existing super mega fields begins to kick in — as it has already for Cantarell for example, with the Ghawar super giant field next in line (I hear they are beginning to pump saline water, which is a sign that the oil is running out) — this big energy crisis is a liquid fuels crisis.

    Perhaps wind/solar generated LNG could begin to fill some of this gap.

    Liquid fuels are a lot easier in many ways to move around long distances, especially from remote areas, than electricity itself is. So in this aspect it would be advantageous.

  • daniel maris

    Chris –

    I did look into it a bit a while ago and I think we may be talking about an 80% energy loss from the initial wind power to electricity generated from (carbon neutral) methane, but an energy loss per se is not a problem. The real issue is cost. Methane can be used at any time of the day and so generates much greater revenue. I’d like to see a really detailed cost-benefit analysis to see whether methane generation could be justified. It might well where there are exsiting natural gas pipelines i.e. existing distribution networks. Do you have any existing gas pipelines in the Pacific NW?

  • Matt Tankersley

    Fascinating dialogue of problem-solving by converting to liquid fuel; very creative energy conversion and storage, if the electricity can be converted to LNG at a competitive cost. LNG has been used successfully during petrol shortages in the past, and continues to be a useful and promising energy source. This model conjures up the cost-benefit analysis of oil-sand refining in Canada. The process is complicated, involving market price of both gases, and analysis shows that burning LNG to pump steam into the ground (forcing oil to the surface) makes for pretty slim profit margins. This year’s unexpected amount of precipitation should be seen as a godsend, as an excess of power is preferred over a shortage. The out-of-sight model works well for nuclear plants, because of obvious dangers and the source’s ability to overcome issues of power loss in transmission, but this model makes for, once again, slim profit margins when dealing with wind and solar. NorCal’s wind farm has never, to my knowledge, turned a profit, due to transmission and maintenance costs, and it has been in place longer than any U.S. wind farm. It may be that the best place for wind and solar power generation is not in a distant farm, but across the street or on the roof, alleviating transmission problems with the heavy-hitters like coal, hydro, and nuclear.
    Can’t move the wind power to where it’s needed? Perhaps the need can be moved to the power. I say build a self-sufficient suburb by the farm, in addition to modernizing transmission infrastructure.

  • Chris de Morsella

    If an intermittent friendly methane production capacity is feasibly to pair with utility scale wind energy systems and the gas can be moved to market that would be a great way to soak up wind energy that does not coincide with demand.

    Even if a lack of gas pipeline infrastructure makes it uneconomic to deliver the gas to market it might be possible to use it as a kind of on site energy store with the addition of a gas fired electric generator. In this way wind power would be providing for the fuel needs of its backup generator.

  • Mark Lively

    More DC may not be the answer, since California also has a problem with spring snow melts. I heard two Cal ISO gents talk about their dumping excess energy onto the Western grid in 2007. Bigger DC may not have helped this year. And there is a lot of AC. And the nuclear plant was shut down a week early for refueling as BPA began to anticipate the surplus.

  • dstegemoller12

    They need to use the excess electricity from the wind turbines to run huge water pumps that pump the water from below the dam back up above the dam. No subsidy, no wasted electricity, reuse the water, MUCH more efficient. level the hydroelectric production to the demand, SIMPLE and effective.