Wind 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.
[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 This is the ill fruit of an outdated transmission network that is unable to move surplus power down to California’s hungry power markets.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.