Wind causing hydro problems in the Pacific Northwest

Recent news articles [1,2] have highlighted some of the challenges faced by renewable energy sources in the Pacific Northwest as wind turbine farms grow larger. By far, the majority of electricity produced in Washington, Oregon and Idaho comes from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, with some contribution from nuclear and coal and natural gas plants [3]. Total wind turbine installations in Washington and Oregon are approaching 4000 MW in nameplate capacity, however [2], which represents a non-trivial fraction of total generation.

Snowmelt in the Northwest can vary significantly from year to year, and during spring and summer seasons following a heavy snowpack buildup, flow down the Columbia River can increase substantially. This excess water is spilled over the dams if the turbines are operating at capacity.

However, the article from Fox News points out that added wind generation capacity has, in effect, increased the amount of water spilled over the dams since the hydroelectric turbines begin to throttle down to accommodate the wind. The Bonneville Power Administration, which is responsible for hydroelectric generation and distribution of much of the electricity in the NW, says it is concerned that this increased spillage will endanger salmon runs, due to the higher oxygen content of the river water after spilling. Alternatively, wind turbine farms can be forced to shut down in this scenario, relieving pressure on the grid but also resulting in lost revenue for the farm owners. The BPA has been compensating some of the owners for their downtime, but this increases the cost of the electricity to the consumer. From a public relations standpoint, this situation is awkward for the BPA since they get into the absurd position of paying federally-subsidized wind farms regardless of their production.

It appears that the installation of wind turbine farms in the PNW has gotten ahead of the grid’s ability to dispose of the increased generating capacity. Needed for continued wind installation is increased transmission line capacity to move the electricity to markets where it is needed, but this is expensive and take considerable time to build, and it is probably cheaper for BPA to pay off wind farm owners than expand grid infrastructure (for the time being). Meanwhile, a moratorium on wind farm construction would be politically risky in Washington and Oregon, which seek to increase their use of renewables in their fuel mix (hydropower, interestingly, does not seem to be a renewable resource like wind and solar are in current Washington State law). Some new transmission lines and substations are under construction to ameliorate some of the glut of wind capacity, but more will be needed [2].

This problem illustrates some of the challenges of bringing more and more renewable resources online before adequate infrastructure is in place. Increasing wind capacity will reduce the amount of snowmelt that necessitates opening the spillways, exacerbating the problem. Wind and solar are obviously weather-dependent, and accurate weather forecasting can be difficult in the Northwest. Some utility-owed wind farms are supplemented by natural gas powerplants, such as those installed by Puget Sound Energy. This allows the utility to manage minute-by-minute changes in the wind resource without disrupting other grid activities. However, the majority of wind capacity is not backed up by any other fuel source, and therefore the BPA must manage the excess electricity. This would seem to be a prime example of a politically-driven enterprise creating additional problems that were unanticipated at the outset. While there is nothing wrong with increasing our use of renewable energy, it must be done in a way that is not disruptive to the existing infrastructure, and requires careful management and coordination.

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3 responses to “Wind causing hydro problems in the Pacific Northwest

  1. jkguidry

    I think that this article highlights a very interesting issue that the Fox News article refers to as “trendy environmentalism”. I’m a big fan of protecting the planet that we live on and rely on for our continued existence, but it seems that a lot of people avoid a big picture view of environmentalism. State policy pushes to increase renewable production have raced ahead of the infrastructure’s ability to dispose of this energy. In an attempt to do the right thing environmentally, these states are actually costing their tax paying citizens money for no real gain. More than anything, this seems to highlight the need for policy makers who are willing to take the time to understand the technical side of issues that they are creating policy for.

  2. mranderson0416

    I agree completely- it seems like we’ve seen a fair amount of fashionable technologies get huge support (wind, solar panel companies in the US, electric car companies) in the face of lots of warning signs (infrastructure not ready in the NW, a buildup of Chinese solar panel manufacturing capability, etc). Then again, I grow frustrated with the extreme length of time it takes most projects to get permitted and approved nowadays… unless, that is, they fall under the trendy catergories…

  3. nehughes

    I was actually very surprised to read this, as hydro producers in the Pacific Northwest tend to sell large amounts of power to the California market. California produces only 70% of its electricity needs, and turns to Northwest hydropower or Southwest coal power to supplement. [1]

    I looked a little farther into the resolution of this situation. In June 2011, a consortium of Northwest wind producers filed a claim with FERC, charging that Bonneville Power used their authority to craft policies that benefit their own generating power (hydro) over contracts with the wind producers. [2] Bonneville Power owns 75% of the transmission lines in that region, giving them disproportionate power.

    The Northwest faces a situation unlike any other region of the US: over-generation during the spring melt season. Hydropower is at its peak in late spring and early summer. I am surprised that the issue of dropping wind didn’t become a problem sooner, and that the wind producers didn’t plan for this. BPA has a maximum amount of water they can spill over dams. Additionally, all of the states that use Northwest hydro power plan for wet, dry, or average hydro years in their energy plans.

    After the suit was filed with FERC, Bonneville Power has created a more substantive plan to deal with over-generation, or how to determine which generators to turn off first. The hydroelectric dams must be run to comply with federal regulations to protect fish. BPA will offer low cost or free hydropower to replace the output of thermal or other power plants, and they expect that many will voluntarily reduce generation to save on fuel costs. Should the generation still exceed the demand on the grid, BPA will reduce the output in order of least cost, which includes wind power. In return for curtailing, BPA will pay the affected generator for lost revenues, including RECs and PTCs. [3]

    I’m not sure what the solution is here, but it does not seem as though Oregon or Washington are in need of much new generation. While renewable integration is good, I think it makes more sense as a wind producer to look to markets where wind power won’t be curtailed.


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