Renewable energy in the north-west
Tilting at windmills
Teething troubles in the clean-energy sector
Jun 16th 2011 | SEATTLE | from the print edition
THE melting snows of spring and early summer are justly celebrated by Aaron Copland and Walt Whitman. But they are causing a lot of trouble in the Pacific north-west, as a federal power agency pushes private wind turbines off the grid in what critics call a case of favouritism towards electricity generated by federal dams.
The region’s wind power companies are enraged and are petitioning the regulators. Encouraged by politicians and their subsidies, they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past six years on a 14-fold increase in generating capacity.But this year, as an unusually large snowmelt surges into the rivers of Oregon and Washington, the wind lobby is howling about government perfidy. “You can’t trust the guy who is running the grid,” says Robert Kahn, executive director of the Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition.
The guy in question is the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a venerable federal bureaucracy that markets power from 31 federal dams in the Columbia river basin. Thanks to monstrous chunks of concrete like Grand Coulee Dam, completed 70 years ago and still the largest hydroelectric facility in North America, the north-west gets more of its power from hydro than any other region of the United States.
BPA managers say near-flood conditions in the Columbia river—and strict laws protecting the river’s endangered salmon—give the agency no choice but to disconnect the windmills as it grapples with a large power surplus. Not making electricity is not an option on the river, the BPA argues, because only a limited amount of water can be kept out of turbines and spilled over federal dams. Too much spill dissolves too much nitrogen in the river, which can kill migrating salmon. There is a particular irony in the agency’s concern about fish, since the development of the hydroelectric system is largely responsible for destroying the Columbia as one of the world’s great salmon highways.
Be that as it may, in the early morning hours of May 18th, BPA did something it has never done before. It took all the region’s wind turbines offline for about five hours and it expects to continue to pull the plug on them for a few hours almost every night until well into July, when enough snow in the Cascades and northern Rockies will have melted for the excess run-off (and therefore the excess power) to subside. Until then the BPA will be giving electricity away, and paying the transmission costs of utilities willing to take it.
The clean-energy glut was predictable, given the tendency of snow to melt in the spring and given whopping increases in the region’s wind-generating capacity. Since 2005 wind capacity has surged from 250 megawatts to 3,500 megawatts, and is expected to double again by 2014. More effort by BPA to link this new capacity to grids in California and British Columbia could have avoided the need to idle those wind turbines, or so a number of power experts reckon.
“The crime is that we have been nearsighted,” says Angus Duncan, chairman of Oregon’s Global Warming Commission. “We are not thinking as far ahead today as we did in the 1930s and 1940s, when we started building dams.”