Grid needs fixing

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board June 01, 2011 01:51 pm

Probably we ought not be shocked that our country’s transition to relying on “clean” electricity would have its messy bits.

The current conflict in the Northwest, though predicted by experts, surprised the general public.

It pits endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River against the wind turbines on which we’ve lavished billions of dollars of public subsidies.

Last month the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that sells electricity generated at the Columbia’s and Lower Snake River’s hydrodams and also controls much of the region’s power grid, in effect shut down wind farms in Oregon and Washington for several hours on several days.

Here’s why: With the river running high and fast due to a bountiful snowpack and copious spring rains, the turbines inside those dams were producing enough megawatts to satiate our demand.

Wind power was not only temporarily superfluous, it was a problem — the grid couldn’t handle the load.

Which is no big deal — if you’re willing to flout a federal law: the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The only way to reduce power output from the dams, and thus make “room” for wind energy, is to divert more water through the spillways rather than into the penstocks that keep the turbines spinning.

Except spilling more water increases the level of dissolved gases in the river. That kills salmon and steelhead, something the ESA frowns upon and something, by the way, that taxpayers have also spent billions of dollars to prevent.

BPA officials had anticipated this dilemma. They blocked about 10 percent of the region’s wind power between midnight and 5 a.m. These curtailments could continue until the Columbia recedes.

Wind farm owners don’t think much of BPA’s tactics. Although BPA compensates them with free hydropower, the agency doesn’t make up for the tax and renewable-energy credits that are given only when the turbines are producing power.

We’re less concerned about the loss of tax breaks than we are about having those turbines — which taxpayers helped subsidize regardless of what they think about the matter — standing still even while the wind’s blowing.

Ultimately, BPA had no choice but to shut down the turbines. Wind power, which is already under some scrutiny for killing birds and bats, certainly doesn’t seem like our energy savior if it starts killing salmon, too.

The solution to this conundrum will, of course, cost us more money. Lots of it.

Upgrading the power grid is rather more complicated than, say, buying a power strip when you add a DVD player and a Wii to your home entertainment system.

But we have to do it. Turning those forests of white turbines, even temporarily, into the most expensive pieces of public art in American history is not acceptable.

In the meantime we could mitigate the problem by leaving all our appliances on at night.

According to BPA, part of the problem this spring is that, in addition to an abundance of megawatts from dams, the demand for power is relatively low, especially at night, hence the midnight to 5 a.m. wind power shutoff.

Yet wasting power, on purpose, seems against the spirit of this whole endeavor in which we’ve invested so much.

Maybe we should just hope for a heat wave. That would get our power-hungry air-conditioners going, and wash the rest of the mountain snow downstream to the sea.