14 July 2004 - As the Northwest moves into the hottest, driest time of year, its main power distributor is fortifying the transmission grid against summer threats such as heat waves and lightning strikes that can interrupt the flow of electricity.
Experts agree that unlike the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001 - when the West suffered from a shortage of electricity - the biggest concern lies in delivering, not creating, power. The two major blackouts of the past decade - the West Coast's in 1996 and the Northeast's last summer - highlighted the fragility of the grids of transmission lines that supply the nation's electricity.
Because the Northwest faced its day of reckoning earlier, the region is ahead of the Northeast in improving its transmission system. But the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity generated at 31 federal dams and one nuclear power plant, still lacks money needed to complete proposed projects on a network that officials say is running at or near capacity.
The BPA's aim: to ensure the steady flow of power from generators, primarily east of the Cascades, to the energy-hungry Interstate five corridor.
Vickie VanZandt, chief engineer for the BPA, which owns 75 per cent of the region's power lines, said she is confident in steps the Portland-based agency has taken to improve reliability.
For the first time since 1987, the agency is adding power lines to the Northwest grid, which crosses Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Montana. At the same time, BPA has increased its tree-trimming budget to $10.1m a year, a nearly fourfold increase since 1996.
BPA's recent building, expected to cost about $430m and include three projects, came after the federal government increased the agency's borrowing power from the US Treasury by $700m, to $4.45bn, and encouraged BPA to borrow from private lenders. In March, for the first time BPA took out a loan from a private lender to help finance line construction.
"We haven't built this much in over 15 years," VanZandt said.
The agency also has spent $93m on three projects to update grid-operating systems in Oregon and Washington - all finished within the past year.
These steps are a start, but most regional energy players, including VanZandt, would like to see more transmission-line construction.
The Northwest grid is "not very resilient" against contingencies, or electrical hiccups that break down the system, VanZandt said - "like a car with worn-out shocks."
In 2001, BPA identified 20 grid-improvement projects through 2012, said Darby Collins, BPA spokesman. Congress increased BPA's borrowing power by $700m instead of the $2bn that BPA requested in January 2003. With less money and a weakened economy and therefore less demand, BPA delayed five projects and canceled four. The remaining 11 projects are either scheduled, under way or completed.
Because transmission projects take time to finance and complete and economic swings can boost demand dramatically, it's important to prepare for adequate supply well in advance of when it will be needed, VanZandt said.
Experts largely overlooked the decline of BPA's lines in recent years because as the economy ebbed, energy demand dropped. In the last four years, demand in the Northwest fell by about 2400 MW - enough energy to power two Seattles, Morlan said.
However, economic and population growth will lead to increased long-term demand, even with effective conservation programs, he said.
Through 2025, analysts expect demand in the Northwest to rise by roughly 25 per cent. Portland General Electric forecasts demand to rise by about 70 average MW - enough to power about 50 000 homes - each year through 2008.
BPA fell behind in construction in the 1990s when the agency focused its efforts on money-saving upgrades to existing lines, instead of costly additions to the grid.
In the meantime, additional line construction will have to wait until alternate funding or increased borrowing power from the US Treasury allows for more building. The delays postpone projects for years, but BPA spokesman Ed Mosey insists, "When we see something imminent, we don't hold back."