Hydroelectric, Renewables

FERC looks at modifying spills to boost Northwest hydropower

by Ann de Rouffignac
OGJ Online

HOUSTON, May 7–The Northwest Power Planning Council said 2,250 Mw of hydroelectric power would be available for this summer, if water were not spilled over dams now and saved for later when demand for power is greatest.

The planning council submitted information last month to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in response to a west-wide request to identify ways to increase the power supply.

“If FERC agreed to temporarily modify spill orders, there could be more power,” said council official Dick Watson. “We are in deep ‘puckey’ out here,” he said. “We are worried about the summer and the winter. If we get to use that water, we will get through the summer.”

The tradeoff of using water now or later involves the survival of various species of fish that require ‘spills’ of water over the dams. The fish are especially vulnerable now to spill levels because they are migrating back down stream to the sea.

Grant County Public Utility District which operates two FERC-licensed hydroelectric facilities on the Columbia River also said in April it could produce more electricity later if spills are reduced now. A spokesman for the utility denied it was seeking a suspension of the spill requirements but acknowledged the utility has submitted to FERC various ideas of getting more power out of existing resources.

Seeking FERC support
But a source close to the utility says Grant asked the planning council to write FERC a letter in support of a spill suspension. The planning council has not decided whether to endorse the Grant’s proposal.

“We asked for a biological assessment of the impact on the fish and on the river of such an action,” said John Harrison, spokesman for the planning council. “We also sought public comments.”

The council will meet May 11 to decide whether to support the suspension based on the biological assessment and the outcome of the public comment period.

Bonneville Power Administration already has altered its spills in order to save water behind the reservoirs to produce power later. If the water conditions are poor, BPA can declare a power emergency. If the resource environmental regulatory agencies agree there is a power emergency, spills are altered without further procedures.

FERC-licensed hydro facilities, on the other hand, must get approval from the National Marine Fishery Services and other environmental agencies, if any modifications for dam operations are contemplated, said Harrison.

While changing hydro operations might wring 2,000 Mw of power from FERC-licensed facilities in the Northwest, this same approach is not expected to yield much more electricity in California.

“We are already operating at the minimum spill level,” said Pete Garris, chief dispatcher for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). The DWR operates about 2,000 Mw of the state’s 12,000 Mw of hydroelectric capacity. But in the current drought conditions the rivers cannot generate as much power as customary.

“If there were a way to redispatch flows, still operate the facilities with the minimum spill, and get more power, we would have done it,” said Garris. At this point, the DWR has not requested FERC for any operational changes to its licenses, he said.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. which has 4,000 Mw of hydroelectric capacity is looking at its system now to see if more power can be produced without negatively impacting the environment.

“We are looking internally to see if anything can be done. We are also talking to environmental agencies,” said Jon Tremayne, spokesman for Pacific Gas &Electric Co. “It’s better to move forward only if we are in agreement.” Tremayne said any negative impact on the environment would prohibit any changes to water flow.

Contact Ann de Rouffignac at [email protected]