The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has connected so much new wind generation to its transmission system so fast that the BPA grid now holds more wind capacity than all but three states. This success has turned BPA’s relatively small grid in the Pacific Northwest into a kind of national laboratory for the widely held vision of remote wind projects serving distant cities.
What have we learned? First, that innovative practices, technologies and collaboration can help accommodate far more wind energy than might first seem possible. Second, integrating and marketing large amounts of variable wind energy over long distances is not as easy and inexpensive as Michael Goggin suggested in his September editorial, “Was Curtailment Necessary?”
Mr. Goggin, manager of transmission policy at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), speculated that BPA ignored moneymaking opportunities during a difficult period last spring.
The situation was this: The highest runoff in more than a decade pushed up hydroelectric generation at federal dams on the Columbia River system, which operated in such high water to help control dissolved gas harmful to protected fish. The challenge was that wind generation in combination with the surging water occasionally left us with an oversupply of renewable electricity in some low-load hours, usually in the middle of the night.
In those cases we directed coal, natural gas and other thermal power plants in our system to cut output to a minimum and replaced it with free hydropower. The one nuclear plant in the region was shut down. As a last resort, if supply still exceeded demand, we then intermittently limited the output of wind energy projects, usually for a few hours at a time, until there was sufficient demand. Less than 10 percent of scheduled wind generation was affected.
BPA held numerous discussions with wind producers and others before and during this period to find ways to ease the strain and keep wind running. Many AWEA members participated. We discussed and aggressively pursued the possibility of sending some of our overabundance of power to untapped markets in the West, which is the very solution that Mr. Goggin now claims we overlooked.
Indeed, Mr. Goggin now suggests that we could have sold most of the power at a profit. “Why BPA didn’t do so is an open question,” he writes.
The answer, as we explained in detail at the time, is that the market wasn’t there.
BPA went so far as to offer free electricity as far away as California, in hopes of opening open room in the grid for wind to keep generating. The problem was that California did not need much more power, in part because California dams were generating energy too. The power prices Mr. Goggin cites as profitable opportunities were available only to traders within California, not to BPA.
Even so, if the profits were obvious, why didn’t traders take free power from BPA and sell it for more in California? Likely because transmission costs and fees canceled any profit opportunity. The prices BPA could access averaged negative during hours wind generation was affected, meaning the market was so saturated with energy that BPA would have had to pay others to take it.
BPA will soon release a thorough review of what happened last spring in hopes that we and everyone else can learn from it. We are also actively searching with regional utilities and wind developers for durable and equitable solutions in the event we face the situation again.
Michael Milstein, manager of policy communications Bonneville Power Administration
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