Thoughts from a Yellow Dog Democrat living in Olympia, in the great BLUE state of Washington

I am a liberal because it is the political philosophy of freedom and equality. And I am a progressive because it is the political path to a better future. And I am a Democrat because it is the political party that believes in freedom, equality and progress. -- Digby

Monday, July 07, 2008

Little Noticed BIG Story

My local paper, The Olympian, had a tiny article on an incident that happened last week. I haven't noticed anyone in the MSM broadcast media picking up this story but I think it has HUGE ramifications for us.

A surge of wind last week jumped far beyond levels forecast by operators of Oregon's burgeoning wind-farm industry, sending more power into the regional grid than it could accommodate.
For the first time, Bonneville Power Administration power managers began calling operators with orders to curtail power generation.

The BPA realized by Monday evening that it could no longer handle the surge without increasing spills of water through hydroelectric dams to levels dangerous to fish. . .

What this means is that a wind storm came up and the windmills started doing their thing sending MORE electricity to the grid than it could handle. If we created most of our power by burning coal, the furnaces could have been turned off and we could have skated on the wind. But we can't turn off the Columbia -- the only way to slow electric production at a dam is to spill more water -- but they couldn't spill more water without harming the salmon.

This story shocks me. I thought the grid was more fungible than this. I thought if one region was producing excess power it could send it out on the grid and another (more expensive) method of creating electricity could be taken down. I had no idea that the regions were closed entities. How did Enron move power around?

Here's the danger -- if the grid can't support the power generated, this will become a great excuse to refuse to allow wind power because of the natural fluctuations and because the power generators are not multinational companies -- they are individual farmers, ranchers, or other investors. BPA wants to handle this in the future by telling farmers and ranchers out there generating power that they have to stop and BPA wants to charge sanctions if they don't. Winds is enough uncertainty for these investors -- now BPA wants to be able to turn them off on their whim and charge them fines?! In BPA's case hydroelectric and wind are both carbon neutral so no harm there, but without assurances that they won't be turned off, how will investors respond to this?

This is important especially in those areas of the country that use coal to generate power. If we want to go to carbonless energy production, we need adequate grid and switching capabilities. And we need some certainty that investors in wind turbines will be able to recoup their investment and not used by power companies to avoid paying them for the power or to ensure their big carbon spewing plants get first dibs at power generating.

This tiny story is a canary coughing in the mine -- we need to pay attention to this and make sure our infrastructure is in place and someone who doesn't make a profit generating power decides who turns the generators on and off. Otherwise companies will have a perfect loophole to close down the wind farms -- just choke them off.


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