Power Supplies in Pacific Northwest Tighten as Deep Freeze Grips Region

Energy supplies are tight in the Pacific Northwest, a region that has been stricken with unseasonably frigid weather and is bracing for deep freezes as a mass of Arctic air descends on the region.   

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal power marketer that sells wholesale power from 31 federal dams and one nuclear plant—Columbia Generating Station in Washington—to 143 utilities in the region, said on March 1 that it is taking steps to increase power supplies and slash consumer demand to keep the federal power system “operating smoothly and support regional reliability.” 

The regional power system has been strained by “[u]nseasonably cold temperatures, low stream flows for hydro production, transmission import constraints and high natural gas prices,” it said in a statement to POWER. 

“We’re a little bit concerned with the continued cold weather that we’ve had is preventing the snow from melting for normal run-off in the rivers for us to be able to generate electricity—that, combined with our forecasts of continued cool weather,” said BPA spokesperson Mike Hansen. 

But Hansen also said the situation was compounded by a “couple of other unusual situations.”  BPA’s ability to import power from California has been limited “due to some significant maintenance work that is going on in Southern California,” he said. “And then you combine all of that with the pressure on natural gas as another resource that there’s a lot of demand for—and the physical constraints of being able to move enough natural gas on the open market. That creates a situation in which we just want the region to know that, at least for a limited period of time here, is that it would be good if the Northwest could conserve electricity usage.”

Hansen noted that the issue is affecting the entity’s balancing authority, which includes parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana.

The Portland, Oregon–headquartered BPA said it is prepared to manage through all water conditions. However, BPA and its federal partners are tracking the low streamflow conditions in the Columbia and Snake river basins and “will continue to explore various options for meeting the power needs of customers while upholding regional environmental stewardship obligations.” So far, the entity has asked customers to reduce energy use when possible to minimize stress on the power system. 

“It’s always a good idea to use electricity wisely, and it’s even more important when supplies are tight,” said Elliot Mainzer, BPA administrator.

The region will be steeped in an unseasonable deep freeze over the next few days, circumstances that could further strain the power system. According to The Washington Post, an Arctic air mass that is descending on the region could push temperatures to 20 degrees below normal at times into early next week. On March 1, the National Weather Service in Spokane—which tweeted that temperatures fell to a record 1F this morning—expects highs in the 20s and lows in the single digits, with wind chills below zero.

The power mix in the Pacific Northwest—a region with 63.5 GW of installed nameplate capacity in 2016—was 54% hydro, 15% wind, 11% coal, 11% baseload natural gas, 3% natural gas peakers, and only 2% nuclear (from Columbia, the sole nuclear generator in the region). Since 2009, according to a Jan. 3 regional resource update from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, most regional resource additions have been natural gas and wind turbines, but also small-scale solar photovoltaic, owing to heightened Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) activity. “The price of solar has dropped significantly and is now competitive with wind and other resources,” the council noted. The region is also seeing the introduction of battery energy storage, starting with pilots and concept projects. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)