Report: Northwest faces winter blackouts if drought doesn’t moderate

If drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountain states don’t moderate soon, that region can expect blackouts this winter, the North American Electric Reliability Council said Tuesday.

But NERC forecasts the region will have sufficient power resources to meet internal demand this summer — barring prolonged hot weather or worsening drought conditions. Even though the area is expected to get through the summer, there will be little, if any, power left over to help out neighboring states, including California during emergencies in the coming months, NERC said.

The area includes the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, northern Nevada, and northern California. The region is part of the Northwest Power Pool (NWPP), a subregion of the Western Systems Coordinating Council (WSCC).

Demand in the NWPP is forecast to peak at 49,210 Mw this summer based on normal weather. The area has been aggressively trying to limit demand. Bonneville Power Administration bought down 1,800 Mw of demand from industrial customers directly served by the federal power agency.

Other industrial customers curtailed demand because of high energy costs and have “sold” the saved electricity to electric utilities. These and other state and local conservation programs are expected to reduce peak demand by about 1,100 Mw this summer, said NERC.

Resources are estimated at 71,250 Mw, some 66% hydroelectric generation.

If the drought persists, this will be the second lowest water year on record in the Columbia River Basin.

Even if rainfall returns to normal in the next few months, it will not be sufficient to allow energy exports this summer but would help alleviate a possible “energy shortfall” this winter.

While summer demand may not exceed supply, the region cannot, however, endure prolonged periods of even moderately high temperatures. This could “overtax” the capability of the hydro system and result in rotating blackouts.

NERC said a number of gas and coal-fired units deferred maintenance because they were needed to make up for deficient hydropower. But the delay could impact plant availability and performance during summer. NERC estimated a 15% reserve margin should be sufficient to cover unit outages.

Regarding transmission, the connections between NWPP and WSCC aren’t likely to be overloaded because little electricity is available to export or import. However, NERC said industrial curtailments of demand could strand generating capacity because of constraints in certain areas that connect generation projects in western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington to west coast cities.

At least 700 Mw of power demand was curtailed in western Montana and eastern Washington. Power which would have been consumed by businesses in these regions must be sent to cities on the West Coast to avoid reliability problems.

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