"The Objectives Process" begins

posted Dec 11, 2014 by John Harrison

Spawning spring Chinook salmon in Idaho's Red River, a tributary of the Clearwater. The Council is working with others to gather quantifiable information such as the number of spawners, water temperatures, spawning habitat quality, and other environmental attributes into a set of objectives for salmon and steelhead for the fish and wildlife program.

One of the most important commitments to fish in the Council’s new, 2014 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program has the distinction of being absolutely vital yet almost impossibly complex and, at first blush, intensely bureaucratic.

At its heart, though, the idea is quite simple. The Council is committed to develop a better answer to a basic question: How are the fish doing?

To that end, the Council commits in the program to work with the region’s fish managers -- state, federal, and tribal -- to collect, organize, review, and report on the myriad objectives (physical and biological changes that can be quantified) in recovery and rebuilding plans for salmon and steelhead over the breadth of the Columbia drainage. Salmon and steelhead will be first, followed by objectives for resident fish, wildlife, and environmental attributes. Ultimately, the Council hopes to amend the program with a fairly simple set of goals and objectives that have broad regional support.

This week the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Division staff began what will be an intense collaboration with fish managers, meeting at the Council headquarters with representatives of NOAA Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, and others. More meetings will follow. Tribes and states are vitally important partners, and the public will have opportunities to participate.

The Council hopes to gather all of the objectives into a report by the end of 2015. The report will inform further collaborative discussions to refine goals and objectives for salmon and steelhead throughout the basin that will meet legal requirements, cultural purposes, recreational opportunities, and other rationales for protecting, producing, and harvesting the fish.

At least, that’s the hope.

The complexity and difficulty of the task, which the Council is calling informally “The Objectives Process,” was not lost on those at the initial meeting. For starters, NOAA Fisheries has population-specific goals and objectives to recover listed species under the ESA; the Council’s fish and wildlife program includes broad objectives that address listed and unlisted species; tribes have objectives for fish production and harvest, as do states. Some of these may conflict -- probably do in some streams and rivers.

In fact, the Council tracks and reports more than 1,200 pieces of information about fish health, survival, and production, from the numbers of fish produced in hatcheries to the amount of water and habitat protected for fish where they spawn, grow and migrate.

“That’s too many,” Council Fish and Wildlife Director Tony Grover said. “So we’re looking for the right number of the best objectives to realistically track progress.”

The Council plans to call parties together again in January to continue the conversation.

Regional hydropower potential is lower than federal estimate

posted Dec 9, 2014 by John Harrison

Kerr Dam in western Montana

Last April, a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and conducted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory identified the Pacific Northwest as having the greatest potential for new hydroelectric development in the country -- 25,226 megawatts of new capacity or 32 percent of the identified national potential new supply.

It was an astonishing number, equal to three-quarters of the existing hydropower capacity in the Northwest.

The study attracted the attention of developers, utilities, and planners, including the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, whose own assessment of new, cost-effective hydropower potential, which had not been updated since 1998, was just 480 megawatts. The Council plans to update that estimate for the Seventh Northwest Power Plan, which is under development and should be completed late next year.

To determine whether the Northwest hydropower potential identified in the Oak Ridge study is realistic, the Council hired the Northwest Hydroelectric Association, a consulting business located in Clackamas, Oregon. The Association reviewed the Oak Ridge study and 23 others published between 2003 and 2014, and also surveyed Northwest utilities, reviewed applications for new hydroelectric plants in the region, analyzed other data sources, and assessed potential in six categories of hydropower development.

Conclusion: The estimate in the Oak Ridge study, intentionally a very broad scan, is unrealistically high. The NHA analysis identifies the potential capacity in the region as 3,238 megawatts. Of that potential, 2,600 megawatts is in three large pumped-storage projects (one already exists; its output is being increased), 400 megawatts is in capacity upgrades to existing hydropower projects, and only 200 megawatts is in new stream reaches and conduits.

Why such a stark difference? For one thing, the NHA analysis incorporates the Council’s protected areas, which the Oak Ridge study does not. In fact, according to the NHA analysis, among the 24 studies it reviewed, “Many do not take into account screens for environmental attributes [or] protected land use areas … nor state and federal scenic water programs, [and] none addresses the Council’s ‘protected areas’ designations.” More specifically, though, according to the NHA the Oak Ridge study was conducted at “a higher reconnaissance level” that only looked at the hydropower potential in rivers where dams have not been built and did not consider other potential sites such as existing dams and water diversions.

In its Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, which is a component of the Council’s Northwest Power Plan, some 44,000 miles of Northwest streams and rivers are protected from future hydropower development. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is required to consider the protected-areas designations in determining whether to issue licenses for new hydropower projects.


The Impact of Plug-in Vehicles, Data Centers, and More

posted Nov 19, 2014

Outback solar facility near Christmas Valley, Oregon

The Council’s power committee met recently to hear about energy trends for plug-in electric vehicles, data centers, utility-scale solar energy, and combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plants. The information will help in developing its Seventh Power Plan.

Plug-in electric vehicles are proving popular in the Northwest, particularly in urban areas of Washington and Oregon, but less so in Idaho and Montana compared to assumptions in the Sixth Plan.

Through 2035, electric vehicles are expected to represent 10-35 percent of new vehicle sales in Oregon and Washington, and about half that in Idaho and Montana, a slight reduction from the Sixth Plan assumptions, said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis. By 2035, demand from these vehicles should be 150-600 average megawatts — small compared to total regional demand, but significant.

Charging electric vehicles varies depending on the time of day. During on-peak (highest demand) times of the day — typically early morning and early evening — the anticipated demand increases from less than 5 average megawatts today to about 30 by 2035. The biggest impact is during off-peak hours when demand is low, such as overnight. That demand is anticipated to increase from less than 100 average megawatts to more than 1,000 by 2035, Jourabchi said.

In general, electric vehicles are three to four times more efficient than gasoline powered vehicles. The cost of electricity per mile driven and assumptions about future sales of electric vehicles will be lower in the Seventh Plan than in the Sixth.

Data centers continue to proliferate, particularly in commercial buildings where they serve a specific business or organization. These embedded data centers, and large ones built by Apple, Google, will consume about 800 average megawatts of electricity this year; about 300 of that from the embedded centers. That total could grow to about 1,340 average megawatts by 2035, based on current assumptions.

Utility-scale solar Photo-voltaic technology continues to improve in both efficiency and cost, said Steve Simmons, energy analyst. It’s a growing power source in the Southwest, attractive because it doesn't consume fossil fuels and has no emissions. Solar has a limited presence in the Northwest, although development may soon increase significantly in Southern Idaho, which probably is the best solar energy area in the region.

Solar power is variable both seasonally and daily. For instance, unexpected cloud cover can dampen expected generation, so it needs to be integrated with other, more flexible power sources. Though utility-scale solar power has relatively high up-front costs, these have been declining rapidly. A forecast of future cost declines will be part of the Seventh Plan.

Combined-cycle gas turbines are a mature technology that continues to improve in efficiency and performance. When hydropower is in short supply, power from combined-cycle plants is an especially valuable resource for the region.

Currently, there is a plentiful supply of low-cost gas so the near-term operating cost estimates for plants are stable. But the 20-year planning horizon is highly uncertain, as future costs will depend on the supply and price of gas and hydropower conditions. While a downside to combined-cycle plants is their CO2 emissions, new plant emissions are expected to be within proposed EPA regulations.

Council Approves Projects for Steelhead Kelts and Freshwater Cod

posted Nov 19, 2014

Conducting an ultrasound of a steelhead. Photo: Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Two projects that aim to improve survival of steelhead and burbot the upper Columbia River Basin are moving ahead.

This month the Council approved continued funding of a project that proposes to recondition steelhead after they have spawned to take advantage of their unique life-history trait. Unlike other salmon, steelhead are capable of spawning a second time. Fish that do this are called kelts.

Yakama Nation fish biologists are leading the project, which involves capturing steelhead after they spawn the first time, holding them for six to 10 months — approximating a return to the ocean — releasing them to spawn a second time, and then monitoring their contribution to the abundance of the naturally spawning stock

Meanwhile in Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, the Colville Confederated Tribes are working to gain a better understanding of the burbot population, which is thought to be small but sustainable. Burbot are a freshwater variety of cod. The project involves monitoring the status of burbot to better understand when and where to allow anglers to catch the fish.

Why We Plan for Uncertainty

posted Nov 19, 2014


The Council’s power plans begin with the premise that the future is uncertain and we can’t really predict what will happen. Managing that risk is central to the Council’s approach to resource planning. Prior to the Council’s formation, this wasn’t always the case. 

Until the Council’s first plan, utility resource planning was based on a single forecast of the region’s most likely energy demand. Resources that took 10 to 15 years to build were planned and constructed to that best guess. If the future turned out differently, the region faced the problem of either having underbuilt or overbuilt resources, and the cost of error on either side was enormous. 

The Northwest has experienced both situations. The most serious case of over-building occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when the region embarked on a path to build several new thermal plants, including five nuclear power plants in the state of Washington. The economic backlash from this disastrous planning failure resulted in unprecedented increases in Bonneville Power Administration electricity rates totaling 418 percent between 1978 and 1984. 

The opposite situation arose in the mid-1990s when exceptionally low market prices, coupled with a series of above average water years, led Northwest utilities to depend too much on the spot market to meet loads. When California’s ill-fated deregulation effort coincided with a severe Northwest drought in 2000-2001, West Coast electricity market prices spiked to stratospheric heights that averaged more than $700 per megawatt hour over an entire month, compared to around $30 per megawatt hour in the prior years. Again, electricity ratepayers paid the price with significantly higher rates. 

There are many unknowns when it comes to energy planning, and 30 years later, a lot has changed. Growing renewable generation, technological advances, and initiatives to lower carbon emissions all add to this complex planning exercise: How much will loads grow or decline over the next 20 years? What mix of new low-cost resources will best meet the region’s needs?  What is the cost and risk of constructing those resources? How much cost-effective energy efficiency is available to meet a portion of the region’s load growth? What will happen with wholesale electricity prices in the future? 

To manage these uncertainties, the Council’s plan strives to identify a resource strategy that will ensure a reliable and economical power supply. The plan also includes flexible resources like low-cost energy efficiency, which plays a critical role in protecting the region from the danger of overbuilding or underbuilding the power supply. 

As Power Division Director Tom Eckman put it recently, “We have a Goldilocks problem: We don’t want too many resources and we don’t want too few resources; we want just the right amount.”

The Council uses a planning model to evaluate how well a resource would perform under various conditions. The regional portfolio model analyzes different portfolios to understand their cost and risk tradeoffs across a large number of potential futures. It may also be used to test various policy propositions, such as strategies for reducing carbon emissions from the power system. 

Throughout the planning process, the Council relies on participation from a wide variety of stakeholders—utilities, public interest groups, and state agencies and commissions—to give their perspectives and to vet the analyses. 

It’s a rigorous process. In the end, it’s a journey of discovery the region takes to develop a plan that offers the best insurance, not just for a prosperous future, but for a secure future, too.

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The Seventh Power Plan

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Designing for Efficiency

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The Flexibility Challenge

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Didymo: A New Kind of Invader

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Using Batteries to Store Energy

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And the Wind Came Up

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