Montana Wind Generates More Power When The Region Needs It, But Can We Get It?

posted Aug 17, 2016

Montana wind farm

There’s been a lot of excitement about Montana wind generation in the power industry recently. Montana wind tends to be stronger and blows more often than Columbia Gorge wind. 

But, of the nearly 8,700 megawatts of wind generation in the region, under 700 megawatts are in Montana and just over 5,700 megawatts of wind power is sited in the Columbia Gorge. If Montana’s wind resource is so promising, why isn’t there more?

Where you site a wind plant matters

To keep the lights on, the power system must match electricity demand with supply moment to moment. So wind generation that can meet peak demand tends to be more valuable. Natural gas, coal, nuclear and, to some extent, hydro power can be scheduled and stored and used when needed. Since wind can’t be scheduled to exactly align with electricity demand, locating it in a place where the wind blows at around the right time is crucial. 

Electricity use peaks in the Pacific Northwest during the late morning and early evening hours in winter. Preliminary analysis shows that Montana wind generation is a much better match with our winter peak demand than Columbia Gorge wind generation. Comparing a wind plant of the same size in both places, the Montana wind plant will usually generate more than a Columbia Gorge wind plant. 

More power at the right time seems like a good deal. Why build in the Gorge versus Montana?

Transmission drives wind development

A resource needs transmission to be useful. The main wind corridor of Montana has several transmission lines going west to Seattle, Spokane, Boise, and Portland, but they’re currently reserved for other power sources. By comparison, Gorge wind generation is close to the high capacity transmission lines built for Columbia River dams. These existing lines had available space, which enabled the rapid expansion of Columbia Gorge wind. 

Building more transmission is a difficult prospect, both economically and politically. So, unless space opens up on existing transmission lines or we build more lines, Montana’s vast wind potential will remain mostly untapped.

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Renewables in a Shifting Energy Landscape

posted Aug 15, 2016

Boise City Solar Farm

“Today’s electric energy choices reflect a reversal from yesterday’s economics of power” – Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s First Power Plan (1983)

I don’t know how the Northwest grid will operate 10 or 20 years from now. I know that there have been challenges and opportunities associated with both the economics and operation of the grid as wind and solar generation increase, both in this region and in neighboring regions. 

One of the challenges with wind and solar generation is that the amount of generation you get in any hour depends on the weather. But there are promising solutions that could help address that challenge. I also know that this region has overcome tremendous challenges in the past. 

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Seventh Power Plan sets forth a resource strategy that relies on energy efficiency and demand response as the primary resources through 2021. From 2021 to 2035 it becomes increasingly likely that additional resources will be needed to replace generation from retiring coal plants and to comply with state requirements to build renewables. 

I was recently at a meeting where a presenter was going through all the disruptive changes that will completely alter the utility industry in the next decade or two. He enthusiastically said that an industry that hadn’t significantly changed for the last 100 years would be completely transformed. I’m not sure about his view of the future, but I am confident that his view of the past is misguided at best. 

A quick read of the introductions of the seven different plans completed by the Council will give you an appreciation of the ever-changing circumstances in the regional power system. Every plan has emphasized the uncertainty inherent in planning for the future. And, sure enough, each plan since the first has seen shifts in economics and technology that were unexpected or unlikely in the preceding plans. Since the first plan, the Northwest has navigated the consequences of billions of dollars wasted on nuclear power plants that were never completed; market deregulation; the West Coast energy crisis; several recessions; and a roller-coaster ride on electricity and natural gas market prices. 

In the Seventh Power Plan, as with the previous six power plans, we do have limited projections about how technology will change in the future. But as long-term planners, we also take a cautious approach to assessing these potential changes by reassessing them frequently. We emphasize balancing short-term actions with long-term consequences. History has taught us the folly of making large bets on something that may or may not happen years from now. 

Limiting our view of how technology will evolve may limit the solutions considered, especially when looking 10 years or more into the future. That’s why within 5 years of the release of the Seventh Power Plan, we will start the process of writing the Eighth Power Plan. This cycle of planning ensures that the power plan is accurate and robust and realistic for the near term. 

New tools to help integrate new resources into the grid, renewable or otherwise, are under development; as they become mature, we will be ready to include them in our plan to maintain an adequate, efficient, economical, and reliable power supply. But to avoid expensive mistakes, we rely on mature technology in the Seventh Plan’s resource strategy. 

Meeting the challenges of integrating renewable generation into our power system has the potential to increase its value to the region. And the next power plan, as in past plans, will map a strategy that includes the best tools available, with an eye to what’s on the horizon. 


Why We Have a Regional Power Plan


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Cold-water Species In A Warming Climate

posted Aug 12, 2016

Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic stock with Wade Fredenberg

Bull trout are the salmon of Montana, a cold-water species whose long-term sustainability is threatened by a warming climate, degraded habitat, and an abundance of predators. Like salmon, bull trout are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but unlike salmon their range extends across the Columbia River Basin.

In Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are working to improve bull trout habitat and reduce predation by lake trout, an introduced species, in Flathead Lake. It’s a long-term effort, and while the number of lake trout has declined, there has not been a corresponding uptick in bull trout numbers.


“We expected a delay in the response,” Les Evarts, fisheries program manager for the tribes, told the Council at a recent meeting in Montana. Rebuilding will happen, but slowly. “All the indicators are that it will happen. But I don’t think it’s going to be in the very near future, and we have to be patient.”

The state and tribes have been working on bull trout restoration since 1991 through a project in the Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program that focuses on mitigating the impacts of Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork Flathead River. The South Fork was a major bull trout river before the dam was completed in 1953. Since then, bull trout have declined due to a combination of degraded habitat, overharvest, and importantly, predation by lake trout, a species introduced into Flathead Lake more than 100 years ago.

For decades extremely cold water was released from the dam into the South Fork – water that attracted lake trout from Flathead Lake in the summers and led to predation on juvenile bull trout. By installing a selective withdrawal system, water can be mixed from various depths to warm the release temperature, discouraging lake trout and providing the best water temperature for bull trout to grow. As the fish grow they are better able to avoid predators.

Until the lake trout population is reduced substantially, bull trout restoration will be difficult. To that end, the state and tribes have been taking steps including increasing the fishing limit to 100 per day, sponsoring a lake trout fishing derby, and starting a tribal business selling lake trout filets. The tribes also use gill nets to fish large numbers of lake trout from the lake. The goal is to remove about 143,000 fish from the lake annually. Angling contributes about 50,000 fish per year, and the other efforts will add more fish and, if successful, reach the goal sometime in the future.

“So far we are far short of our target, but we are seeing signs of success,” Evarts said. “The lake trout population is decreasing.”


Lake Trout derby, Flathead Lake. Photo: Cindy Benson.

Meanwhile, the state and tribes are working to restore habitat in the Jocko and Swan rivers, which are Flathead tributaries. In British Columbia, where the North Fork Flathead begins and where some of the best bull trout habitat remains, a 2010 agreement with Montana prohibits mining of coal, gold, gas, and oil – activities that could damage habitat.

“Canada stopped this development purposefully to save the headwaters of the Flathead,” said Brian Marotz, hydropower mitigation coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He said it is important to protect as much cold-water habitat as possible for bull trout, as they can migrate up to 150 miles to reach spawning areas.


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Building Demand for Energy Efficient Products

posted Aug 11, 2016


Carrie Cobb, market research lead for the Bonneville Power Administration briefed the Council at its August meeting on "momentum savings," energy efficiency gains through new codes and standards or shifts in market demand outside of program investments.

One of the most dramatic examples of this can be seen in the growing options in lighting. Go to any Home Depot, for example, and you'll see an entire shelf of different types and brands of energy-efficient bulbs. Growth in LED lights has been particularly impressive: Today, 1 in 4 lamps sold in the Northwest are LED. Listen to Carrie talk about what's ahead:


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Retiring Northwest Coal Plants and Keeping the Lights On

posted Aug 11, 2016

Seattle at night

According to the Council's assessment of the Pacific Northwest's power supply, we should have an adequate supply through 2020, although the planned retirements of four coal plants by 2022 means that the region will have to acquire nearly 1,400 megawatts of new capacity to lower the chance of a shortfall. 

The Council assesses the adequacy of the region's power supply each year to alert the region if development fails to keeps pace with growing demand. The standard deems the power supply to be inadequate if the likelihood of a shortfall is higher than 5 percent. With the coal plant retirements, the chance of a shortfall grows to 13 percent by 2021.

As the Northwest, like other parts of the country, moves to lower its reliance on coal plant generation, planning to address the loss of that power has been underway. The Council's assessment assumes that the energy efficiency targets identified in its Seventh Power Plan will be met and concludes that it is imperative that cost-effective energy efficiency programs continue to be aggressively implemented.

Northwest utilities have been working to develop replacement strategies and have reported about 550 megawatts of planned generating capacity for 2021, with additional resources likely to include energy efficiency, demand response or new generating resources.

The Council will be closely monitoring progress to maintain the system's adequacy and will reassess the power supply next year.


Standard Aims to Keep Regional Electricity Supply Adequate

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Cold Water Refuge

posted Aug 11, 2016

Building on a Legacy Resource

posted Aug 5, 2016

Salmon Smorgasbord

posted Jul 14, 2016

Tapping Into Geothermal Energy

posted Jun 21, 2016

Fish And Warm Water Don't Mix

posted Jun 20, 2016

Going, going, almost gone

posted Jun 7, 2016

Early Warning System

posted May 27, 2016

In the (Efficient) Spotlight

posted Apr 25, 2016

The Mystery of Swan Lake

posted Apr 13, 2016

A boost for northern pike removal

posted Apr 13, 2016

They're back, and they're hungry

posted Mar 23, 2016

Warm ocean, small salmon: Why?

posted Mar 7, 2016

Seventh Power Plan Homestretch

posted Dec 15, 2015

Touring Baker Dam

posted Jul 8, 2015

Forest Fires and Fish Habitat

posted May 19, 2015

This Plan Is Your Plan

posted Apr 30, 2015

Lunch and Learn With the Council

posted Mar 31, 2015

Scenario Analysis Begins

posted Feb 11, 2015

Scenario Analysis Is Coming!

posted Jan 22, 2015

"The Objectives Process" begins

posted Dec 11, 2014

Why We Plan for Uncertainty

posted Nov 19, 2014

Why We Have a Regional Power Plan

posted Oct 29, 2014

Estimating Energy Efficiency

posted Oct 24, 2014

Seventh Power Plan 101

posted Oct 6, 2014

BPA Energy Efficiency Funding

posted Mar 12, 2014

Weathering a Cold Snap

posted Jan 17, 2014

The Seventh Power Plan

posted Dec 11, 2013

Designing for Efficiency

posted Nov 12, 2013

The Flexibility Challenge

posted Oct 30, 2013

Northwest Q & A: Robert D. Kahn

posted Oct 29, 2013

Tagging Sturgeon in Astoria

posted Aug 22, 2013

Habitat Tours Focus on Results

posted May 31, 2013

Sustainability Is Success

posted May 29, 2013

A Last Look at Condit Dam

posted Oct 24, 2011

Changing Minds, Changing the Land

posted Jul 26, 2011

Wind Power, Then and Now

posted Apr 18, 2011

The Rebound Effect: Is It Real?

posted Feb 1, 2011

An Update on Didymo

posted Jan 27, 2011

Didymo: A New Kind of Invader

posted Jan 18, 2011

A Good Year for Returning Salmon

posted Sep 30, 2010

Building a Better Battery

posted Aug 11, 2010

Using Batteries to Store Energy

posted Jul 28, 2010

Growing Summer Energy Demand

posted Jul 26, 2010

California's Energy Scene

posted Jul 23, 2010

Ensuring Efficiency

posted Jun 21, 2010

Making Wind Work

posted Jun 7, 2010

Clean Tech Draws VC Funding

posted May 3, 2010

And the Wind Came Up

posted Apr 6, 2010