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Western US power grid faces critical shortfalls

The power supply crisis in the US has migrated north with the advent of winter weather. The Northwest region, which normally is awash with power produced from hydro dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, has issued an appeal to the region’s top industries to con serve power as reserves are low. The power crunch has produced staggeringly high spot market prices, with power for delivery to substations along the Columbia river, a key trading hub, fetching up to US$5000 per MWh. The same power was sold for US$28.75 in 1999.

The predicament is blamed on a failure over the past decade to build enough power plants to keep pace with the region’s rapidly growing population, which has been compounded by dwindling hydro power supplies from the Northwest. Hydroelectricity has been reduced largely to mitigate environmental concerns, while environmental action groups have sought the decommissioning of hydro plants by denying them licences to operate.

The Northwest’s rainfall in autumn 2000 was about 30% below normal, raising concerns whether there will be enough water in spring 2001 for salmon migration if the already low reservoirs were tapped now for emergency power. The region’s power problems were aggravated further in the summer of 2000 when the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the Columbia dams, exported electricity south from its reservoirs to keep California’s struggling power grid from collapsing under the weight of heavy air conditioning loads.