Hydroelectricity Kept Northwest Cool

Photo portrait of Dave Markham
Do you remember our late July heat wave in Central Oregon? If you have air conditioning you were happy to have it. If you don’t, I am willing to bet you wish you had.

Along with Central Oregon, temperatures were scorching hot – flirting with and often passing the 100-degree mark — around the Pacific Northwest. The Bonneville Power Administration’s energy demand figures showed once again how critical hydroelectricity was to keeping everyone cool and crops watered. This incredibly valuable resource not only forms the backbone of the region’s energy supply, it makes the whole system work thanks to what is called its load following capability.

The hotter it is, the more electricity we use. BPA tracks the region’s use every five minutes. Its graphs show a daily pattern that looks like a steady rollercoaster. The line tracking use starts climbing in the morning when we start our day, peaks in late afternoon and early evening when most of us get home before ramping back down during the nighttime hours. While this consumer cycle is consistent – with peaks reaching record levels during heat waves – not all energy resources’ production patterns matches it.

Wind has grown increasingly important in the Northwest, but it produces power intermittently. When the wind is blowing wind generation increases and the hydroelectricity balances the system by reducing production. Conversely, when the wind stops hydro production is boosted to fill the gap.

Hydro’s load balancing ability is of incredible value to the regional system, but its benefits go further. The sheer volume of energy the system produced during the summer’s heat waves dwarfs others’ production. At times in late July, when wind production was at its lowest, hydro was producing 30 times as much power. Even when the wind farms reached peak output, hydroelectric production doubled their production levels.

Yet, society often takes hydro for granted. Some even demonize it, seeing dam removal as the magical solution to restoring the region’s salmon runs. At times hydro has become a political football. This spring a court order required more water to be passed around the dams to help salmon migrate, cutting back hydro production. This created the added cost of buying power to replace the lost hydro production. Then, in early summer, costs were assessed on utilities because hydroelectricity production was high enough to require wind generators to go off-line to avoid overloading the system. By law, utilities have to compensate wind farms for their lost energy production.

Bottom line, we are incredibly fortunate to have this renewable source of energy that emits no carbon and keeps our air clean. We should protect its legacy every chance we get.

Dave Markham
President & CEO