American Elephants

Roll On, Columbia, Roll On. by The Elephant's Child

The mighty Columbia, great river of the West, storied in song and legend, drains an area the size of Texas, and each year it passes 60 cubic miles of water down to the Pacific Ocean. Even its tributaries are legendary: the Snake, the Clearwater, the Salmon and the Willamette are just the big ones. The 31 dams on the river are some of the world’s largest.

In a darkened, ultra-secure room on the fifth floor of an unassuming office tower in Portland, Ore., Bob Neal sits before a panel of ten computer screens and plays Moses. It’s 8:45 in the morning on a sunny late-August day and electricity demand is rising as office workers across the West switch on their computers. Neal points to a dense blue-and-white display whose flickering numbers show power output at each of 31 dams in the Columbia basin. With a few keystrokes he orders the Grand Coulee Dam, the continent’s largest power plant, to ramp up its output by 870 megawatts in the next hour—an increase enough to light 15 million light bulbs at 60 watts apiece.

240 miles away, the Grand Coulee’s 24 giant turbines ease open, sending a surge of water toward the Pacific Ocean. Just below the dam, the river quadruples in volume and rises by 13 feet over a period of nine hours. By 2 P.M., one and a half million gallons of water— enough to flood a football field three feet deep—moves through the dam’s turbines every second.

The Columbia is a river of colossal proportions: it’s the most voluminous in the West, draining an area the size of Texas and each year passing 60 cubic miles of water to the Pacific Ocean. The 14 structures that harness it are equally formidable: a dam is likely to be the largest manmade object, the most exuberant feat of engineering that you’ll ever see, and the Columbia’s are among the world’s biggest. But as large as the dams are, their margins are minuscule and operating them takes unerring foresight and subtle management: let too much water fill reservoirs and a rainstorm might flood Portland; keep the reservoirs too empty and you’ll parch farmers. Send too much water over a dam’s spillway and you’ll suffocate fish with dissolved gases; send too much through its turbines and you’ll overload the electrical grid.

Imagine what Mr. Neal must manage: early risers turn on the lights, cities come to life, office buildings light up, computers turn on, and the demand for electricity grows.  This article from Forbes magazine is a fascinating exploration of the great power system of the Northwest. Take the time to read it all, if you can, and click on the maps and graphs to enlarge them. There is just a wealth of information there, all fascinating.

The water that must be managed drains from the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains — the continental divide, all the lesser mountains in between and all the winter storms, mountain snowpack, spring melt and spring rains. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of government involved. In recent years layers of government have added more complications.

The states, inspired by a combination of federal government, environmentalists, neighboring states and their own legislatures have required state utilities to buy increasing amounts of “renewable energy” from “clean energy” sources. Renewable energy doesn’t get any more “renewable” that the energy produced by the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia river, which has been renewing its annual flow of water for many centuries, but I am calling attention to something that should be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

The Bonneville power system must also cope with varying groups of environmentalists who are concerned about the welfare of the fish, the Indian tribes who have historical fishing rights, the wild rivers people who don’t like dams, before you even concern yourself with the politicians.

In the Spring, when runoff is high, snow melt is high and there’s lots of rain, there is usually a lot of wind as well. Turns out this is the time of year when there is the most wind, and all the wind farms are actually producing “clean energy.” Just when Bonneville really doesn’t need a bunch of intermittent wind from the Columbia Basin’s wind farms.

Wind farms in the Pacific Northwest — built with government subsidies, maintained with tax credits for every megawatt produced — are now being paid to shut down. The federal agency charged with managing the region’s electricity grid says there is an oversupply of renewable power at certain times of the year. Last year the BPA had the same problem during the late spring and early summer. Demand could not keep up with the oversupply, so BPA shut down the wind farms for nearly 200 hours over 38 days.

The wind farms really don’t like that. So Bonneville is offering to compensate the wind companies for half their lost revenue.  The bill could reach as high as $50 million a year. Guess who gets to pay for that. The ratepayers. We also get sweet little notes in our power bills, asking us to “contribute” just a little more the help make the Northwest truly green with green energy.

Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment of the Washington Policy Center, and author of Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment, said:

We require taxpayers to subsidize the production of renewable energy, and now we want ratepayers to pay renewable energy companies when they lose money? That’s a ridiculous system that keeps piling more and more money into a system that’s unsustainable.

Exactly. People — those taxpayers and ratepayers who are tired of seeing their power bills go up as the news tells us constantly of the boom in energy; who are tired of seeing one green “investment” after another go bankrupt, as their officers award themselves big bonuses on the way out,  are capable of putting two and two together and finding something fickle in the wayward wind.

State governments, not being as smart, haven’t figured it out yet, and still have their fantasy mandates of increasing amounts of power from renewables that will never happen.  The federal government, sure that clean wind and solar energy will wean us of our “addiction” to foreign oil, can’t get it through their heads that you can’t put wind or sunshine in your gas tank.

Another day in the eternal  life of the Mighty Columbia River — roll on. Columbia, roll on.

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