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Blackouts May Not Hit Northwest

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, March 21, 2001

The Pacific Northwest has a decent chance of surviving the summer without the rolling blackouts now familiar to Californians.

But there is almost no margin - and if the drought deepens or power plants malfunction, then the region may end up with its own critical shortage, according to a March 9 assessment by the Northwest Power Pool.

"Basically, if everything works, we get through this," said the pool's Jerry Rust. "If something unplanned happens, we may not."

The power pool is composed of utilities and power marketers in a seven-state area, and the report was compiled after surveying members.

But the biggest regional power marketer, the federal Bonneville Power Administration, says the outlook gets worse with each new sunny day. The BPA markets the power from the network of federal dams along the Columbia River, and officials say they will be unable to meet summer power demands and also comply with a federal plan for aiding threatened and endangered salmon that migrate down the river.

"We cannot meet all of our (power) load responsibilities and fish responsibilities at the same time," said Mike Hansen, a BPA spokesman.

The extent of the BPA shortfalls will depend on the extent of the drought. It's already one of the worst on record. If spring precipitation falters and water levels keep dropping, then the region could face power alerts.

Northwest utilities could try to make up the deficit by increased conservation and increased purchases of high-priced power from West Coast spot markets. But the BPA, the largest regional buyer, is faced with dwindling cash reserves. And if forced into large-scale purchases, the agency could run out of money by August, according to Hansen.

In this scenario, a deepening drought could lead to rolling blackouts, especially if coupled with breakdowns at thermal generating plants or unseasonably hot weather that increases demand.

To help reduce the risk of blackouts, the power pool recommends that utilities:

But some of the toughest decisions involve Columbia River salmon. The BPA and other federal agencies, in consultation with states and tribes, are trying to determine what - if any - water will be spilled during the summer to help salmon.

Hal Bernton
Blackouts May Not Hit Northwest
The Seattle Times, March 21, 2001

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