The Bonneville Power Administration will run an experiment that could have larger implications for the fate of the expensive and controversial high-voltage line proposed to pass through Clark County.
The agency plans to run a two-year pilot program to see if nonwire solutions can ease the strain on its network in the summer — the season when energy demands are highest.
“BPA is working on developing new means or more effective means of dealing with congestion management,” said BPA spokesman Kevin Wingert. “This pilot program will help us to become more sophisticated and complex in our approach.”
Its results should give the BPA a better sense if there are existing cost-effective options to reducing electricity congestion other than building the proposed $722 million, high-voltage transmission line known as the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project. The proposed line would run from Castle Rock to Troutdale, Ore., cutting through Clark County and crossing the Columbia River near Camas.
As part of the pilot program, four organizations will use three different technologies to create more than 100 megawatts of relief for the transmission system. The organizations will do so by producing power closer to the where it’s most needed; encouraging changes in how end-users consume power; and storing electricity in batteries to later use.
BPA wouldn’t name the organizations it’s working with, citing ongoing contractual negotiations.
“It’s the combination of these products we’re testing the proof of concept,” said Sarah Arison, the BPA’s nonwire projects manager. “If they provide the counter flow and the congestion relief that we expect they’ll provide, then we have the potential to grow this program and possibly defer an expensive construction project — the I-5 corridor.”
The BPA operates its bulk electric system to continually balance the supply of power with demand. That balance depends on the location of the power line, the path the power must travel to reach consumers, and the physical limits of the lines.
The BPA’s main energy sources are in the north and east in Washington and Oregon. The power moves through a corridor that hasn’t been upgraded with additional capacity since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the population along the corridor has increased significantly. At times in the summer months, the power demand from the Portland metro area, California and the Southwest United States creates a bottleneck at a key point in the transmission line near Longview. The demand can occasionally meet or exceed safe operating limits, which creates threats to the BPA’s reliability and could damage some power lines.
“It’s a capacity issue, not a generation issue,” Wingert said.
No long-term solution
BPA previously explored nonwire solutions and discussed its findings in the I-5 corridor project’s final environmental impact statement, which was released in February. According to the document, the administration hasn’t found an operationally, commercially and economically feasible long-term solution to alleviate congestion along its north-south corridor. Although the agency hasn’t found solutions to its congestion problems, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist — or won’t soon.
However, the pilot program won’t affect BPA’s decision-making process on the proposed transmission line. Administrator Elliot Mainzer is expected to make a final decision on it before the end of the year. The pilot program will launch next summer.
If Mainzer does approve the project for immediate construction, the line would be energized in 2021 under the best circumstances. In the intervening years, congestion will still be a regional issue.
“This process that we’re seeing in this (pilot project) as it moves forward will help inform the process he goes through in order to make that decision,” Wingert said. “He’s going to look at everything he can possibly look at to make the right investment at the right time.”
Wingert also said that even if Mainzer does approve the new line, it wouldn’t be until about a year later when construction might begin.
In May, BPA made a public request for offers on products or methods that could reduce the congestion. Shortly thereafter, 20 suppliers submitted plans offering up various relief solutions.
“We’re investing in our future,” said Arison. “We’re trying to test out these products to see if they fit the need we’ve identified.”