Too much dam power

Mark Plummer, Project Fisheries Biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, looks over the 10 spillways at Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the lower Snake River June 6, 2005 near Burbank, Wash.

Kai Ryssdal: There's big power grid news today. Interestingly, it comes to us courtesy of Google. The search company owns part of a project to build a new underwater transmission line that will eventually carry wind-generated electricity up and down the East Coast. Today federal regulators approved the rate of return that Google and its partners will be allowed to earn on their $5 billion investment -- 12.5 percent, not too shabby.

Over in the Pacific Northwest, there's already too much of a good thing when it comes to renewable power. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner explains the dilemma.


Sarah Gardner: This year the Pacific Northwest is experiencing an embarrassment of riches. Mother Nature's...

Doug Johnson: We're blessed with a whole lot of wind and water here in the Northwest that can create energy.

Doug Johnson is with the Bonneville Power Administration. He says spring flows into the Columbia River Basin are the biggest in 14 years. So hydroelectric dams are generating lots of electricity. So much, in fact, that the agency managing most of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, just made a controversial decision.

Rachel Shimshak is a renewable energy advocate.

Rachel Shimshak: The Bonneville Power Administration has made a determination that when there's too much energy, they're going to unilaterally cut off wind generators in order to manage the system.

That's exactly what Bonneville's done on and off for the last two days.

Robert Kahn heads up a coalition of independent power producers. He says wind producers now stand to lose tens of millions of dollars.

Robert Kahn: If their blades aren't spinning and they're not generating wind power, then they will not be entitled to the production tax credit -- which is a source of revenue for the wind farms.

Bonneville insists it can't cut back on hydropower. It contends that spilling the excess water over dams creates gases harmful to fish. But the agency's dilemma signals a larger, national problem: development of wind is outpacing grid capacity.

Daniel Brooks at the Electric Power Research Institute says there's a lot of resistance to new power lines.

Daniel Brooks: Folks don't want a transmission line running through their backyard, generally. There's also environmental issues.

The Bonneville Power Administration says it's working on expanding transmission. First, though, it may have some legal work to attend to. Wind producers are expected to sue the agency over the new policy as early as next week.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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