There’s a strange debate over energy policy that is playing out right now in the Pacific Northwest. It has nothing to do with offshore drilling or natural gas production, and while it does concern renewable energy, it’s not the sort of dispute you might expect: Rather, renewable plants serving parts of Washington and Oregon are suddenly producing more power than the grid can absorb.
The region, which is generously served by both wind power and hydropower plants, finds itself in this unusual situation as a result of heavy snowfall this past winter, which is now starting to melt, creating a surplus of hydropower. In an attempt to manage this oversupply, the local utility, the Bonneville Power Administration, is contemplating shutting down some of the wind turbines in the region. Bonneville maintains that it must take steps to slow energy production, and that the only alternative to shutting wind turbines is a process called “spilling water,” which can harm fish and may violate the Clean Water Act.
Needless to say, the prospect of shutting down wind turbines has sparked outrage, both among the general public and parties with a more vested interest in wind. The American Wind Power Association has been one of the most vocal critics, noting that scaling back wind power production would undermine efforts to promote renewable energy and could impose a financial burden on the wind power providers since the tax credits they earn are linked to the amount of power they generate.
Aside from being a curious story, this dilemma facing power providers in the Pacific Northwest should remind all of us about some of the underlying energy challenges that are often overlooked. The problem of overgeneration is really not a problem of too much power, so much as a problem of too little infrastructure to store and transport that power. We talk often about how the great strength of renewable power is its infinite supply, and yet we have not adequately invested in the infrastructure to make the most of that supply. Further, we do not yet have the technology to allow us to “store” any excess power that is generated by wind, solar or natural gas.
And, regardless of what side people take, many cannot argue that the fact we are having this debate at all shows a failure of our national energy policy to adequately look to the future. It’s great to see renewable energy projects appearing all around the country, contributing to communities’ overall power needs. But achieving and sustaining real scale in renewables will require more of a big picture approach so that two different power sources are not left competing against one another.