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Brownouts in the PNW? With all the hydro, wind, and nuclear power generation available to Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) we should be immune to such inconveniences, so we’ve

been told. We didn’t need it, they say, so the 550 MW (megawatt) coal-fired Boardman, Oregon, plant was shut down in 2020. (One MW = one million watts, and will power 1000 households.) In 2025, the last coal-fired plant in Washington (Centralia) will be shut down.


Wind and solar, supposedly, will pick up the slack. In Novem- ber, 2023, total wind turbine ca- pacity in Oregon and Washington was 7224 MW, with 5100 con- nected to BPA’s grid. BPA plans to add another 3000 to 4000 MW of wind energy in the next two years, according to the BPA website.

But all those wind MWs are of no value if the wind doesn’t blow. This was brought home with a

bang in January of this year. On January 12, 2024, a severe cold front moved into the Northwest and persisted for a week. On that day, wind generation plummeted to 500 MW from 2500 MW the

day before. On the 14th, wind generation dropped to zero and stayed there for several days. (Pub- lic Power Council, edition 176.) Demand spiked, peaking at near 12,000 MW on January 13th. BPA hydro and nuclear could not meet all the demand, and for several days BPA imported the maximum power the California intertie could transport—5000 MW. The price of this imported power also spiked, and BPA shelled out 100 million dollars for imported power during the cold spell, according to Scott Peters, CEO of Columbia REA.


This past January is not the first time windmills have failed us in a cold spell. Quoting from the book The Grid by Gretchen Bakke, Chapter One: “January 5, 2009. In the Columbia River Gorge the wind stopped blowing and didn’t start again for three weeks. All 25 of the Gorge’s wind farms lay still…” It was winter and it was cold. But the dams picked up the slack without help from California. What if the three-week stall had

been repeated in 2024? BPA’s import bill could have been a bil- lion dollars. Normally, power through the intertie flows from BPA to California. But this cold spell brings to mind two conclusions: More transmission capacity between BPA and California in needed ASAP, and all the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers need to be left intact. The four Snake River dams that environmentalists want to remove have a rated

capacity of 3033 MW. Unfortunately, only about a third of that is used, because of court-ordered flow requirements to help salmon smolts reach the ocean, and adults to return.


There is no proof the court- ordered flow requirements save any fish over the best management practices the Corp of Engineers have relied on for years. Admittedly, adult returns are low in the Snake, but they are steady, and will likely improve with ongoing habitat improvements. Salmon and dams can co-exist. Ninety-three percent of smolts survive the trip down the river. Adult returns could be enhanced if the “river purists” would allow the Corp to give them a ride on a barge to Lewiston. Not natural? Neither are towns, farms, roads, cars and huge electricity demands to power industry and households.


Failing to produce power when it is most needed is not the only problem with windmills. They can also produce an unusable excess. Consider this hypothetical from The Grid, again from Chapter One. “May 10 (any year). One thousand windmills (are) lazily spinning in the Columbia River Gorge. In an hour, they (are) all at full throttle as a storm rolled (rolls) out of the East. Suddenly almost two nuclear plants worth of power (is) added to the grid…Uncontrollable, unman- ageable, unstoreable, undumpable electrical power.” And in May the rivers are running full, the dams are at capacity. Water must go through the turbines or be spilled over the gates. Spilling too much water will over-saturate it with air, giving the passing smolts the bends, killing them.


The only solution to the above is to shut down wind generation, which BPA has had to do on several occasions. Power potentialwasted. Wind farm owners don’t like that and demand compensation for lost opportunity, which BPA is obliged to deliver.


A little known fact about wind- mills is that they use power from the grid when the wind is not moving the blades fast enough to generate power. The nacelles on the top of the column contain the brains and the machinery to keep the windmill functioning. It must be temperature and humidity controlled to protect the electronics. When there is no wind to turn the blades, they must be turned periodically, using grid power, to prevent big shafts from bowing, bearings from flattening, and blades from warping.

So during the January cold spell, wind farms were gulping energy from the already over-taxed grid to keep the windmills alive and well. How much grid energy these functions use is a closely guarded secret, an amount wind- mill advocates prefer to ignore. But at least one PUD I am familiar with says a local wind farm is one of their top 20 biggest customers.


Of course other power plants— nuclear, coal, gas, even hydro—re- quire a small amount of continuous power to keep them alive, but they can generate that thru cloudy or windless, hot or cold days.





Without another high-capacity intertie to California or the Mid- west, or added generation from nuclear or gas, brownouts are likely in the PNW future, because demand is going up every year.

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