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Avista Warns of Bottleneck in Power Supply

by Bert Caldwell
The Spokesman Review
- November 27, 2001

Expiration of a 10-year agreement that helped move electricity from Montana into Washington and Oregon could strand hundreds of megawatts that may be needed this winter, Avista Utilities warned regional officials last week.

President Scott Morris, in a letter mailed last Wednesday, also said Avista has a much cheaper solution to removing a transmission bottleneck through the area than does the Bonneville Power Administration.

Bonneville's Bob King, who has worked with Avista on the issue, said the Spokane utility overestimates the cost of improvements, which would include a beefed up line between Spokane and Grand Coulee.

And, he said, Avista submitted a modified version of the 1991 agreement that would shift too much risk of system disruptions to Bonneville.

The original pact expired Oct. 31.

Bonneville sells about 40 percent of all electricity consumed in the Northwest. The federal agency's transmission lines carry almost 75 percent of all power in the region.

Little capacity has been added in the past 10 years, and the lack of new wire became painfully obvious in the past year because utilities were unable to move scarce megawatts from generating stations to consumers.

Morris says Bonneville's decision to buy back electricity normally sold to the region's aluminum smelters made the transmission problem worse. Plants at Mead and Columbia Falls, Mont., had soaked up huge amounts of power east of a choke point near Spokane.

With those plants shut down, the electricity they consumed has to be moved west. But existing wires cannot handle the load.

To help ease the congestion, Avista agreed to reinforce its system and, if necessary, reduce the output at the Noxon Rapids Dam to maintain a balance between generation and transmission, Morris says.

The deal saved Northwest utilities millions, but stressed Avista equipment and possibly shortened its operating life. Morris says Avista received no compensation for its trouble.

He says Avista will not continue to take the risk of damaging its system without a new deal with Bonneville.

King said Bonneville also put additional stress on its system. And much of the $10 million spent over the last decade to bolster Avista's transmission network across Idaho came from Bonneville, he said.

"They've clearly reaped a lot of benefits over the years," King said.

Avista's grid is more vulnerable to failure than Bonneville's simply because its capacity is smaller, he said.

King said Bonneville can ease some of the stress on the system by rebuilding a line from the Bell substation in north Spokane to Grand Coulee. The cost would be about $100 million.

But Morris says the total cost, including improvements east of Spokane, would be $250 million.

Reinforcing key points in Avista's grid could do the job for less than $120 million, according to Scott Waples, Avista's chief system planning engineer.

Almost 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity, enough to power two Seattles, could be stranded in Montana and Idaho if an overload brings down the system east of Spokane, he said.

Waples said transmission constraints have already deprived Avista and other utilities of some power during critical periods.

Morris' letter was sent to the governors and senators of the four Northwest states, four U.S. representatives, including George Nethercutt, Bonneville Administrator Steve Wright, utility commissioners in Washington and Oregon, and Francis Blake, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

More information will be forthcoming, he says, suggesting recipients might want to encourage Bonneville to reach a new agreement with Avista.

King said the agency is preparing a response to the Morris letter.

Bert Caldwell
Avista Warns of Bottleneck in Power Supply
The Spokesman Review November 27, 2001

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