by Leonard Anderson, Reuters
SAN FRANCISCO - Electric utilities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest face another tough summer as a record drought slashes available supplies of hydroelectricity, the main power source in the region.
Northwest investor-owned utilities like Idacorp Inc., parent of Idaho's biggest utility Idaho Power, and Avista Corp. in Spokane, Washington, must turn to generation fueled by more expensive coal and natural gas to make up hydro shortfalls.
The Northwest, which depends on hydropower for 65 percent of its electricity supply, is in the fifth year of a drought, the driest five-year stretch since hydro record-keeping began in 1929, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing agency based in Portland, Oregon.
California, which relied on summer imports of Northwest hydro to keep the lights on during its power crisis in 2000-2001, may be able to draw some supplies from the region this summer, said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey.
"We don't expect that we won't be able to help out for some peaking power in an emergency. But California also will have to get more supplies of fossil-fueled generation and that will drive up power prices for the entire West," Mosey said.
California's grid has already had several close calls this year as spring heat waves triggered heavy demand for power to run air conditioners.
Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has pointed to the low hydro supplies and above-normal temperatures as threats to California's electricity supply.
WATER LEVELS DROP
The volume of water flowing through the region's big hydroelectric dams is only 74 percent of normal at The Dalles dam on the Columbia River in Oregon, according to the National Weather Service's Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland.
The Dalles is the next-to-last dam on the Columbia and the key station to measure the volume of water available for power generation throughout the Northwest.
Idaho Power, in Boise, Idaho, depends on the Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River system for hydroelectricity, and its water flow now is at only 40 percent of normal, according to the forecast.
Idaho Power gets about 60 percent of its power from hydro in an average year and 30 percent from interests in coal-fired plants in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon, said utility spokesman Dennis Lopez. The utility covers the balance on the spot market. The utility expects to generate 6 million megawatt hours of electricity at its hydro plants this year, compared with normal hydro generation of 9.3 million megawatt hours.
One megawatt can power 1,000 homes.
Avista forecasts an 85 percent of normal run-off for its Clark Fork system in Montana and Idaho and the Spokane River in Washington, which would give the utility 86 percent of normal hydro generation this year, said spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst.
The utility expects power replacement costs of $25 million to $30 million reflecting higher natural gas prices, she said.
Northwest utilities operate under a 90/10 formula with state regulators to recover costs of purchased power, with customers paying 90 percent. In a good hydro year, customers share a 90 percent savings.
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