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BPA Seeks Alternatives to System Expansion

by Bill Virgin
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 2003

The Bonneville Power Administration says its electrical transmission system is aging and stretched to the limit, and keeping the region's lights on will require massive investments in building new lines.

So naturally BPA is looking for ways not to build them.

Transmission lines are expensive -- the rule of thumb is $1 million a mile of 500-kilovolt line, not counting the costs for land, substations and environmental protection measures. An 84-mile line that BPA is now constructing from Grand Coulee will cost $175 million, and that's on existing right of way.

Bonneville says the last major construction projects (before the Grand Coulee line and the more recent Kangley-Echo Lake project) on its 15,000-mile system were in 1987. Most improvements since then have been lower-cost upgrades. But with population growth in the Northwest, and more transactions of buying and selling power crossing the transmission system, BPA says those measures won't be enough.

To find less expensive alternatives, BPA has begun looking at what it calls "non-construction alternatives." It established a round table of representatives of utilities, environmental and regulatory groups to study the issue.

BPA and the conservation group Northwest Energy Coalition are co-sponsoring a seminar on non-construction alternatives at 2:30 p.m. today at the Seattle Labor Temple.

Carolyn Whitney, public affairs manager for Bonneville's transmission business line, said such alternatives can include demand exchanges, in which large customers "sell back" electricity that they don't use at peak periods; congestion pricing, meaning higher prices are charged for access to the transmission grid when demand is at its greatest; and distributed generation, in which small-scale generating plants, such as fuel cells, are placed much closer to the consumers.

While the overall transmission system is laboring under increased demand, Whitney said the most crucial times at some points could amount to as little as 10 hours a year, making less expensive measures far more attractive than building a new transmission line.

But BPA also wants to make sure that whatever steps it takes don't jeopardize reliability of the system. "That's important in light of what happened on the East Coast," she said, referring to the massive blackout earlier this year.

The round table has been asked to consider such questions as who would pay for improvements to the delivery system that benefit everyone along it, and how to improve forecasting of demand.

Whitney said BPA plans to start two pilot projects next year to try out some of these ideas. One is on the Olympic Peninsula, a winter-peaking region where the transmission system is "at the edge" of capacity; the other will be in southern Idaho, where irrigation pumping means the area hits its demand peak in summer.

P-I columnist Bill Virgin. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays.
BPA Seeks Alternatives to System Expansion
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 2003

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