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Low Snowpack Will Affect Hydropower

by Rachel Odell
The Bend Bulletin, May 4, 2004

A paltry snowpack throughout Oregon could lead to higher wholesale power rates in the fall because hydroelectric plants will not be able to produce as much power as a result of low river levels, according to a spokesman from Bonneville Power Administration. But utility officials say private consumers aren't likely to see an increase in their power bills.

If the dams produce less electricity than normal, executives will not have "surplus power" to sell to California during the summer months, said Mike Hansen, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

"Some people complain we are selling power here to heat hot tubs in California," Hansen said. "They don't realize when we sell that power, it allows us to keep our prices lower."

The BPA operates 31 dams in the Pacific Northwest and sells electricity to utility companies, which deliver the electricity to consumers. Hansen said executives count on sales of excess power to California in the summer to help offset power prices for its Northwest customers.

Even if wholesale rates rise as a result of decreased hydroelectric production, consumer rates will likely not be affected by the river flows, said Dave Kvamme, spokesman for Pacific Power.

That company gets only about 5 percent of its electricity supply from hydropower, he said.

"We are by far and away dominated by resources powered by coal and natural gas," he said. "We won't be as affected by river flows as BPA would."

Still, low flows in the region's rivers could tax fish and habitat restoration efforts as well as energy production.

Officials at BPA are required to allow a certain amount of water to "spill" over dams to help fish, and if the water flow is low, there will be more pressure on the hydroelectric facilities to spill less water, Hansen said.

Wholesale power rates would not increase until October, Hansen said.

The news comes as surveys around the state reveal snowpack levels well below a 30-year average.

Warm temperatures combined with a lack of storms this spring left the mountains with the amount of snow they typically have in June, said Jon Lea, hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The service is a federal agency that monitors the snowpack and predicts water supply.

Since February the snowpack levels have been dropping significantly roughly at a rate of about two inches per day, he said. Two inches of snow holds roughly a half inch of water. When the snow melts, the water drains into rivers, where it flows to irrigation diversions, dams, through fish habitat, and, ultimately, to the ocean.

The snowpack scenario darkened in March, when warm weather brought record or near-record highs. Typically, March brings heavy snow storms, but this spring the month launched a downward trend in snow accumulation.

Similar weather in April had the same results.

As a result, the statewide snowpack dropped from 130 percent of average on April 1 to 74 percent of average on April 30, Lea said.

"What was wonderful weather for people has been really hard on the snowpack," he said.

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.

Rachel Odell
Low Snowpack Will Affect Hydropower
The Bend Bulletin, May 4, 2004

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