Blogs & Comment

Hydro glut in the Pacific Northwest

This year's abundant snowpack illustrates the challenge facing renewable energy

(Photo: Walter Bibikow/Getty)

Snow still covers the Cut on Grouse Mountain overlooking Vancouver, extraordinary as we approach the summer solstice. Indeed, thanks to a snowy winter and cool spring, the snowpack covering the entire Pacific Northwest —the vast majority of which is over 1,000 metres elevation and still snowbound — is creating a glut of zero-emission energy as that huge annual reservoir melts and powers hydroelectric turbines. A good thing, right? Not if you talk to upstart wind power producers.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which controls electrical transmission in the American side of the Columbia River basin (and supplies a chunk of B.C.’s power under the Columbia River Treaty), has over the past month ordered wind power producers to curtail their production so as not to overload the grid and harm fish. Five wind companies have since complained to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Shutting down windmills means shutting down revenue.

Independent power producers in B.C. have even less recourse in a situation like this, as they have only one customer, BC Hydro, which is itself a massive hydro power generator. It illustrates the challenges facing a carbon-free future. B.C. prides itself on generating only renewable power (mostly hydro and wood waste), but that doesn’t mean when you turn on a light you aren’t contributing to climate change. At this time of year, yes, when hydro is abundant and we sell the surplus into places like Alberta. But come winter, when the rivers run low, we’ll be buying coal-fuelled power from east of the Rockies. A similar electricity trade applies to all of Canada, where more than 60% of power produced still comes from hydro.

The advantage of fossil fuels and nuclear power, that renewable sources still can’t match, is the way they hold energy for use when you want it. With hydro, you can store more water behind a dam, but just a fraction of what the snowpack holds. Raising the water level just delays the day when production goes down. Wind has no storage capacity whatsoever. It’s estimated wind can never supply more than the 19% of electrical needs it does in the world leader, Denmark, until someone comes up with a way of storing the wind power that blows when we don’t need it (for the times when it doesn’t), or a way of transmitting electricity over huge distances with minimal line loss.

As much as harnessing new energy sources like nuclear fusion, it is solving this basic storage problem that could revolutionize our faltering energy supply systems.