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Northwest grid feels the heat

Last summer's perfect heat storm could prove a harbinger of more energy crises
 May 20, 2007 MICHAEL MILSTEIN, the Oregonian

Power traders at Portland General Electric's downtown headquarters punched their speed dials, calling other utility companies in search of electricity. Nothing. All they heard at the other end was the same anxious plea: We don't have any to spare; do you?

Monday, July 24, the summer of 2006. Temperatures shot toward the upper 90s, far higher than expected. The West Coast burned red on weather maps. Air conditioners strained, gulping electricity like Gatorade. With each degree, demand accelerated.

Above the trading desks a screen glowed with more trouble: A Montana coal-fired power plant that supplies PGE sputtered and shut down. In California, broiling transformers exploded like Fourth of July rockets. Power managers there, teetering close to blackouts, declared an emergency, seeking precious power from the Northwest's hydroelectric dams. Energy prices spiked nearly fivefold, hitting a federal price cap of $400 per megawatt hour. Some sellers milked the frantic market, demanding $600.

Then, suddenly, nobody had power to sell at any price. For the first time in company history, PGE declared an electrical emergency as it came closer than ever to running out of power to keep lights on.

Two competing forces have put us on course for the same thing to happen again: Rising summer temperatures, on the one hand, and growing legions of energy-hungry air conditioners on the other. The hotter it gets, the harder the air conditioners work, and the more power they consume.

Our demand for electricity historically peaked in the winter. Now it is rising fastest in summer, when it's in shortest supply. Northwest utilities are aggressively seeking new sources of summer electricity and promoting more conservation. Without that, the Northwest will run short of summer electricity within 10 years -- and possibly as few as three, says John Fazio, systems analyst with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Going into that scorching weekend last summer, forecasts predicted the heat wave would let up by Monday. So PGE traders, finishing work on Friday, lined up what should have been plenty of electricity to keep air conditioners humming for their 1.5 million consumers.

Nighttime temperatures at the Portland airport Saturday hovered near 74 degrees. Never since record-keeping began had it stayed so warm through the night. Eugene, Medford and Salem all set similar records.

Sunday, it hit 101 in Portland and 105 in Salem. The heat wave was hanging on.

Monday morning at 6:30, Jim Lobdell, PGE's vice president for power operations, held a conference call with his staff. Lights and air conditioning would soon switch on in offices that had baked like ovens through the weekend. Temperatures were heading toward 97, 7 degrees higher than forecast. "It effectively told us we needed a whole other power plant out there that we weren't anticipating," Lobdell says. "And so did everyone else."

Utilities across the Northwest scrambled to make up the shortage. "You'd call someone, and they'd say, 'I'm glad you called -- you got anything to sell?' " says David Mills, director of power-supply operations at Puget Sound Energy. "You'd say, 'Well, no -- we called to buy from you.' "

A decade or two ago, summer nights turned cooler than they do now. Even if they didn't, fewer air conditioners drained energy from the system. The Northwest never really needed air conditioning; nights brought reliable, cool relief.

That set up an elegant West Coast electrical balance. In summer, the Northwest sent extra electricity south to run California's air conditioners. The sales brought in money that helped offset power rates here.

In winter, when Oregonians crank their furnaces and space heaters, Northwest power demand peaked. That's when California has energy to share.

But now the Northwest's peak power needs are upsetting the balance that worked so well. In 2002, PGE's annual power demand peaked during summer for the first time. The peak came in summer again in 2003 and again last year. Summer peaks should be routine within 15 years, PGE says.

Air conditioning drives the trend: Not 20 years ago, fewer than a third of PGE homes had air conditioning. Today, more than two-thirds do. New homes are bigger, and almost every one is built with air conditioning. And hotter summers like last year's push more homeowners to add air conditioners.

At a control panel in the Bonneville Power Administration's Celilo Converter Station above The Dalles on Friday, July 21, Larry Townsend watched a temperature gauge tick toward disaster.

The Celilo station, a vast yard of wiring and transformers the size of U-Haul trucks, feeds one of the nation's largest electricity pipelines. The California-Oregon Intertie carries more than enough electricity to supply Seattle three times over. The power flows south on 1 million-volt wires across 846 miles of Oregon and Nevada desert to Sylmar, Calif., near Los Angeles.

Loading that power onto the lines generates tremendous heat. Water flowing through tubes cools the machinery, carrying the heat away.

The water continues into a cooling building full of fans, which helped dissipate the heat. But on July 21 the outside air was a fiery 113 degrees. The fans couldn't cool the water. Its temperature rose, hitting 120 degrees.

At 126 degrees, the station's multimillion-dollar converters shut down so they don't burn up. That would be like unplugging the extension cord to California, which that same afternoon was drawing more power than ever in the state's history. Streetlights would go dark. Computers would shut off. Hospitals would lose power.

Others rushed to Townsend's side. The water hit 122 degrees. "Everybody's watching that screen going, 'What in the world can we do?' " recalls Dave Potter, a senior substation operator.

Potter and co-worker Bob Canavan raced to the cooling building. Looking around in the glare, they hit upon a plan: Hook up a fire hose, run it across the rocky yard and spray water onto vents where air enters the cooling building.

They tied the hose to a green golf cart, aiming water toward the vents. In the control room, Townsend noticed the temperature had stopped rising. Then, thankfully, it began to drop.

Unusually hot summers have been five times more frequent in the Willamette Valley since 1990 than in the 100 years before, according to the Western Regional Climate Center.

Summer nights especially stay warmer, which keeps buildings from venting heat. Air conditioners must turn on earlier and work harder on each subsequent day. In the past decade, nighttime summer temperatures in Portland registered about 2 degrees higher on average than 30 years ago, according to data from the Oregon Climate Service.

The trend matches the way global warming works. During the day, the sun drives temperature by heating up the planet's surface. At night, temperatures depend on how quickly the lingering daytime heat dissipates. "The main thing that affects the surface temperature at night is how efficiently it is able to cool," says Alexander Gershunov, a research scientist studying the trends at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

But rising levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuel, trap some of the heat. That warms the atmosphere. The warmer air can then hold more moisture. The extra moisture also acts as a greenhouse gas. "It's still cooling at night," Gershunov says. "It's just not cooling as much as it used to."

At the same time, winters are warmer, holding power needs down. The Willamette Valley has not had a colder-than-average winter since 1993, the longest run of warm winters on record.

People in the power business call what happened last summer a "heat storm." It was remarkably hot and humid, lasted unusually long and covered the entire West Coast. That's the kind of heat wave that climate models project as global warming continues.

California power officials, and some in the Northwest, say what happened last summer was an unusual weather coincidence unlikely to occur more than once every 80 years. But Daniel Cayan, director of the Scripps Climate Research Division, warned the California Energy Commission that what is now unusual may become less so. If you believe climate models, he says, in 20 years heat waves will be two to three times more common than now.

Until last July, California's coastal cities had never stayed so hot for so long. Nighttime temperatures set records. California's power masters were a push-button away from blacking people out. They asked the BPA for more Northwest hydropower.

Steve Oliver, the BPA's vice president for power supply, had already told the Californians to look for other power. Buy whatever you can, he told them, wherever you can.

The wind turbines that have sprouted across the West were little help. The high-pressure system making the region a sauna brought wind to a halt.

The BPA prepared days ahead of time by moving extra water behind Columbia River dams so they could churn out more hydroelectric power. But the dams operate under federal court orders because of the harm they pose to salmon, limiting the power the dams supply. Judges ordered extra water spilled to help salmon get downstream. Dam operators can shift water to the turbines, generating extra power, only if energy gets scarce enough to put human life at risk.

The morning of Monday, July 24, Oliver got on the phone with a team of biologists. It may be time, he said, to make that call.

But California was not the only place anxious for power. Northwest utilities were in trouble, too. PGE activated backup generators at hospitals and other sites to reduce the strain on its system, but customers drew more and more.

The BPA must provide power to the Northwest before California. But Oliver told Northwest utilities he would do so only if they declared an electrical emergency, a formal sign they were running out. If it came time to cut off California's power, or cut back water for salmon, he wanted to make sure he had to.

PGE declared an emergency first, at 11:41 a.m. Then came Puget Sound Energy. Then Pacific Power. Never before had so many of the region's utilities come so close to crisis.

It wasn't merely a matter of not enough power. It was also a matter of getting it to the right place.

The web of electric cables that crisscrosses the Northwest behaves much like water pipelines. Only so much electricity can flow through it.

Heat makes the lines sag -- sometimes 10 feet or more. Power flowing through them does the same. So if they're already sagging from the heat, they cannot carry as much power -- or they might drop too close to the ground.

That meant the lines last July carried less electricity at the very time it was needed the most. Just about every main line was at capacity. Or, as Robin Furrer, the BPA's vice president for transmission, puts it, "the pipes were full."

The BPA had clearance to release extra water from Grand Coulee Dam, generating extra electricity when demand peaked. But bottlenecks formed in the transmission lines stretching across eastern Washington.

Energy handlers at the BPA's Dittmer Control Center in Vancouver oversee 15,000 miles of lines. But they could not find a route through the overloaded lines to move power to California.

In Portland neighborhoods, broiling transformers died, cutting off power. Demand overloads transformers more easily when it's hot because they cannot get rid of their internal heat fast enough. And new air conditioners make them work hardest when it's hot.

In the end, electricity customers saved themselves from blackouts on that searing day. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appealed to residents to save energy, and they did -- cutting their use by several power plants' worth. In Portland, some factories shut down and let PGE buy back the power they would have used.

The BPA, among the few to see the heat coming, doled out enough power for the West Coast to keep its lights on, without putting salmon at risk.

Utilities know that global warming is also likely to reduce summer water supplies that let dams generate power, even as the demand for that power keeps rising.

But last summer, at least, the heat finally let up. And that time, at least, the relief came just in time.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@ news.oregonian.com




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