Western power grid stretches from Canada to Mexico, Pacific to Rockies

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Western power grid stretches from Canada to Mexico, Pacific to Rockies Filed: 02/01/2001


Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Tucked into a hillside across the Columbia River is the command center for the Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies electricity across six Western states an area larger than Texas.

Engineers monitor banks of computers and lighted maps inside the bunker-like building that looks like a Hollywood set for a disaster movie.

The BPA operates transmission lines that would stretch nearly two-thirds of the way around the equator strung end-to-end.

But it is only part of the vast, interconnected web of power lines that form the electric backbone of the West.

Ralph Cavanagh, energy program director for Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, calls the power grid serving 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces "one of the largest, most complicated machines in the world."

More than 3,000 generating plants make up the national grid and generate nearly 825,000 megawatts of power. The Western grid, geographically the largest in the nation, has about 900 plants and generates nearly 160,000 megawatts.

Running from the Yukon border in Canada into Baja California Norte, and from the Pacific to the edge of the Great Plains, the Western grid is constantly sending electricity from hydroelectric dams, coal plants and natural gas-fired generators to cities as big as Los Angeles or as small as Fossil, Ore.

"It doesn't move over a single line. It's more like a huge web," said Gene Gorzelnik, spokesman for the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.

The nonprofit council, known as NERC, oversees 10 regional councils that split North America into grids. NERC was formed in 1968 after a blackout left 30 million people without power across the northeastern United States and Canada in 1965.

The council's members represent investor-owned utilities, rural electric cooperatives, state and municipal utilities, independent power producers and power marketers, including federal agencies such as the BPA.

Power flows between the nine regional councils east of the Rockies. But the mountains stand as a rough dividing line where only a trickle of power is exchanged with the West.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming along with a corner of Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas stand mostly on their own and must depend on each other, along with British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, to supply their own power needs.

"While power can be transferred from the East Coast to the West Coast, the fact that you're moving it over such a long distance, you'd have such high losses it would not be economical," Gorzelnik said.

The West has a system of connections called "interties" that allow states to pump energy to each other.

"So when BC Hydro has extra power to sell in British Columbia, they can sell it to the Northwest or put it on the intertie and sell it to California," said Bonneville spokesman Ed Mosey.

The bulk of the power produced in the Northwest about two thirds is generated from hydroelectric dams, including the 29 large dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers that supply the BPA. The BPA's headquarters are in Portland, and its command center is in Vancouver, Wash.

Most of the hydro plants are spread across the river systems of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Utah generates almost all of its electricity with coal plants, and the rest are scattered around Arizona, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming.

Natural gas that fires steam or turbine generators supplies most of the rest of the electricity, including more than a third of the power in California.

Geothermal energy and a handful of nuclear plants supply a fraction of the rest.

Dennis Eyre, executive director of the Western Systems Coordinating Council, says that even with all its generating capacity, the Western grid has lost about half its reserve capacity in the past because of regional growth and demand that has outpaced the power supply.

Utilities without enough power have to bid on an open market with less power to sell, driving up the cost.

"It doesn't matter if its milk, strawberries or power, if there are tight supplies, the price goes up," Eyre said.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 01, 2001

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