BPA Nixes Costly and Controversial
by Ted Sickinger
The Bonneville Power Administration has canceled a costly and controversial transmission line that would have run 80 miles from Troutdale through southwest Washington.
The project would have cut a 150-foot wide path through Clark and Cowlitz counties to Castle Rock, Wash., with steel transmission towers rising more than 300 feet above the ground in some spots.
As it turns out, after seven years of study, capped by an independent review panel, experts decided the project would have increased the reliability of electricity but would have added far more capacity than the region needed.
When the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project was announced in 2009, it was a $346 million proposal deemed vitally important. Among its goals was to relieve congestion on BPA's lines north of Portland.
By last year, the project had morphed into one with a projected price tag of $1.2 billion.
BPA built the last major transmission line serving the population centers in the i-5 corridor more than 40 years ago. Since that time, the population has surged and new power plants have connected to BPA's system. As a result, the lines serving the metro area have become more congested, particularly at times of peak summer demand.
The new line generated opposition from the outset. Residents along the route were concerned about the visual and noise impacts, the impact on their property values and easement negotiations. Some said right up front that the region had adequate transmission capacity and didn't need the new line.
Bonneville's public utility customers had similar concerns. They were particularly concerned about costs, particularly as the federal power marketing agency's rates have risen faster than wholesale power prices.
"Adequate and reliable transmission is critical to customers, but so are affordable rates," Roger Gray, CEO, Northwest Requirements Utilities. "Given the financial pressures BPA faces, I understand and support this decision."
Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, which represents consumer-owned utilities in the region said BPA's rate trajectory has not been sustainable. "The costs on this looked awfully high, and Bonneville was right to be concerned."
Evolving energy markets and technology played a role in the decision, too.
Electricity demand has grown slower than forecast. Coal plants in Boardman and Centralia, Wash. are closing in 2020 and 2025, and Portland General Electric is backing away from building new gas-fired power plants in Boardman to replace the lost output.
Meanwhile, Bonneville and the entire utilities are coping with a wholesale change in the kinds of electricity being generated, its location, and the market mechanisms used to trade it around the region.
BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer said the decision to forgo the line reflects a shift at BPA "from relying primarily on new construction to meet changing transmission needs, to embracing a new more flexible, scalable, and economically and operationally efficient approach to managing our transmission system."
To manage congestion, Mainzer said BPA is looking at battery storage, reducing demand from big customers and managing generation more effectively during periods of peak demand.
To free up space on existing lines, it plans to reevaluate its conservative calculations of available capacity, incorporate real-time data and analysis into calculations of its system limitations, and better coordinate its transmission system with California's Independent System Operator.
"Through this decision today, Bonneville is committing to taking a forward-looking approach with its investment decisions, and the region can be certain that BPA will seek first to use efficiencies and build at the smallest scale possible to meet our customers needs," Mainzer said.
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