The wide, green gorge where the majestic Columbia River begins its final push to the sea generates so many stiff breezes that windsurfers from around the world make their way to Hood River, not far from here, to ply their colorful sails atop the churning whitecaps.
Lately though, electricity, not recreation, has become the big-ticket wind client in the Columbia Gorge. Wind turbines have sprung up all over the blustery hilltops in eastern Washington and Oregon, an area soon to become home to the largest wind farm in the world, developed for customers of Southern California Edison. Indeed, half the massive new wind power generated in the Pacific Northwest goes down the grid to California.
For the last three weeks, however, many of the wind farms have been ordered to shut down their generation for several hours a day — victims of an unusual surplus of hydroelectric power that has confounded regional electricity operators and infuriated renewable energy advocates who have worked so hard to develop the region's wind bonanza.
The problem is an unexpected collision between two of the Northwest's most treasured environmental assets, wind power and endangered salmon. Spring flows on the Columbia are so high that power system operators say they cannot dial back hydroelectric generators without harming the small juvenile fish now making their way down the river in their spring migration to the sea. With the turbines generating so much electricity, there is much less room on the grid for wind power.
"We've now got a situation where we're protecting our customers and we're protecting fish, but obviously the wind community is very upset about it," said Elliot Mainzer, executive vice president for corporate strategy at the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketing authority that operates the massive hydropower dams on the Columbia River.
Wind operators say the cutbacks are costing them millions of dollars in broken contracts and lost tax and energy credits. On Monday, five wind companies filed a claim with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alleging that Bonneville is using its transmission market power to curtail competing generators and protect its own customers.
Some of the leading conservation groups working to restore salmon are suspicious of Bonneville's motives.
"We think Bonneville is using salmon protection as an excuse for a policy they are implementing for other reasons, namely their desire to have hydroelectricity filling the transmission lines, more than wind energy," said Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
Bonneville has historically been a major supplier of power across the Northwest and down to California. One of the reasons wind power has taken off in the region is the unique ability of BPA's hydropower — which can be ramped up or scaled back as quickly as opening the spillways on the dams — to act as a balance to the highly unpredictable flows of wind power, dependent on weather, making sure a steady supply of power is flowing through the grid.
The power authority is now carrying 3,500 megawatts of wind-generated power through its transmission lines, more than half of it under contract to California utilities to comply with the state's tough new alternative energy portfolio requirements. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 megawatts of wind energy capability is scheduled to be installed over the next decade.
The problem comes with the unusually high water flows in the Columbia now, thanks to heavy rains and the beginning of a large snowmelt.
Spilling too much water over the dams results in highly turbulent flows that subject young fish to dangerous concentrations of dissolved gases, similar to what divers experience as the bends. Young fish exhibiting signs of this "gas bubble trauma" actually get bubbles under their scales and are thought to be more vulnerable to disease, predation and other problems.
To avoid that and protect fish, Bonneville officials say, they must run as much water as possible not over the spillway but down through the electricity turbines.
Since May 18, BPA has ordered wind generators to shut down several hours a day, usually in the low-power-demand nighttime hours. The result so far has been the loss of 74,114 megawatt hours of wind energy, or about 15% of what the wind farms might normally have generated.
"This is not about what Bonneville thinks is good or bad public policy. This is about upholding contractual obligations they have with wind generators. They don't get to back out of a contract when their situation changes, or for economic reasons, especially not just to benefit their ratepayers," said Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of the American Wind Energy Assn.
"This is not about fish, and it's not about reliability; it's just about economics," he said.
Wind energy advocates say Bonneville could have avoided shutting down wind generators by offering free hydropower to fossil fuel power plants outside its immediate area or even paying them to take the surplus power, as often happens elsewhere in the country in an energy marketing practice known as "negative pricing."
But Bonneville managers, who supply public utilities and a few large-scale industrial customers in the Pacific Northwest with traditionally low-cost power, said that shipping electricity outside its "balancing" area would raise its own ratepayers' costs.
For the future, Mainzer said, Bonneville is working to expand transmission capacity to accommodate more electricity, looking at options to store more water behind dams in Canada and investing in new "smart grid" technology that could eventually allow more power to be stored when it's abundant.
As for the salmon, scientists are debating how serious the gas bubble problem is. Ed Bowles, chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the issue was a "red herring" because young fish benefit from getting across the dams as quickly as possible, even if temporarily traumatized.
"Every time Mother Nature has provided us with a bounty of water and Bonneville and the Corps of Engineers get into a situation of over-generation or uncontrolled spill," he said, "the fish have responded remarkably well."