Northwest has entered transmission ‘bust’ – ColumbiaGrid

A planning expert at ColumbiaGrid says the “boom and bust” cycle of transmission planning has entered a “bust” phase in the Pacific Northwest, and that has created an opportunity to use the organization’s resources to more thoroughly address other pressing issues.

“Just a few years ago, our transmission plan was just covered with projects; now, it’s reduced and we’re at the bottom of that ‘bust’ cycle,” Jeff Miller, ColumbiaGrid’s vice president and manager of planning, told the group’s Aug. 21 board of directors meeting.

“Right now, we aren’t seeing a lot of changes in projects,” he said. “The only change that we would note is the Cascade Crossing project, which is no longer in the [transmission expansion] plan.”

He noted that the 2013 system assessment issued in July identified no new issues and it did not recommend the creation of any new study teams. The existing study teams “are not very active at present,” he said.

Given the lull in activity, Miller suggested that certain updates like the system assessment, which have been done annually, could be revisited only when there are enough significant changes to warrant a new report. Such a move would allow the organization to refocus its resources to enhance and expand a production cost analysis being planned to test the impact of new California policies for internal renewable portfolio standard (RPS) development on transmission paths into California.

That study, which will use the Western Electricity Coordinating Council’s (WECC) transmission expansion planning policy committee (TEPPC) database over a 10-year timeframe, will pay particular attention to pathways from the Northwest, including the California-Oregon Intertie (COI) and the Pacific DC Intertie (PDCI).

Previous studies of those pathways, he said, were inconsistent.

“When we look at the future of what’s happening between the Northwest and California, we get wildly different stories, depending upon where you look,” he said. “A few years ago, WECC came out with an analysis that said COI was going to be one of the most heavily utilized interfaces … in the entire West, and somebody should be doing something to reinforce it.”

By contrast, the California ISO (Cal-ISO) issued a study approximately a year ago that showed no action was necessary because flows over COI would actually decrease on the order of 3,000 MW on average. The interface has a maximum capacity of 7,900 MW and is not fully loaded at all times, so a 3,000 MW reduction would represent a huge reduction in flow, Miller said.

“So what’s the right answer?” he asked, noting that one of the main drivers is the addition of renewables in both the Northwest and California. California will add some 17,000 MW of new renewables over the next few years, while the Northwest recently added between 6,000 MW and 7,000 MW, he said.

“When we looked at the ISO study, we found some faults, so we want to dig into that and see if we can improve on that modeling,” Miller said. “That’s what the study would be: to improve the way we model those things and then to improve the sequence over the years, then come up with a projection of what happens between the Northwest and California.” 

A more thorough analysis, he said, would result in a “better, more comprehensive analysis of the entire Northwest system, rather than just focusing on the power flows between the Northwest and California,” as previously envisioned.

The next step is for ColumbiaGrid to select a production cost program. The organization is currently evaluating its third candidate program, and will evaluate a total of four programs before making its selection. Following that, it will coordinate with the Cal-ISO and several other area utilities to perform the study.

The 2013 system assessment also outlined a sensitivity study that is being conducted on the effects of reduced energy conservation to determine what would happen if the loads in the Northwest were a bit higher than they are at present, and determine what types of projects might be generated by such developments.

“With low natural gas prices, some utilities may be backing away from some of their conservation programs; loads could be higher,” Miller said, adding that the study will be informational only and will not likely generate any “concrete” projects.

“It’s always good to think about what might be coming down the road,” he said.

That study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.