Wind farms in the Pacific Northwest -- built with government subsidies and maintained with tax credits for every megawatt produced -- are now getting paid to shut down as the federal agency charged with managing the region's electricity grid says there's an oversupply of renewable power at certain times of the year.
The problem arose during the late spring and early summer last year. Rapid snow melt filled the Columbia River Basin. The water rushed through the 31 dams run by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency based in Portland, Ore., allowing for peak hydropower generation. At the very same time, the wind howled, leading to maximum wind power production.
Demand could not keep up with supply, so BPA shut down the wind farms for nearly 200 hours over 38 days.
"It's the one system in the world where in real time, moment to moment, you have to produce as much energy as is being consumed," BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said of the renewable energy.
Now, Bonneville is offering to compensate wind companies for half their lost revenue. The bill could reach up to $50 million a year.
The extra payout means energy users will eventually have to pay more.
"We require taxpayers to subsidize the production of renewable energy, and now we want ratepayers to pay renewable energy companies when they lose money?" asked Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment of the Washington Policy Center and author of "Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment."
"That's a ridiculous system that keeps piling more and more money into a system that's unsustainable," Myers said.
Green energy advocates also oppose BPA's oversupply solution.
"It sends a very poor signal to the market about doing business in the Northwest," said Rachel Shimshak, executive director of the Renewable Northwest Project. "We want the Northwest to be a good place to do business."
BPA says its hands are tied by environmental regulations. Officials contend if they shut down hydropower generation instead of the wind farms, endangered salmon would be harmed.
It's counter-intuitive because for decades environmental advocates have complained about dams killing fish by sending them through the turbines on their way to the ocean.
But spilling too much water over the dam can apparently also be harmful. It can create too much oxygen in the water at the base of the dam, which has also killed salmon.
Interestingly, fish advocates are unconvinced. Save Our Wild Salmon is encouraging BPA to test salmon downstream of the dams to determine if their being impacted by high oxygen levels, and only stop the overflows when they have proof fish are being harmed.
Pat Ford, the group's executive director, said Bonneville is using the salmon as an excuse to keep hydropower dominant over wind power.
"I think it's driven by Bonneville's customers who are worried about the increases in wind generation in the Northwest and what it means to them," Ford said.
BPA submitted its plan Tuesday to the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission for approval. FERC has to decide if the oversupply compensation plan is fair to wind producers, utilities and ratepayers.