Low Winds, Winter Sun, and Lots of Clouds Mean Little Renewable Energy over the Pacific Northwest

The typical conditions of mid-winter experienced lately resulted in virtually no renewable energy generation over the Pacific Northwest during recent weeks.

This situation underlines why removing the four power-generation dams on the Snake River would be a serious mistake that would seriously damage our ability to reduce the use of fossil fuels.  

These dams can produce up to 3000 megawatts of power, enough for 800,000 homes.  They are also a critically flexible source of power that can fill in power gaps.

Consider the latest power generation summary for the past week from the Bonneville Administration.  Red indicates the regional demand for energy (load), while blue is hydro generation.  Purple is nuclear power and dark red is coal/gas/biomass.  Green is wind and solar.

Nearly no solar or wind energy during the last week.   

Why so little renewable energy?

 First, the wind has been very light over eastern Washington.  As illustrated by the surface pressure and wind map for late Tuesday (below), a deep low center off of California has resulted in light winds (blue colors) over much of the Northwest–in fact, much of the western U.S.

This has been a very persistent pattern and wind energy generation has crashed.

And then there is solar energy.

The official DOE/NREL map shows the average solar resource for December.  Very little over the Northwest in December (and November and February as well)

Consider the solar radiation during the past year at Pasco in the Tri-Cities over the past year.  The last few days have been the worst of the year.  The last month has been very low.   Not much better last December.

What does the latest forecast model predict for wind energy during the next week?

A continuation of the same pattern, with a low off the California coast and lack of wind over the interior.   

To show this, here is a forecast map of the heights of the 925 hPa pressure surface ( think of it as pressures around 800 m above the surface) for Tuesday, with the wind anomaly (the difference from normal) shown by the color shading.   Red indicates above-normal and blue below normal winds.

The forecast is for stronger than normal winds offshore with a low-pressure center and dead winds (blue) over the western U.S.   The wind turbines will be moving very, very slowly, if at all, this week.

Bottom line: the western U.S. will need all the hydropower generation it has this week to keep the lights on over the western U.S.  

For those interested in reducing global warming, preserving the Snake River dams should be an important priority, since there is no viable plan for replacing their power.   In a few decades, when fusion power is realized (or when we make extensive use of next-generation fission reactors) we will have sufficient power resources to consider dam removal.

But not now or in the immediate future.


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