photo by Portland General Electric (portland general on Flickr CC)

With over 37 million inhabitants, California is by far the most populated state in the US. Despite its enormous physical area of 160,000 miles (414,000 square km) California still has 6 times the population density of its northern neighbor, Oregon.

Oregon is lush, diverse and wild, with mountains, rugged coastline, forests and desert. Long known as a state with strong environmental policies, Oregon is increasingly becoming a large supplier of renewable energy to California. An area that spans parts of Oregon and Washington State is soon to become home the largest wind farm in the world.

Who will buy all this wind power? The residents of Southern California.

But in recent weeks it has been hydroelectric power that has been muscling in on Oregon’s already operational wind turbines. This spring’s unexpectedly high flows have made sure that hydro turbines are generating plenty of electricity in Oregon’s rivers, meeting demands and prompting the federal power authority for the region, BPA (Bonneville Power Administration), to order the shut down wind power generation for several hours a day.

There is another reason for keeping hydro plants flowing – salmon. Turning back the flow would harm migrating juvenile fish.

Elliot Mainzer of the Bonneville Power Administration is quoted in the L.A. Times:

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.

Some wind power providers are skeptical of the salmon reason. But when different state and federal laws, quotas and contracts collide with Mother Nature, things don’t always go according to plan.

From a Reuters report:

While Bonneville supplies hydro power to replace the curtailed power, wind generators can lose money in other ways, including the value of federal production tax credits (PTCs) and state renewable energy credits (RECs).

While America and the world transitions from fossil fuels towards renewables, it is a shame to see wind turbines turned off in some areas, while coal plants are still running in others. Smart grids and technology for better power storage capacity should bring answers to these types of problems in the future.

Read more on the story in the LA Times.