Summer power supplies along the entire West Coast are looking more than adequate with forecasts calling for increased amounts hydroelectric power and low-priced natural gas in the Pacific Northwest, and the reports that the three-month outage at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs) in Southern California now is scheduled to end next month.

For the first four months of the year, water levels turned out to be 107% of normal in the Columbia River Basin, according to a spokesperson for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. And the forecast for the next four months (May through August) is for water levels to continue to be above normal.

"The hydroelectric situation has improved and continues to improve with the wet March and April we had," said Portland General Electric (PGE) CEO Jim Piro last Wednesday when reporting decreased quarter-over-quarter net income for 1Q2012 due mostly to the below-normal hydro conditions the first two months of the year. "The interesting thing is we didn't see much hydro in the first quarter because it was so cold. That means the snow pack is still up in the mountains and it hasn't come down, so we expect to see more of an effect from hydro in the second and third quarters.

"The downside of this is that natural gas prices are so low that the value of the hydroelectric supplies will be somewhat diminished from what we saw last year. It really is going to depend on how the hydro comes off the mountains [in the spring/summer melting]."

In its 1Q2012 conference call, PGE's natural gas-fired power supplies shot up to 1.1 million MWh, compared to 268,000 MWh for the same period in 2011. In contrast hydroelectric supplies were cut in half: 414,000 MWh in 1Q2012, compared to 802,000 MWh of hydropower for the first quarter last year.

Separately, West Coast energy projections for the summer brightened early in May with the acknowledgment from Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) that its two idled Songs units could be back online at reduced capacity (50-80%) before the end of next month. In a preliminary draft filing for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, SCE has indicated that it proposes to restart Unit 2 by June 1 and the same for its second unit (Unit 3) two weeks later.

The filing will address the March 27 "confirmatory action letter" (CAL) from the NRC to the utility, outlining how SCE intends to address each of the federal commission's areas of concern. SCE continued to stress that it will not resume Songs operations, even at reduced levels, without the NRC's clear OK.

In any event, for power supply planners, if Songs is able to resume some of its operations at the start of the summer peak-load season, it will reduce the strain on natural gas-fired power plants that were anticipated to work overtime this summer if the 2,200 MW nuclear facility cannot get back into at least partial action.

Both Units 2 and 3 have been down since late January, one originally on a planned basis and the other on an emergency basis (see Daily GPI, May 7). Nearly 20% of SCE's power supplies come from Songs when both units are fully operational. California energy officials have made contingency plans for tapping more natural gas-fired generation and conservation measures this summer, so any power that Songs is able to contribute will be helpful.

Like most regions of the nation, California's 2011-12 winter was unusual, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which is scheduled to give its final projections for this summer water levels on Wednesday. What DWR already has described as "near-record dry conditions" during the normally most productive winter precipitation months were followed by an unseasonably wet late spring.

"[For example,] the road over Tioga Pass in the Sierras [normally closed before Christmas each year] was open until mid-January, allowing travelers to visit Yosemite Valley at Christmas without their snow gear," a DWR spokesperson said. "Some growers in the San Joaquin Valley were irrigating crops in January. DWR's forecasts of snow melt runoff for the state's major Sierra/Cascade river basins are expected to reach normal levels and in the southern half of the state, they are expected to be only between 50% and 80% of normal."

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