As record water levels continue over an extended time period this year in the Pacific Northwest, the hydrolectric season has stretched into an eight-month-long period, producing a similarly long period in which natural gas-fired generation plants remain mostly idle, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Separately, the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has continued to deal with what has become both a blessing and a curse for the region’s predominant wholesale power marketer/transporter. While wind operators continue to complain about cutbacks, BPA has moved ahead with implementing a new residential and small farm customers power exchange plan that could be worth up to $4 billion over the next 17 years for the region’s investor-owned utilities (IOU).

Longer term, Bonneville attempted to send an olive branch to the region’s disgruntled wind operators by proposing to upgrade two transmission power lines that along with other ongoing transmission additions could accommodate an increase of 1,900 MW of wind-generated power in the region.

For gas-fired plant operators the short-term summer prospects look bleak, according to EIA, which noted that it is not unusual in the spring to see natural gas generation drop dramatically, but this year the federal agency’s data shows a dramatic gas drop in the region since mid-January with little change envisioned before September.

“Natural gas use at [the region’s] plants dropped almost to zero during the third week of May,” EIA’s report said. “This coincides with the curtailment of wind generators discussed in previous [EIA reports]. Gas use for power generation in 2011 is down 68%, or about 300 MMcf/d, compared to the first five months of 2010 [Jan. 1-May 25].

“In accordance with their recently developed environmental redispatch policy, BPA optimizes hydro generation to comply with federal and state regulations protecting fish species along the Columbia and Snake rivers, which in some cases means redispatching hydropower ahead of thermal or wind generators.”

While the latter have to grin and bear it, BPA on Monday emphasized the longer-term benefits of the two transmission line upgrades it proposes in Washington state and Montana, respectively, along with four other new high-voltage lines under construction or consideration. Collectively, they represent another 3,200 MW of capacity, 1,900 MW of which would come from wind generators.

“The projects will allow BPA to provide transmission service to wind projects in Montana,” said Brian Silverstein, BPA’s senior vice president for transmission services.

Separately, the proposed agreement between BPA’s vast majority of public-sector electricity providers and the region’s handful of private-sector utilities is now undergoing a final public comment phase, and the federal power provider hopes later this year to put in place a new monthly credit program for the IOUs’ residential and small farm customers.

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