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Local leaders working with BPA on ways to boost base load available for large industrial users including data centers

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The Crook County area has 400 megawatts of power available, however, only 150 megawatts is available without conditions associated with catastrophic events that knock out major transmission lines.

A couple years back, local leaders faced a power concern that they thought might threaten future industrial and data center growth.

The concern raised at that time was improvements made to the Ponderosa substation near Powell Butte to increase electrical capacity did not provide the amount of power that Bonneville Power Administration had initially promised.

Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester told city councilors that instead of 400 megawatts of available power, the community had closer to 150 megawatts, making data center executives nervous about future growth in the area.

This issue spawned creation of new Joint Customer and Stakeholder meetings with BPA in an effort to figure out how to fix the problem. Over the course of those meetings, which included local leaders, BPA customers and BPA executives, city and county officials learned that the power was indeed available, but use of much of it was subject to conditions known as remedial action schemes (RAS).

Forrester explained that if a catastrophic event knocks two of Central Oregon's major transmission lines out of service, BPA would require large users like data centers or manufacturing facilities to curtail power usage or shut down so that power would remain available for hospitals and other critical structures in the community.

While 400 megawatts of power was available, only about 150 megawatts of it was available without RAS conditions.

Such limitations are more prevalent on the West Coast where communities have access to fewer major transmission lines. Forrester noted that places like Pennsylvania have more transmission lines to operate steel mills, as does Michigan for car manufacturing plants.

"In our case, we really don't have that out here on the West Coast in a lot of places, particularly in Central Oregon."

Faced with this situation, Forrester said that local leaders went back to square one as they convened their Joint Customer and Stakeholder meetings.

"Where did we make a misstep?" he offered as an example, "and our misstep was not communicating and not staying in step with BPA and with utilities to the degree that we needed to."

To remedy that disconnect, local leaders have since developed a dashboard that they clearly and regularly update that not only tells them what current power capacities are, but what is available in queue should more become necessary for a large user and how much power beyond that is still available. Currently, there is about another 200 megawatts more available.

"That seems like a lot, but if we have another data center come to Crook County, it wouldn't be uncommon for them to say they want 100 to 200 megawatts," Forrester said. "That would put us at the upper limit of what is available here."

So meeting participants have brainstormed ways to boost the base load power in the Central Oregon area to provide Crook County more power free of RAS conditions.

"The first and easiest thing to say is we need another transmission line delivering power to Central Oregon," Forrester said, but that comes with a $1 billion or more expense that ratepayers and the federal government and others would have to absorb. In addition, such a project could take seven to 15 years to complete.

So stakeholders started considering multiple options that could help boost base load power, and one of those involved use of renewable energy.

"Our data center partners here in Central Oregon are absolutely 100 percent committed to renewable energy. If they are using a megawatt off of the local utility, they are also purchasing or producing a megawatt of renewable energy at the same time … somewhere in the world."

Locally, city and county leaders are looking at firming generation of renewable energy to help backfill base load power. Forrester explained that the community has seen a substantial increase in solar power generation.

"Those are great, but they don't solve the problem when the sun is not shining," he said.

Unless that source of power provides a certain level of power capacity at all times, it does not count against base load, so local leaders are looking for ways to fill the gap when the sun doesn't shine for solar or the wind isn't blowing across a wind farm. Such solutions could include use of battery storage, pump storage or a cogeneration plant.

Forrester and other local leaders would like to see Crook County become a renewable power generation center, and he notes that community resources could support not only solar and wind power, but biomass and thermal power generation through the use recycled wastewater.

"What we are trying to do is find out the ones that make economic sense," he said.

Another idea coming up at the meetings is to boost power generation in Southern Oregon so that more of it will be available locally.

"If you look at the transmission lines that run through Central Oregon, one of the things that is happening is there are downstream customers to the south of us," Forrester said. "But we have some power generation facilities in Klamath Falls that are pretty big. If Klamath Falls was producing more of their capacity on the line, that would eliminate the need for those megawatts to bypass our Central Oregon region."

Other ideas include the addition of small scale power generation, such as a hydroelectric plant on Bowman Dam, increasing the local area transmission limit by adding more transformers to the Ponderosa substation.

Some of the ideas suggested, if they were to move forward, could take a little as two to five years to reach completion.

Going forward, Forrester said he is encouraged the current power capacity situation and the direction it is headed. Not only has Crook County already increased its available power from 10 megawatts prior to data centers to more than 10 times that total, the relationship between community leaders and BPA is improving.

"BPA is working closely with us," he said. "We have gotten their attention. They have their best people working on (our capacity issues). They have answered our questions. They have given us options to review, and they have committed themselves to working with us on those options. Our relationship with BPA is much more cooperative, much more in focus and much more transparent than it has ever been, and I think that is going to be key to our future."

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