December 22, 2023

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.


  1. I think that these observations about the energy generation potential of this zone (this latitude, this climate) are accurate and honest. Realism is essential to good planning. Putting gravity to work, harnessing it - keeping it harnessed - is very reliable, efficient, and clean. Without question, modern (small) nuclear is nothing like the early types; it's a very good idea. These matters shouldn't be considered political but, alas, it seems that most decisions being made in this arena hinge on matters (dare I say "dogma"?) that have nothing to do with what's true and practical. These darkest days of the year are a good time for folks to stop and reflect on the facts. Thank you for bringing up these points.

  2. Don't piss of the Orca lovers, Cliff.

  3. My observations from Bellingham confirm that we've largely been in the PNW doldrums this month. I've measured just 11.5kWh/m^2 of solar energy and an average wind speed of only 1.8mph for the month to date. That is 21% less solar energy and 46% lower average wind speed than during last December to this date.

    In other news, the warm air advection which accompanied the current, modest frontal system over the area lowered the relative humidity at my location to <90% for the first time since 12/18. Average monthly relative humidity at my location stands at a sopping 97%.

  4. These comments do not reflect the potential for demand side management and only focus on supply. California has managed a significant increase in population without a commensurate increase in generation capacity because of the focus on demand side energy management. Washington State can do the same. The Columbia and Snake river hydro systems are a gigantic battery of energy storage that needs to be managed. With smart buildings, we can significantly reduce the coincident peak demand without sacrificing comfort OR electrification measures. We have enough capacity, it is just a matter of managing that capacity.

    1. This goes beyond the daily supply and demand cycles, although I agree we can mitigate fairly well through management. In the medium-term future, this will likely include a non-trivial amount of grid-attached storage, both commercial scale, and as electric cars increase their market share and we progress towards a standard for managing the vehicle-to-grid option.

      Although the Snake River dams targeted for removal are run of the river dams without long term storage, they do have the ability to make short term changes in output.

      However, that's addressing demand as a daily cycle. This is a major seasonal issue, as well.

      Washington state's policy has switched from demand management through conservation, to demand increase through electrification. The current pressure to shift more homes from natural gas heating to electric will have a particularly large effect on the winter demand. Mid-winter is admittedly not the highest generation time of year for the dams (that comes in the spring), but obviously it's also not for solar, and it varies for wind. The coldest days, when everyone is going to be running their heat pumps the hardest, are typically when the region is under a high pressure conditions with no wind.

      The result is it will continue for the foreseeable future to be critical to have a diverse mix of technologies supplying our power in the Pacific NW, including a significant amount of hydropower.

    2. " the potential for demand side management" this literally just means "turning your lights and heating off in the winter." I hate greens so much.

    3. Insulation, windows, fuel efficiency, etc. etc. it's not just turning out lights or turning off the heat.

  5. For those of you who want to take a deep dive into the deep waters of the Snake River dam breaching controversy, here is the US Army Corps of Engineers EIS and Record of Decision from the year 2002:

    Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study (‘2002 LSR Study’)

    Here is the 2002 LSR/EIS summary from the USACE Walla Walla District web page:

    This [page] contains the Final Feasibility Report/Environmental Impact Statement (Final FR/EIS), Executive Summary, and 21 Technical Appendices for the Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study. All files are provided in pdf format and can be read using Adobe Acrobat Reader.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent seven years studying Snake River dam removal. The final environmental impact statement, released in 2002, evaluated four alternatives to help lower Snake River fall chinook get past the dams: 1) the existing condition; 2) maximum transport of juvenile salmon; 3) system improvements that could be accomplished without a drawdown and 4) dam breaching.

    The study included engineering work; biological investigations (i.e., effects to salmon and steelhead, resident fish, and wildlife); effects on recreation, cultural resources, and water quality; and socioeconomic effects, including implementation costs, navigation, irrigation, and power. The development of an environmental impact statement and public involvement were also included in the study, both of which are essential to the National Environmental Policy Act process.

    The independent peer-reviewed study concluded that dam breaching by itself would not recover the fish, would take the longest time to benefit fish listed under the Endangered Species Act and would be the most uncertain to implement of any of the alternatives. The study’s preferred alternative was major improvements to fish passage systems at the dams.

    More than two decades ago, I attended several of the public comment meetings held in 1998 and 1999 concerning this EIS while it was still in draft form.

    One meeting was a well-attended talk given by a National Marine Fisheries senior biologist out of the Portland office concerning the major scientific facets of Snake River salmon survival. To say the topic is complex is putting it mildly.

    It was at this talk where I learned that producing an absolute guarantee of Snake River salmon survival requires the additional removal of Hells Canyon Dam in Idaho and probably other dams on the Snake River in Idaho. However, breaching of the Idaho dams is not currently on the table.

    We should have no doubt that the Biden Administration is now placing intense pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers and on other federal agencies such as National Marine Fisheries to reverse the Record of Decision published in 2002 and to decide that dam breaching is now the preferred alternative for ensuring the survival of Snake River salmon.

  6. Yep- This might be where I differ somewhat from a large part of the environmental community: Those fussy salmon (and the tribes and orcas they support) are going to have to tough it out with the dams until we can build out more wind, solar, and mixed nuclear energy. While I'm generally for wilderness and river preservation, those dams are already in place, and I do agree it's folly to remove the Snake River dams before we have replacement energy, especially since we'll be having a lot more electric cars in the next few decades. It's a lesser of two evils choice. Of course, if we can improve our energy use efficiency, so much the better.

    1. Let me say something that might get me into trouble with some. There does not seem to be a lack of salmon....plenty from the Gulf of Alaska and farm-raised. But power is clearly a critical problem. Global warming is a great concern of many? Which do we prioritize? Clean energy or some extra fish?...cliff

    2. Meteorologist nails local power issues, says local endangered animals would be "extra" - does that work better, Cliff? I love your blog, but surprised by your choices of nuance.

  7. Had to chuckle looking at the wind line. We destroy the landscape with these hideous windmills that contribute for all practical purposes nothing, except for an ugly blight on the land. A real smart species we are.

  8. At Goldendale, the wind popped at 10:45 am today (22nd). This shows for the region on the BPA 5-minute chart. Ellensburg is erratic, but came at 12:50 pm.

  9. As to the dams and the fish etc. I think that the treaty rights are of paramount importance. The sad colonialist practice of indigenous displacement combined with every single promise in every treaty agreement being violated etc. needs to be ended. I am glad that the Indigenous in the Northwest are increasingly powerful in these decisions. Some of their practices may seem obsolete in these modern times, such as the harvesting of Grey Whales. However this is a significant cultural practice that goes back several thousands of years so who are we to say? Its not like they are planning to hunt for these everywhere while labeling it "Research".

    Actually opening up a harvest of California Sea Lions may also improve salmon runs.

    Recently I had some smoked salmon caught by the Elwha. The salmon have returned to that river system in huge numbers after the dans were removed. Nobody is missing the electicity these structures produced. The dams are also coming down on the Klamath. So what makes the Snake so special?

    Its also sunnier east of the mountains generally. Just avoid the figgy flat areas....

    1. Just to confirm: History speaks to the ugly truth of human existence, as you rightly point out; but aren't you glad that Western political ideals (the right to own property, the rule of law, democratic regimes, and the assurance of fundamental human rights) have spread so far throughout the world? Frankly, it kinda makes me proud.

    2. Regarding the Snake river and resultant power output - what do the farmers rely on for future energy needs? Please be specific, and spell out the alternatives in detail.

  10. People are asking questions about Klamath or Elwha dams. It is important to realize that these dams had no engineered passage routes for juvenile and adult salmon, and they blocked spawning areas. The Snake dams were designed with adult and juvenile passage routes. Biologists did studies with fancy fish tags and realized that juveniles were being delayed 12+ hours in the forebay sometimes where they were vulnerable to predators, so they started spilling a lot of water all spring and summer, and the dams were extensively upgraded with juvenile bypass routes with divert almost all fish from the turbines. All the dams also had surface passage spillway routes installed, so smolts typically pass the dams within 30 minutes of arrival - and survival rates went from ~75-85% in the 1970-1980s to 96-98% per dam currently with <5% of fish going through turbines (which have over 90% survival anyway). You couldn't really improve on that without trying to eliminate predatory birds and fish and sea lions, which would not exactly be great for ecosystem function. Also, there was very little spawning in the mainstem Snake river historically - they spawn in side tributaries with less winter ice scour.
    The key topic to understand in this debate is "delayed mortality". Proponents for removing the dams are essentially rejecting the survival test results and engineering upgrades, and argue that there is additional mortality that occurs in the ocean after smolts have passed Bonneville Dam or Astoria *that would not* occur if they had not had the experience of passing dams as they went downstream. This idea was first proposed in the late 1990s and many well designed experiments and statistical studies have been published since then. In the most recent political debates and litigation on this topic, some have pointed to a recent non peer reviewed report with a NOAA affiliated coauthors that concluded that removing Snake Dams should have a very positive effect. Behind this conclusion was their choice to use a very big parameter for delayed mortality (that salmon returns from the ocean would double if they had not experienced dams during outmigration). This was based on the old 1990s speculative models, and was not updated at all to reflect the vast improvements in dam passage observed since the 1990s, or major studies (with other NOAA, UW, and Canadian authors) who have found that other factors such as toxins, water quality, fish condition due to food availability and hatchery upbringing *do* cause delayed effects, but dam route passage has minimal or no delayed effects. (Dams can cause direct mortality or give predators an easier way to catch salmon, but this is observed immediately rather than in a delayed fashion). In short, the people trying to convince others that the four lower Snake Dams are the single big limiting factor of salmon recovery could really be setting us up for disappointment, particularly when there are other options - e.g. engineering fish passage for the middle and upper Snake Dams such as Hells Canyon which have no passage, removing other barriers to spawning in tributaries, fixing road culverts, addressing competition from hatchery salmon, illegal high seas catch etc.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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