Local Power Supply

Northern Wasco County PUD’s Power Sources Continue to Evolve

By Rodger Nichols

The Dalles Dam, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is the main power supplier to Northern Wasco County PUD through the Bonneville Power Administration.
Photo by Gillphoto, Wikimedia Commons

Wasco County’s first power plant was a wood-fired steam generator built in July 1888 at Seventh and Union Streets. D.M. Smith and J.W. French bought the plant in 1892 and moved it to First and Laughlin streets, where The Dalles wastewater treatment plant sits today.

An old historical calendar notes, “Output was so limited that lightbulbs above 10 watts were not permitted. Customers were allowed to burn as many as 10 bulbs each evening, for a monthly fee of $1.50.”

In 1902, Wasco Warehouse Milling Co. bought the plant and took it out of service when a hydroelectric plant was built at White River Falls, 35 miles south of The Dalles.

Since then, clean, nonfossil fuel hydropower has been the backbone of local power generation, with White River Falls giving way to Bonneville Dam in 1938.

But that’s not the entire story. Although Northern Wasco County PUD gets the bulk of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, it’s not the only source—and not all of BPA’s electricity comes from hydro.

In the late 1980s, PUD board members realized there were opportunities to add their own generators to dams in the region. Those dams had fish ladders. To attract migrating fish onto the ladder, there had to be a channel of water separate from the dam’s spillways to provide an encouraging flow at the base of that ladder.

Their vision was that this separate stream could pass through a turbine on its way to the fish ladder and provide an additional source of electricity. The output from such a generator would be too small of a project for the Corps of Engineers to undertake, with an output of just 5 megawatts as compared with The Dalles Dam’s output of 2,100 MW.

The generator at The Dalles first spun in 1991, and a generator twice the size was finished at McNary Dam in 1997. That generation project is jointly owned with Klickitat PUD, with each utility receiving 5 MW.

A wood-fired steam generating plant in The Dalles, circa 1892.
Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

The output from The Dalles generator was originally contracted to Puget Sound Energy for 20 years. The utility’s payments for power paid the principal and interest on the revenue bonds used to fund the construction. When the bonds were paid, the utility had a source of its own generation with no further debt to ratepayers.

“Our mix will continue to change and evolve over the coming years,” says Kurt Conger, assistant general manager and director of power resources for NWCPUD.

Nearly all the electricity consumed by PUD customers is either renewable or generated from sources that do not use fossil fuels.

Biomass, natural gas, wind, and solar are a small fraction of the bundle of power the PUD buys from BPA. The same goes for nuclear power. BPA buys that from the Columbia Generating Station in Sunnyside.

Kurt notes that nuclear power is carbon-free and delivered 24/7.

“Hydro is shaped to the variations in customer demands and variable resources, like solar and wind,” he says.

The PUD also dabbles in solar power. A small solar array on its building puts out 8 kilowatts—a tiny fraction of the system’s 140 megawatts total peak load.

“If we could repeal nights and winter, solar would be more helpful,” Kurt says, tongue in cheek.

The PUD buys about 5 percent of its power on the open market.

“We don’t always know whether it will be from Calpine Natural Gas at Hermiston, Centralia Coal, or some other source,” Kurt says.

Northern Wasco County PUD’s current mix of power sources.

Prices on the market have been depressed since what Kurt calls “demand destruction by COVID.” As businesses closed, industrial customers dropped off, decreasing demand for electricity. In mid-August, a heatwave hit the West, and prices on the open market jumped 10 percent to 30 percent. They have since lowered some.

The PUD plans carefully, buying only the power needed to serve the forecasted load, and remaining open to opportunities. For example, several months ago, the utility sent out a request for proposals for sources of additional carbon-free power.

“We got 19 proposals, the best of which was 6 percent to 10 percent per megawatt-hour above market price, which was in the range of $35 per megawatt-hour,” Kurt says.

None of the proposals was accepted.

“Northern Wasco PUD has always been, and will continue to be, committed to delivering a steady, reliable, safe source of power at the most affordable price for its owner-ratepayers,” Curt says.