By TIM FOUGHT
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Federal regulators on Wednesday ruled in favor of Northwest wind power generators who objected to being ordered to shut down at times this spring when the Columbia River basin was brimming with water and hydropower dams were running at maximum capacity.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the Bonneville Power Administration must come up with new rules that don't discriminate against the wind generators. Many of them are utility company subsidiaries that participated in a wind farm boom in recent years encouraged by state and federal incentives.
Bonneville manages much of the electrical transmission in the Northwest and said its options were limited this spring: At times, it had more power than the grid could handle or could be exported, and the water couldn't be shunted away from the hydroelectric generators because that could create conditions fatal to endangered fish.
Customers got the power they needed, and the windmill shutdowns amounted to a tussle within the electric power industry over who pays for what. Bonneville said the curtailments amounted to about 6 percent of the wind farms' output between mid-May and mid-July.
Wind generators lost government incentives when they had to shut down, because the benefits are pegged to actual production. The commission's decision could put pressure on Bonneville to pay the wind farms in similar circumstances to compensate for the lost benefits, or to take other steps whose costs could be passed on to the agency's traditional public power customers.
"In this economy, we are concerned about whether the FERC ruling will lead to an unfair increase in costs to communities served with federal hydropower," said a response from the Public Power Council, which represents consumer-owned utilities in the region.
Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. division of a Spanish energy company and a major developer of American wind power, said the spring actions had the effect of supporting the prices that Bonneville was getting for wholesale power.
"FERC's ruling will stop this and other discriminatory practices, and allow all energy producers to compete on a level playing field," said Don Furman, a vice president for the company.
The commission didn't order Bonneville to compensate the wind developers for the spring shutdowns, something a court could do. Furman said the appeal to the regulators was designed to establish the industry's position.
"The dollars, frankly, are not huge," he said.
Bonneville issued a brief statement from Administrator Steve Wright saying the issue should be resolved in the region. Parties to the dispute say negotiations have been under way since the spring.
Bonneville's service territory includes Idaho, Oregon, Washington and parts of Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.