BPA is an engine of the Northwest's economic prosperity, dedicated
to providing low-cost, reliable power to the region. But it takes people and
teams to make that happen.
Today, meet Erik Pytlak, BPA’s manager of Weather and Streamflow
Forecasting, who, with his team who predict the two most important things necessary
to run a hydroelectric system: water, which is our fuel supply; and the
weather, which drives energy demand.
The water that drives the Northwest’s hydroelectric generators
comes from rain and snow upstream in the Columbia River Basin – a vast area
that begins in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, and in the
states of Montana, Idaho and northwest Wyoming and flows downstream
through Washington and Oregon.
Precipitation that falls as rain helps keep the rivers flowing in
the fall and winter, but it’s the melting snow that brings the highest flows in
the spring, and carries us through our dry summer months. The amount of snow
that accumulates high in the mountains – the snowpack – is vital to the energy
needs of the Northwest and is highly variable from year to year.
how much water is being held in the snowpack in any given year is critical to
ensuring enough fuel is available to meet the region’s demands. Each day, the Weather and Streamflow Forecast team monitors
not only current streamflows and weather conditions, but also the snowpack,
incoming storms like the last September’s wind storm or this February’s ice
storm, future temperature, precipitation and streamflows, and more recently,
regional climate change to project future trends in our fuel. This information
helps BPA plan for near and long-term energy availability for the Northwest.
What is your team’s biggest priority?
Our mission is to provide state-of-the-science weather and streamflow forecasts
so that the best operations and trading decisions can be made.
We’re forecasting streamflows and weather in one of the most dynamic climates
in the Northern Hemisphere. Our day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year
weather and streamflow swings are very large, while our hydroelectric system
isn’t able to store more than about a quarter of the water in any given
year. That puts a great premium on us getting it right and timing things
correctly, both of which directly contribute to BPA’s bottom line.
What are the organization’s overall plans for the next year?
Over the next couple of years, we will recalibrate our hydrologic forecasting
models to more accurately predict streamflows, especially now that climate
changes are becoming more apparent. As
BPA continues with its Grid Modernization efforts, we will continue to develop
short-term probabilistic temperature, precipitation and streamflow forecasts to
better inform decision-making for both Power and Transmission
operations. We are also working closely with our Transmission
organizations to enhance our weather support as our fire seasons grow longer
due to climate change.
How is your team supporting BPA’s efforts to reduce its costs?
We use the same forecasting systems as the National Weather Service, so we’ve
been able to keep our information technology costs below that of other
hydropower utilities while sharing the benefits and system upgrades. Plus,
we’re staying tied in to advances in both the hydrologic and meteorological
sciences. Both our weather and hydrologic forecasting systems are highly
adaptive and expandable for our changing business needs, one of which includes
modernizing our grid. We’ve adopted and shared tools used by other hydropower
agencies, which permits all of us to share best practices and improve our
systems collaboratively. In short, both systems have led to a series of
inexpensive win-wins for BPA and other hydropower utilities with similar
What makes this team successful?
We not only deeply care about the agency’s mission, we also really love to do
our jobs! It’s pretty amazing to get to do something all of us have wanted to
do since our college years, if not earlier. Because we love what we do, we
really care about providing the best forecasts we can, and really want to make
them better going forward. We’re all about continuous improvement!
When you talk to any one of us, you’ll learn that we all have been
fascinated by weather and hydrology processes since childhood. There’s
something about our subject matter that gets in your blood at an early
age. In fact, many of us can tell you about a particular storm or
flood that made us want to study meteorology or hydrology in school.