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Hydropower Flows Here
Meet BPA’s weather and streamflow forecasting team
12/4/2018 2:56 PM
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, and 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.
Knowing 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, but also the snowpack, temperature, precipitation and incoming storms 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 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?
In 2019, we plan to update the long-term streamflow records used for future rate cases, Columbia River Treaty requirements and many other long-term planning needs. We’re also going to roll out better precipitation and streamflow verification tools that will help us measure our success and set the stage for even more improvements.
Finally, as we head toward grid modernization, we will continue to develop short-term probabilistic temperature, precipitation and streamflow forecasts. It’s this last initiative that we’re most excited about because it will help BPA better quantify the variability and risk associated with the fuel supply and energy demand
both critical to understand when bidding project flexibility into organized markets.
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 forecasting challenges.
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 streamflow 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.
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