Power Plan Sets Lofty Wind Goal
Apr 25, 2007 Missoulian (energycentral.com)
KALISPELL: When Bill Drummond caught
wind of the notion that energy analysts were considering
ways to blow a whopping 6,000 megawatts of wind power
onto the regional grid, he thought it was so much
pie in the sky. No way, he thought, can that much
wind power be generated and transmitted in the Pacific
Northwest. "But today," Drummond said, "I'm convinced
it may be on the low end" - not only of what's possible,
but of what's likely.
Drummond manages the Western Montana
Generating and Transmission Cooperative, and his personal
turnaround came as he helped industry leaders craft
a future wind power plan that reaches from Montana's
flatlands all the way to the Pacific Coast.
Called the Northwest Wind Integration
Action Plan, the document released Wednesday concludes
"the region's existing power system can most likely
accommodate the 6,000 megawatts of wind energy anticipated
by 2024 - or perhaps much sooner, given the current
pace of development."
That's enough power to supply five Seattles,
the equivalent of two big nuclear plants, and that's
the good news. The bad news is it will come with both
costs and complications, not the least of which is
how to transmit all that wind power to the people.
"The Northwest is a pretty windy place,"
observed Tom Karier, chairman oft the Northwest Power
and Conservation Council. The council - a multi-state
agency formed by Congress in 1980 to balance the need
for affordable hydropower against the needs of fish
and wildlife - joined Bonneville Power Administration
in convening participants such as Drummond. Bonneville
markets the power produced at federal hydroelectric
dams throughout the region.
BPA chief Steve Wright talked Wednesday
of a recent "explosion of wind power development"
throughout the region, calling wind an "excellent
The first turbines built here were installed
near Walla Walla, Wash., in 1998. Since then, Karier
said, hundreds of blades have filled Northwest skies.
Today, wind generates 1,400 megawatts
of power for the region, and another 2,400 megawatts
are expected online by 2009. That's 5 percent of all
the power produced in the region, Karier said, "and
it will continue upward from there."
Babcock and Brown Infrastructure, the
Australian firm looking to buy NorthWestern Energy,
is one of the world's biggest players in wind farms,
with stakes in more than a dozen wind operations worldwide.
And already, 8 percent of NorthWestern Energy's electricity
comes from wind.
Montana has convened a "Wind Working
Group," and a January poll of residents here showed
energy issues outrank both job development and school
funding as matters of importance. Most indicated a
preference of renewable energies, such as wind, in
place of traditional coal.
(A 250-megawatt coal-fired power plant,
to be built near Great Falls for an estimated $700
million, will pump out about 2.8 million tons of greenhouse
gases each year.)
Wind prices are not as volatile as natural
gas prices, Karier said, and wind generates no climate-changing
greenhouse gases. Some coastal states have even passed
legislation requiring a certain percentage of the
power mix to be renewable and clean, a move sure to
increase the power of wind in coming years.
So with all that wind power being built,
the keepers of the region's grid decided it was time
to begin planning for it.
How will power providers and consumers
deal with the costs of integrating wind into the energy
portfolio? How will the power be transmitted? How
will regulators adjust? How will investors recover
And how will wind fit in with other
power sources? Because the wind, all agree, doesn't
always blow when you need it. In fact, it mostly tends
not to blow on the hottest and coldest days, exactly
when people need the most power.
To help find answers to those questions,
BPA and the council brought together a team of industry
representatives, regulators, environmentalists and
utilities, among others, to study exactly how wind
will fit in. The idea, Karier said, was to plan now
so as to save time and money later.
The conclusion - "that more wind power
projects can be incorporated into the Northwest power
system," Wright said is tempered by the realities
of both markets and nature.
"To maintain a reliable electricity
system," Wright said, "there are costs that need to
be addressed, transmission resources that need to
be built, and wind resources will need to be supplemented
by non-wind generation. These challenges can be solved,
but we need to get after them."
Trouble is, electricity can't be stored.
When you flip on that switch, a turbine somewhere
has to turn a little faster, When you flip it off,
the turbine slows.
That means power producers have to be
able to control output (since they surely cannot control
your use of that switch.) But wind is neither controllable
nor constant. So it must be "backed up" with steady
power, such as hydro or thermal (coal or gas) plants.
For now, the analysts said, the Northwest
is fortunate. The region is awash in relatively cheap
federal hydropower. That means the "backup" for wind
is both available and affordable.
But it will require new flexibility
in the way that hydropower is managed, and that could
mean changes for dams, rivers and sensitive fish species.
And at some point, as more wind comes
online and the "backup" hydropower is used up, the
system becomes less flexible. That's when new power
sources will be needed to "firm up" the fickle wind,
and those new sources will come with a price.
Still, the analysts said, the cost of
"firming up" 20 percent of your wind output remains
lower than not having wind at all, not to mention
the considerable gains made in carbon emissions.
Spreading the wind farms out across
the region will help curb costs - after all, it's
always blowing somewhere, which means you can back
up wind here with wind elsewhere - but the fact remains
you simply cannot build wind generation without also
building some amount of backup.
And scattering the wind producers around
raises another problem - how to get all that far-flung
power onto the primary grid. The region's transmission
system has long been regarded as outdated and increasingly
inadequate, a bottleneck to future power plans.
Spread out new facilities to distant
places where the wind blows and you've only complicated
the problem, Karier said. Whole new paradigms will
be needed, Wright agreed, for how best to use existing
transmission lines, and how best to build new.
Tomorrow's transmission lines, Wright
said, will carry a mix of power - firm and otherwise
- and will carry it far beyond the windy and rural
Rocky Mountain Front to urban centers in the Southwest.
That means the folk directing the flow
- think air traffic controllers for electrons - will
need new and revised rules, allowing them to recover
the costs of their newly complicated jobs.
But the fact is, analysts concluded,
no power source is cheap and simple. With wind so
obviously on the horizon Wright said, it makes sense
to plan now for how best to integrate it into an increasingly
complex power portfolio. Learn now to spread the variability,
the analysts advised, to better market wind products,
to make hydro backup available, to create new technologies.
Doing so, of course, will require more
than anything else a new level of coordination and
cooperation, Karier said, the groundwork for which
was laid during the process of crafting the wind plan.
It will also require follow-through, including perhaps,
controversial changes to state law.
Some already are advocating new Montana
rules that would allow NorthWestern Energy to build
its own backup power plants, thereby helping to usher
wind onto the grid. Others see different regulatory
There are, Drummond said, no easy answers.
But there is, he added, a surprising light at the
end of the tunnel, a light powered by a whopping 6,000
megawatts of wind power he simply could not imagine
until he himself helped hammer out the details.
"This important work is the necessary,
if not sufficient, first step in establishing how
wind will become a significant, costeffective source
of zero-carbon electricity for the Pacific Northwest,"
said Angus Duncan, president of Bonneville's environmental
foundation. "It demonstrates that the technical requirements
for integrating 6,000 megawatts of wind into the system
can be met, and it points us to the cost solutions."
Copyright The Missoulian Mar 23, 2007
(c) 2007 Missoulian. Provided by ProQuest
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