The question has been a familiar one for Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project Operations Manager Eric Melbardis since the wind farm began generating power at the end of last year.
“People have asked why do they see the turbines at our project stopped sometimes, but they look farther west and see the turbines at the Wild Horse project spinning,” Melbardis said, framing the often asked question. “There’s a pretty simple answer.”
The 48-turbine Kittitas Valley wind farm, about 12 miles northeast of Ellensburg, doesn’t yet have a long-term power purchase agreement with any utility company to buy all the electricity generated by the project.
The project, developed by Horizon Wind Energy, is selling power on the region’s daily, “spot” market when the right prices and wind speed make it economically feasible to do so.
If the wind speed is not adequate and the price buyers are willing to pay is not adequate, the blades don’t turn.
The Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, nearly 17 miles east of Ellensburg, on the other hand is owned and operated by the private utility Puget Sound Energy, and its electricity is used by the utility in its mostly Western Washington system.
Farther east, the 60-turbine Vantage Wind Power Project has turbine blades whirling in the wind. A long-term purchase agreement supplies power to a San Francisco-based utility.
“It’s not unusual to have a new (wind farm) site sell on the daily market before a long-term purchase agreement can be developed for its power output,” Melbardis said.
Melbardis added that generation of power starts to be economical when the wind speed reaches about 4 meters per second and higher.
At more than 22 meters per second, the blades are turned off for safety reasons.
Horizon Wind officials since late September have indicated negotiations were under way with a variety of utilities on a long-term purchase agreement.
As late as early March, the company indicated efforts were still ongoing, but no agreement was pending.
Al Wright, manager of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), said developers of wind farms seek long-term power purchase agreements to have a steady, set amount of funding to meet financial obligations and to pay for a project’s construction.
EFSEC oversees operation of the state-approved wind farm.
The struggling economy, coupled with rising natural gas and oil prices, along with other factors, has raised more uncertainty on the part of utilities about the future.
The down economy also has caused a drop in the demand for electricity, and there is stiff competition among companies to get the lowest-cost power.
Thus, with all these factors, there is a reluctance by utilities to get into a long-term agreement when it’s not clear where the price of electricity is going, Wright said. Companies don’t want to be locked into a higher amount by agreement at a time when overall prices are dropping.
Yet, in the mean time, wind power project developers need income to pay the bills, Wright said.
In addition, the abundant water supplies in the Pacific Northwest are causing hydroelectric plants to fully operate with their power prices likely lower than new wind farm-generated power.
With the coming of summer weather, it’s believed demand for power will go up, especially in California, and it’s likely a purchase agreement will be more attractive to utilities.
“In past years, it’s not been uncommon to see 10- and 15-year agreements, sometimes 20 years,” Wright said.
Wright noted that reports to EFSEC indicate the Horizon Wind project operated at 18 percent capacity in January and 14 percent in February.