Wind-powered electricity is clean to produce, the fuel comes free and the resource lasts forever.
Yet, winds blow intermittently and on their own clock. That makes the power generation harder and more costly to manage than hydro-, coal- and natural gas-fueled power.
What’s more, wind power is by no means the complete answer to the region’s growing demand for electricity.
These are among the details of a groundbreaking report, coordinated by the Bonneville Power Administration and others, scheduled for release today. The plan for the first time pulls together the challenges facing the Northwest as it tries to accommodate 6,000 megawatts of wind expected to come online by 2019 – maybe sooner. That’s enough power to keep more than two Seattles lit up full time.
Compiled by utility, energy and consumer interests, the report likely will become the handbook for dealing with a resource that’s both promising and demanding.
Key findings of the Northwest Wind Integration Action Plan include:
More wind on the grid doesn’t mean fewer natural-gas or coal plants. It means that when the wind blows, utilities can cut back on power from fossil fuel-burning facilities, reducing carbon emissions and fuel costs.
Blending wind with hydro-power or other more stable forms of generation requires meticulous scheduling and coordination (in wind-speak, it’s called wind “integration”). The greater the amount of wind on the grid, the more difficult the task of ensuring a steady, reliable flow – and the greater the cost.
Bringing those 6,000 megawatts of wind into the system would add another $3 to $7 to average utility customers’ monthly bills, according to preliminary estimates.
Existing transmission lines can accommodate the region’s wind development only through 2009. After that, the Northwest will need more high-voltage wires, big-ticket items.
Better coordination between the utilities that control various sections of the grid could help hold down costs.
Despite wind’s trickier nature, no technical barriers stand in the way of bringing large amounts of wind onto the system, the report concluded.
“We’re in great shape,” said Elliot Mainzer, a manager with the Bonneville Power Administration, who, along with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Jeff King, headed up the technical analysis that produced the report. “We just have to use it intelligently.”
The report contains cost estimates, but Mainzer cautioned against taking them too seriously. “They’re a work in progress,” he said.
Utilities, including PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy, tried to calculate the costs of wind’s special handling requirements, and came up with numbers ranging from $3.19 to $6.99 a megawatt hour. At most, that’s another $7 on the monthly bill of an average residential ratepayer, who uses 1,000 kilowatts per month.
The cost estimates assume wind, with a 6,000-megawatt capacity, would account for about 8 percent of the energy used in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Montana. Currently, wind holds a 2 percent share.
The so-called “integration” costs come on top of the $50 to $60 a megawatt hour it takes to build the wind turbines and ready the power for injection into the electric grid.
When the system reaches its capacity limit, an expansion to the transmission system would carry its own price tag – likely a sizeable one.
“You can only go so far in making better use of the existing system,” Mainzer said. “Eventually, you have to put more wire in the air.”
Wind advocates say any new resource eventually will require more capacity on the power lines.
“No matter what we add, we’ll need new transmission products,” said Rachel Shimshak, director of Portland-based Renewable Northwest Project.
The big advantage of wind, Shimshak said, is its ability to reduce the use of natural gas- and coal-fired power plants, which discharge harmful greenhouse gases. Of the two, coal is the bigger emitter of carbon dioxide, which leading scientists have found to be a key contributor to global warming.
When the wind blows, utilities can dial down natural gas- and coal-fired generation. Cutbacks in natural gas would come first because it’s the more expensive fuel, the report noted.
Still, wind won’t reduce the need for building more fossil-fuel plants because utilities must be able to guarantee that enough power is always available to meet demand – and that demand is steadily growing.
“Wind alone can’t be counted on to reliably meet load growth,” said Steve Wright, BPA’s administrator and co-chairman of the group that put together the wind report. “You’ve got to have resources to turn on and off.”
Shimshak said the report helps solidify wind power’s presence on the grid. Some might feel uncomfortable with the new player, she said, but that’s only natural.
“It’s new and it does work differently than other resources,” she said. “It’s going to take some time to learn how to operate the system with wind in it.”
By Gail Kinsey Hill
21 March 2007
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