Dying is easy, they say in show business. Comedy is hard.
Try reconfiguring an electricity generation and transmission system based largely on hydropower so as to accommodate wind power. Now that’s hard.
Just how hard became clear last week, with release of the “Northwest Wind Integration Action Plan” by the Bonneville Power Administration and Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Wind power has been embraced by many as the resource of the future because fuel costs and emissions are zero, just as they are for hydropower.
The action plan was an effort by the two federal agencies and Northwest utilities to identify the challenges and costs of wind power development. As the region has discovered over the last 70 years or so, building dams and a transmission grid engendered costs unimagined when work began. Today, for example, Bonneville commits about $655 million annually to fish and wildlife.
Fortunately, wind development presents almost no environmental problems except to those who consider wind farms an eyesore. New turbines are not the threat to passing birds earlier models were.
But capturing wind power, particularly on the scale envisioned in the Action Plan, presents a new set of challenges. In fact, plugging so much new energy into the existing grid would be an impressive achievement.
The Northwest’s first wind project, Vancycle in Eastern Oregon, cranked out all of 25 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about 16,000 homes. That was in 1998.
Windmills in place today can generate nearly 1,400 megawatts. An additional 2,400 megawatts expected to come on line over the next two years will bring the total to 3,800 megawatts. The region’s utilities, led by Bonneville and the NPCC, are trying to figure out how to manage 6,000 megawatts by 2024.
Just to give you an idea how rapid a progression that is, consider the chronology of dam construction by the federal government.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built its first hydropower project in the Northwest on the Snake River in 1909. It was not until 1957, with the completion of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, that federal projects in the Northwest had a combined generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts.
Note the word “capacity,” because it makes all the difference between hydropower and wind power.
Although drought can limit how much hydro-generation may be available in any given year, reservoirs assure a substantial amount will be available all the time and, in an emergency, all of it for short periods.
There are no wind reservoirs. When it blows, you get electricity. When it doesn’t, you don’t. And in the last few years the region’s times of greatest energy need have corresponded with an almost total lack of wind. There’s nothing free about “free as the breeze” to grid operators trying to keep the lights on.
“We in the utility industry tend to be a little bit of control freaks,” Bonneville Administrator Steve Wright says.
March 25, 2007
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