Rain clouds have been all too rare for the past seven years in the Missouri River basin, but wind energy advocates are seeing a silver lining anyway.
Drought has cut hydropower production to 56 percent of normal, leaving space on the electric grid and demand in the marketplace.
That might create an opportunity for new wind farms to replace missing hydropower. Dam operators could return the favor by ramping up hydro production – forming a partnership of zero-emission energy sources.
On Tuesday, Sen. John Thune touted that partnership, asking federal energy officials to expedite a study on integrating wind and hydropower.
“We think it makes a lot of sense,” Thune said. “The customer’s paying a lot higher power rates because we’ve had these successive years of drought.
“And if you look at where a lot of the wind is concentrated, it’s in that corridor right along the Missouri River.”
But prices and other river priorities could pose obstacles. And it is unclear whether the plan will help surmount the main barrier to South Dakota wind farms – the costly, complex electric grid.
The effect of drought on hydropower was clear at a meeting at the Holiday Inn City Centre in Sioux Falls. Officials from the Western Area Power Administration were there to roll out a proposed 25-percent increase in rates paid by wholesale customers. That is a result of drought, which has saddled the agency with a $573 million deficit, according to Jon Horst, a rates manager with WAPA.
The federal agency is responsible for selling energy from Missouri River dams.
Drought could mean a 5 percent rate increase for customers in Madison, according to Jeff Heinemeyer of the city’s electric department. Brookings and Beresford also rely on WAPA and could see similar hikes.
It is not clear if wind can sync up with Missouri River hydro.
Hydropower still is the cheapest at 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour wholesale, even after the hike. Wind is costlier, a little less than 5 cents.
The answers will have to wait for the study’s results. WAPA says that will take about a year.
By Ben Shouse
11 April 2007
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