How many miles must a utility go before it can save lots of cash?
The answer? It’s blowing in the wind – somewhere in Pennsylvania.
In a move managers say will save millions over the next decade, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is now importing electricity from wind turbines in Stoystown, Pa., to save costs on water treatment in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Energy from 14 giant propellers in the hills approaching Pittsburgh now gets zapped 171 miles south to Laurel, where the WSSC is using it to power water and sewage treatment plants for about 460,000 homes and businesses.
‘‘It’s turned out very well,” said Rob Taylor, energy manager for the bi-county utility, adding that the new wind power started coming into the system two weeks ago. ‘‘Hopefully, it’ll stay that way.”
The switch to wind power also positions the utility as one of the leaders in environmentally friendly energy in the country. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, WSSC’s 10-year contract to use wind power for about a third of its power puts it in the top five among all local government groups in the United States for green power use.
The Montgomery County Wind Buyers Group, a coalition of area government agencies, places sixth on the list. Dallas is the top user of alternative power.
Most local companies purchase energy credits from electric companies, who promise a certain percentage of the energy to be solar or wind power.
But WSSC joined with electric company Constellation Energy and went right to the source – partnering with energy company Edison Mission, which started building the wind farm two years ago.
‘‘If you’re talking about buying directly, we’re the number one in the country,” WSSC spokesman Mike McGill said.
In addition to locking in a flat rate for electricity through 2018 to save costs, using the wind power generated in Pennsylvania will cut about 1 billion pounds of air pollution that would have been generated from relying on traditional coal-burning power stations.
‘‘That’s the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the Beltway,” Taylor said.
WSSC held a ceremony celebrating the power switch Monday in Laurel. Lt Gov. Anthony G. Brown and officials with Constellation energy attended.
Maryland recently mandated that major companies should get up to 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources – such as wind, water or solar power – by 2020. Wind power makes up about a third of all the energy WSSC uses.
Although Taylor said the state mandates played a role in the switch, the real force driving the decision was economic. Thanks to rising fuel prices, rates for conventional electric power are rising dramatically, just the same as they are at gas stations.
Back when WSSC hammered out the wind deal in 2005, the $64 per megawatt hour rate was about the same as the conventional electric market, Taylor said. At the moment, the fluctuating conventional market charges at least $13 more. During peak summer months, the market can charge $46 a megawatt hour more.
‘‘The difficult part was getting [the commissioners] to sign onto a 10-year deal. Two years ago, there was some hope that it would level off,” Taylor said. ‘‘Now it looks a lot better.”
WSSC spends about $21.5 million a year to power pumps moving treated water and sewage from homes and businesses in the county, using about 21 million kilowatt hours a year. The average Maryland household consumes about 13,000 kilowatts a year.
Still, the supply is not necessarily constant. Wind turbines can generate electricity only when breezes blow between 15 mph and 25 mph. Any more or less, and the 440-feet-tall windmills cannot function properly.
‘‘We’re still going to need to buy conventional power to make up for when the wind doesn’t blow,” Taylor said.
by Daniel Valentine | Staff Writer
15 May 2008
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