What if you built a wind farm and couldn’t get the energy to market?
Despite a decade-long wind energy boom that has turned the upper Columbia River Plateau into one long horizon of slowly rotating white wind turbines, that hasn’t happened.
And the Bonneville Power Administration is scrambling to make sure it never does.
The federal power marketing agency has seen energy generated by wind in its four-state service area grow from virtually nil to about 3,000 megawatts – enough to power 750,000 homes – in little more than a decade. With projects in the pipeline, the BPA expects to incorporate up to 6,000 megawatts of power into its grid by 2013.
And that’s just the BPA grid.
Counting wind projects that deliver electricity directly to investor-owned and public utilities, wind turbines in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana currently generate about 4,300 megawatts, according to the nonprofit Renewable Northwest Project – enough to keep the lights on in 1,075,000 homes.
Even as energy companies scope out new wind farm sites in what is fast becoming a crowded region, a new challenge has raised questions about the future of wind power in the region: The BPA, which owns three-quarters of the high-voltage transmission system in the Northwest, has just about maxed out its capacity to incorporate wind energy into its grid.
The wind boom has contributed to a shortage of substations and transmission lines to carry electricity from remote, sparsely populated areas to cities where the customers are. The BPA is building or planning to build four separate 500-kV transmission lines in Washington to handle the load, including a controversial line that would cross Clark and Cowlitz counties and another controversial line near Goldendale.
“For BPA, the goal is to plan so that we don’t stem the development and so that we keep pace with it,” said BPA spokesman Doug Johnson.
Population growth has only exacerbated the challenge.
The BPA was forced to reroute power during heavy summer loads twice in the past two years, and its transmission system along the I-5 corridor is becoming increasingly congested. Without new lines and substations, officials predict the system will hit its limit by 2016.
The longest new transmission line, already under construction, stretches 79 miles from McNary Dam west to John Day Dam along the north side of the Columbia River.
The Clark-Cowlitz line connecting Castle Rock with Troutdale, Ore., formally the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project, has triggered the most opposition. Hundreds of people, some worried about how the 150-foot-high towers and high-voltage power lines would affect their property values, others concerned about the health effects of living close to the line, flooded the agency with thousands of letters protesting one possible route for the 70-mile line. They spoke out at hearings and even staged a protest in front of BPA offices in Vancouver.
In response, the BPA added new alternative routes, include ing a new eastern route through state and industrial timberland. But opposition persists, because at least one of the new routes would affect people living at the forest’s western edge.
In Klickitat County, the proposed 500-kilovolt Big Eddy-Knight transmission line, which would run northeast from The Dalles, Ore., 28 miles to a new substation four miles northwest of Goldendale, has triggered opposition from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which is concerned the new transmission lines will interfere with its own wind development leases in the area. DNR also warns the project could threaten the Columbia Hills Natural Area Preserve, established to protect three rare plant species, and harm state-managed aquatic lands.
The BPA also is grappling with the challenge posed by the on-again, off-again nature of the wind that turns the turbines.
To ensure a steady flow of power, wind energy companies are required, as a condition of their federal permits, to pay for backup power that can be fed into the grid when the wind stops blowing or turbines are taken offline for some other reason.
Hydroelectricity is the only source of backup energy. But the BPA announced in August that it has reached agreement with a California company for a pilot project to provide up to 75 megawatts of backup power from a natural gas-fired plant in Hermiston, Ore.
The opposite situation – too much wind – poses a different challenge. During a storm last May, more than a thousand wind turbines in the Columbia river Gorge began spinning, creating the largest hourly spike in wind power ever in the Pacific Northwest. The grid couldn’t handle the excess power, so turbine owners were directed to slash output by “feathering their blades” – turning them into the wind.
The fact that the region’s wind turbines are concentrated on the Columbia River Plateau makes the challenge trickier, said Johnson of the BPA, because a single storm sweeping through the region can pack such a wallop.
“We want to add as much wind as people can find places to put it,’” he said. “It would be helpful to us if there were a little geographic dispersion.”
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