Wind energy has been tarred with an unfair reputation at a time when it needs to become a regional resource, advocates told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Wednesday.
“During the last election, there was an awful lot of misinformation floating,” Gaelectric head of transmission Ted Williams told the council, which advises the Bonneville Power Administration on regional energy issues. “Any notion that costs to customers are higher because of wind energy – that just isn’t true.”
Council member Bill Booth of Idaho questioned that claim, saying previous reports to the council showed wind projects were more expensive than existing coal or natural gas power plants. Williams said that was true for existing power, but that new wind power was considerably cheaper per megawatt than a new gas or coal plant.
That was even true when government development subsidies are factored in, Williams said.
“There is a subsidy for every resource out there,” he told the council. “Wind’s is very bold and blatant. The other resources also have subsidies – they’re just buried deeper in the numbers.”
When things like tax credits, royalty holidays and accelerated depreciation are combined, the benefits work out about the same, Williams said. But wind faces other barriers to development that more conventional power sources don’t have.
Ross Keogh of Missoula’s Sagebrush Energy said Oregon and Washington have consistently been adding wind to their energy portfolios, while Idaho is poised to surpass Montana in wind development. He pointed to Montana’s unsettled utility industry, its regionally high regulation levels and “the ghosts of deregulation” as factors holding the state back.
The state’s main energy transmission utility, Northwestern Energy, spent much of the past decade in financial turmoil and was trying to find a buyer through 2007. That combined with the state government’s stalled efforts to do long-range power planning after the widely criticized breakup of Montana Power Co. have made it too risky for investors to plough money into projects here, he said.
“We have a tendency in Montana to focus on ourselves and to forget the interconnected nature of energy,” Keogh said. “What we’d like to see is continued development of regional resources. Our power is connected to Washington, Oregon and Idaho. We have to work with those other states.”
Williams said Gaelectric had already invested
$28 million in Montana wind projects over the past five years and currently has a $1 million payroll. The company has 280,000 acres in Montana under lease option with a goal of building up to 3,000 megawatts of generating capacity.
Montana’s wind is good for such projects because it blows at opposite times from other major wind sites along the Columbia River Gorge, which makes the power generation more even across the day. The challenge is a lack of transmission lines to get the power to markets outside Montana.
Williams argued the wind industry has also been mischaracterized by claims that local customers would be forced to pay for new transmission lines in their local power bills, even though the power was going elsewhere. He said that couldn’t happen under current state and federal regulations.
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