Northwest wind farm output could more than double by 2025 as utilities and wind developers meet renewable power mandates in the region and for California, according to estimates by staff at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
The wind boom under way now will probably slacken in the short run as utilities meet early state requirements. But it will pick up again as those targets get higher, according to a paper presented to the council’s power committee Thursday.
Staff at the council are charged by Congress with developing long-term power plans that balance the region’s energy and environmental needs. They prepared the forecast to provide power planners an upper limit of potential wind development for a region that is already struggling to absorb the rapidly increasing and highly variable output of its expanding wind turbine fleet.
Lawmakers in Oregon, Washington, Montana and California set the table by establishing aggressive mandates for renewable power that ratchet higher over the next 15 years. Oregon’s large utilities are required to serve 5 percent of their demand with renewables this year, increasing to 25 percent by 2025. California’s standard is 33 percent by 2020, and Washington’s is 15 percent by 2020.
Wind turbines operating, or under construction, in the region can generate a peak output of about 6,000 megawatts. That’s the equivalent of 15 good-size natural gas-fired power plants, most of it built in the past five years. Ken Dragoon, a resource analyst for the council, estimates that the region could see 5,000 to 10,000 more megawatts of wind capacity by 2025.
Even the lower end of the range – which assumes no development for California – is a substantial amount of power, and would exacerbate transmission issues and volatility in wholesale power prices. Wind development has already outstripped growth in regional demand. And an already clogged transmission system means the energy generated can’t always be exported.
It’s a vexing planning problem, with enough winners and losers to turn the region’s wind boom into a wind war.
Most Northwest wind farms are directly connected to the transmission system operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA also markets the output of the federal hydroelectric system to public utilities in the region, and sells surplus hydroelectric power to utilities throughout the West.
The value of BPA’s surplus power sales are already being undermined by wind energy sloshing into the market. That ultimately increases rates for its public utility customers, who are loathe to absorb any additional costs incurred by BPA for integrating wind output that isn’t serving them.
The agency, which balances supply and demand on the grid, has put wind developers on notice that its ability to absorb more wind power is limited. Variable wind output taxes the hydro system, and BPA has already established a policy to pull the plug on wind farms when their output misses their scheduled deliveries by enough to exhaust the reserves it maintains.
More recently, BPA threatened to shut off wind farms and substitute free hydropower when there was too much simultaneous wind and water energy being generated. Last month, the agency also suspended its process for new transmission requests.
“Every time we choke down 1,000 megawatts, another 250, 500 or 1,000 megawatts shows up,” said Elliott Mainzer, BPA’s executive vice president for corporate strategy. “The impact has not been too significant so far, but as we scale this up, it will become more significant.”
Wind developers and utilities that have invested in their own wind farms contend that the agency is discriminating against their projects in an attempt to insulate its own customers from new market realities.
The problem is not operational, said Jim Lobdell, vice president of power operations and resource strategy at PGE. “It’s an economic problem. They have to step up to the changing economics of the market.”
The entire community of utility, regulatory, consumer and environmental organizations will convene early next month under the umbrella of the Northwest Wind Integration Committee, which last met and created a wind integration action plan for the region in 2007.
The biggest wildcard in the power council’s forecast is California.
Lawmakers just increased its renewable energy target from 20 to 33 percent by 2020. But they also restricted imports from outside the state. As it is, about half the wind capacity in the Northwest is under contract with utilities in California.
But congested transmission lines means the electricity often stays here, while renewable energy certificates are sent south to comply with state mandates. Under the new rules, only 10 percent of California’s requirements could be satisfied with such unbundled transactions.
Dragoon also told the council’s power committee Thursday that more of California’s future requirements are likely to be met with solar power, which is more expensive than wind but provides more value because solar generation corresponds with daytime peaks in demand.
Regardless, Northwest utilities will still need to develop a substantial chunk of renewables to meet their own state requirements, potentially doubling the current base of wind farm output.
“The wind is a new thing with new properties,” Dragoon said, “and institutionally we haven’t quite caught up with it yet.”
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