It’s not about generating electricity, not anymore. The owners of those monstrous windmills scattered through the hills and canyons of the inland Northwest can brag about how much power they produce – when the wind blows – but that’s not their primary business. The windmills exist to reap federal tax credits, and to sell energy credits to utilities ordered by law to buy them. In the subsidy-reaping effort they will be happy to produce power that nobody needs or wants, power that can’t be easily sold or even given away. Offer them free electricity to replace their windmills’ output and they will turn away. Who needs it?
This creates many complications, and carries a price. Naturally, it is soon to be spread among the Northwest’s ratepayers. The plan is to have you pay for half the windmill owners’ lost subsidies when nature’s abundance might force them to cease making unwanted power.
The trouble is, there are times when the Northwest just has too much electricity. We mostly extract our power from falling water. In spring, when mild weather simultaneously cuts our need for power and melts the snow, most of the runoff still must pass through the turbines of our region’s hydroelectric dams. The extra water can’t all be spilled over dams without saturating the river with nitrogen, which harms protected salmon, violates federal and state law and too many court orders to count. Then the extra electricity has to go somewhere, even if you have to pay people to use it.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from federal dams and runs the regional power grid, has yet to pull a King Canute and try to command the waters not to flow and wind not blow. It has yet to find a way to instantaneously dispose of our excess electricity and zap the overflow into the ether. Last spring, when faced with the biggest spring runoff in a generation and more power than it could handle, BPA effectively shut off nearly all the region’s power made by nuclear fission or burning fossil fuel. It gave away power to replace what the coal and gas plants did not make. Then it still had excess, so it intermittently ordered windmills to cease turning. That meant they ceased collecting federal and state tax credits. Millions and millions in subsidies disappeared.
That caused a fury. The loss of subsidies was characterized as an “environmental catastrophe.” Lawsuits were filed. Appeals were filed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a ruling saying that BPA wrongly discriminated against windmills and ordered changes in policy. In response, on Tuesday BPA offered a plan with compensation equal to half the lost windmill revenue, including tax and energy credits lost, when in the future there is too much power. BPA estimates the oversupply issue will come up two years in three. The cost would average $12 million a year, it estimates, and as much as $50 million in very wet years.
It’s a balancing act. “This is an important step toward resolving a Northwest issue in a way that works for the Northwest,” said BPA Administrator Steve Wright. “We’re focused on seeking solutions based on regional input that maintain reliability, protect fish and support renewable energy while equitably sharing costs.”
The windmillers and their environmentalist allies will probably hold out for further accommodations, but this plan should move ahead without further draining the wealth of ratepayers for power they do not need and do not use. Somewhere there are limits.
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