YAKIMA – The Bonneville Power Administration celebrated the completion of a new transmission line today to better incorporate wind energy into the Northwest power grid, even as questions mount about future wind energy development in the region.
The line, which runs 79 miles along the Columbia River from McNary Dam to John Day Dam, is one of several planned in Washington and Oregon to get power from wind turbines east of the Cascades to urban centers on the west side.
Crews finished construction about 10 months ahead of schedule and saved nearly $140 million – the original budget was about $340 million, BPA administrator Steve Wright said.
“There’s an assumption that the public sector can’t do things well, and this is an example that it can,” he said. “It will be a significant benefit for ratepayers.”
Incorporating intermittent wind power into an antiquated regional power grid has been an ongoing technical challenge in the Northwest, where wind power generation has more than quadrupled since 2006.
To speed up the effort, the BPA approached wind developers years ago and obtained commitments to buy into the transmission system, Wright said.
“When we had a whole bunch of developers show up in one area, putting the economics of the project together definitely made it work better,” he said. “It basically broke the logjam in the queue.”
Recent developments, though, have some questioning the future of wind development, particularly in the Northwest.
Congress failed to extend a wind energy production tax credit, which supporters say has boosted the industry’s strong growth nationwide. Some Washington state lawmakers have proposed scaling back the state’s voter-approved renewable energy standards, and a California law imposing the strictest such standards in the country also requires more of that energy to be generated there, instead of being imported from the Northwest.
Perhaps most significant is last spring’s unresolved dispute, when heavy runoff produced too much hydroelectric power for the grid to handle and the BPA ordered wind producers to shut down.
BPA, the Portland-based federal agency that regulates much of the region’s power transmission, has since proposed to pay half the losses incurred by wind power producers that are forced to shut down during periods of oversupply. The wind industry has said the proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect them.
Wright said that while he isn’t hoping for a dry winter – “not even oversupply would cause me to do that” – the current water supply forecast makes it unlikely those conditions will recur this year.
The issues together are slowing development in the region, said Cameron Yourkowski, senior policy manager for the advocacy group Renewable Northwest Project.
“Just the specter of all these issues provides an immediate-term drag on projects that would be developed over the next year and have to make business decisions now and can’t do that because of the policy uncertainty,” he said.
But, he added, “if we do get favorable resolution of those issues, then hopefully this dip in development and interest in general won’t last too long.”
The group has proposed renewables as an economic development driver, particularly in rural communities.
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