Roaring alongside mighty Columbia come new dollars and determination to rebuild the grid for 21st century
By Deirdre Gregg
Puget Sound Business Journal
As head of the Bonneville Power Administration, Steve Wright says he faces a challenge as immense as that of his predecessors who first harnessed the Columbia River to generate electricity.
Today, the task is to weave the fickle force of wind into an electricity system built to handle the more stable and predictable energy sources of the 20th century.
Wind power has grown in the Pacific Northwest far faster than BPA and others expected. By the end of 2009, the industry will reach a milestone — if all Northwest windmills were turning at top capacity at once, they could generate 30 percent of the region’s peak electrical load. By the end of 2010, that should reach 40 percent.
Which means that BPA’s $3.25 billion infusion of federal stimulus money — more than six times the original cost of the Grand Coulee Dam itself — will go in significant part to capturing the wind.
"It’s a completely new resource that operates in a different way than other resources,” Wright said. "I feel like the administrator back in the 1940s — this is a project as big as Grand Coulee.”
BPA will spend the stimulus money — actually authority to borrow from the U.S. Treasury — on a slew of new projects, including more than $800 million on four new transmission lines to expand and stabilize the Northwest’s grid and better accommodate the spiky energy of wind. The 200 miles of new lines, plus equipment upgrades, will allow BPA to provide transmission to 3,700 megawatts of energy, three-quarters of which is from the wind.
New windmills made possible by this money will transform Washington in ways large and small. Developers could be spending from nearly $3 billion to $4 billion to build wind farms, according to a calculation derived from the per-megawatt cost of other wind projects. That could create thousands of construction jobs.
The impact of the expanding wind industry is also being felt in dozens of communities such as tiny Bickleton, Wash., where classrooms get so cold in the winter that children have been known to wear snow pants indoors. Largely because of new property tax revenue generated by wind farms in the district, a bond to replace the crumbling old school passed in March with more than 80 percent approval.
"Without the wind industry, this would not happen,” said Ric Palmer, superintendent of the Bickleton School District.
The total assessed value of the surrounding county, Klickitat, nearly doubled to $2.9 billion this year, with about three-quarters of the new valuation coming from wind farms.
Such is the power of the emerging wind industry, which has blown past estimates made just two years ago. That was when the BPA and Northwest Power and Conservation Council said it would be feasible to add 6,000 megawatts of wind generation in the Northwest by 2020.
Now it appears, said BPA spokesman Doug Johnson, there will be that much wind power by 2013.
Which makes it urgent for energy overseers to find better ways of integrating wind power into the grid. Critics have said BPA has been too slow and inflexible on that score.
Managing the electricity grid is a bit like balancing an old-fashioned set of scales. The amount of power going in, generated by hydroelectric dams, wind farms and other sources, must exactly match the amount of power being pulled off, when people flick on a light switch at home.
But unlike traditional sources of power such as dams or natural gas-fired power plants, you can’t switch the wind on or off as needed. That makes it far more difficult to integrate.
Right now, the agency uses dams to smooth out wind’s spiky output. Hydro acts like a dance partner for wind — when wind power goes up, the dams’ generation goes down. For example, when the wind is blowing and pouring energy into the grid, BPA can store water behind a dam. When the wind stops, the agency releases the water and sends it spinning through the turbines, producing a consistent flow of electricity.
Early on, when the first wind power projects were coming online, it was fairly easy to integrate their power into the larger system. But there’s a limit to the flexibility of the hydro system, and so much wind is coming online that the system is getting close to that limit. And BPA must spill a certain amount of water over the dams to protect salmon and to comply with the Clean Water Act.
To make the balancing act even harder, a huge amount of the wind power in the region is concentrated in the Columbia River Gorge, where the wind often blows — or falls still — all at once. When all that wind is blowing, it’s like dropping a five-pound weight on one side of that balancing scale.