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March 22, 2007

Council is staying calm on future of wind power

By John Stucke, staff writer for the Spokesman Review

"Work crews will erect hundreds more giant windmills across the Pacific Northwest within 17 years to generate enough electricity to light five cities the size of Seattle.

The projects are key to meeting the region's power needs, but aren't a cure-all, regional power experts said in a report released Wednesday.

While wind is free and doesn't pollute, it does carry problems.

The wind doesn't blow when electricity is needed most - during the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter. This erratic behavior makes wind a vexing problem for power suppliers who have made electricity from dams, nuclear generating stations, coal-fired power plants and natural gas facilities a convenient staple of daily life.

To make it work, wind needs backup generators - namely the hydropower dams that for decades have distinguished the region as a place of abundant, reliable and affordable electricity, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation council report.

And that takes the "free" out of wind. Backing it up with traditional sources and stringing transmission lines to windmills is a major cost that the region's utilities are wrestling to control so that wind power can fulfill its promise as next-generation electricity that doesn't kill fish or pollute.

Land near Walla Walla supported the first so-called wind farm nine years ago. There are now hundreds of turbines spinning when the wind blows across the Pacific Northwest.

Wind power supplies about 1,400 megawatts or about w percent of region's electricity. In two years, the number will be 2,400 megawatts. And by 2924, the council anticipates at least 6,000 megawatts - the equivalent of two nuclear plants - will be fed into the system.

The growth is fueled by everything from technological advances that have brought windmills from the drawing boards of research offices to farm fields, to urgent concerns of climate change and phasing out of coal-fired power plants, to new state laws requiring new electricity sources.

"Win power is no longer a new curiosity," said Tom Karier, chairman of the power council.

Joining the technical problems of adding wind power are cost and region's readiness.

Avista Utilities began soliciting bids to secure more wind-generated electricity last year. In an interview Thursday, Dick Storro, the company's director of power supply, called the effort a failure. Electricity generated by wind had become in such high demand that the costs for future supply were double what the Spokane-based utility now pays, Storro said.

The other problem is that some of the better-priced bids were found to be premature after Avista learned that the bidders hadn't secured land to build win projects. They also hadn't had conversations with manufacturers about ordering and paying for turbines.

The experience led Avista to investigate buying and building its own wind farms to meet customer demands and a Washington voter-approved initiative requiring utilities to secure and sell renewable electricity.

Avista participated in the study released Wednesday by the power council and said the results were frank and encouraging. "We have to have a regional solution," Storro said, adding that the report encourages that attitude rather than having utilities act solely on their own interests.

Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, said the technological hurdles of integrating wind-generated electricity can be overcome, though the costs remain a question mark.
Wright said planning and regional cooperation can lower the costs and boost the reliability f wind power through such things as ensuring projects are dispersed throughout the region rather than concentrated, say, in the Columbia Gorge.

Karier said the council's integration plan should be used as a guide for utilities and regulators as they plan electricity policy and supply strategies for the future."

This article was print in the Spokesman Review on March 22, 2007


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