Clark Public Utilities on sidelines of wind power battle

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Clark Public Utilities has dodged a battle between wind and water power producers that’s unfolding in the Northwest this week.

But with renewable energy rules going into effect next year, it’s not yet clear whether the local electric utility may ultimately be drawn into the dispute.

The current problem stems from high levels of snowmelt and rain surging through dams coordinated by the Bonneville Power Administration, the government body that runs electric transmission in the region. To avoid overloading the power grid, and also to comply with federal rules protecting salmon, BPA on Wednesday morning briefly told fossil fuel and wind generators to power down.

Wind power companies cried foul, saying they could lose millions of dollars in federal tax credits unless their spinning turbines keep feeding the grid.

Although Clark Public Utilities has had an exclusive contract to buy electricity from a wind farm in Oregon since 2009, wind companies’ concern does not increase the cost for local customers, said Erica Erland, spokeswoman for the local utility. And Clark’s natural gas-fired River Road Generating Plant had already been offline for several months, because market prices for power are currently less than the cost of running the plant.

Beginning next year, however, Clark Public Utilities will have to obtain at least 3 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — and hydropower doesn’t count. Clark’s renewables quota will increase annually until 2020, when all large utilities in Washington will have to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewables under an initiative approved by voters in 2006.

If the Bonneville Power Administration orders wind generators offline once those rules go into effect, it’s possible that those limits could keep some utilities from meeting their renewables quotas — though it’s difficult to determine how likely that would be.

Erland said Clark Public Utilities leaders are not concerned, in part because the Wednesday order to take wind off the grid was an interim solution, and BPA may handle things differently in the future.

But if the local utility were not able to meet its renewables requirement by buying wind power, it would be required to pay a fee to make up for its shortfall. It’s not clear how such a fee would affect costs at Clark, Erland said.

As Bonneville Power Administration officials review their policies, they’ll keep local utilities’ needs in mind, said BPA spokesman Doug Johnson.

Wind will be the last resource ordered off of the grid, and only after coal and gas-fired plants must power down, he said. “It’s our intention not to have any effect on renewable portfolio standards that utilities have to meet.”

Meanwhile, Clark Public Utilities officials say they are eager to work with BPA as it cements its rules. “We’re going into an era of uncharted territory,” Erland said. “We’re watching to see how things unfold.”