For a look at an industry that’s “blowing in the wind,” take a drive from Vancouver along the Columbia River east to Walla Walla. The land, much of it formerly bleak and bare, is now dotted with scores of bright white wind turbine towers.
Depending on your point of view the landscape has been changed beautifully or blemished by wind generators on both sides of the river, starting at The Dalles, Ore. The National Scenic Act protects an 80-mile section of the Columbia River Gorge. Looking up to ridgetops from the highway provides a sight of multiple three-bladed turbine generators turning steadily depending on wind velocity.
Wind power in the Northwest amounts to 2,700 megawatts of electricity. Each megawatt equals 1 million watts. Wind power watts are increasing each year, but are not close to the 70 percent of electricity produced through hydropower. Don Brunell, in a column printed in The Columbian May 4, said 2,200 megawatts are enough to “light Seattle and Portland for one hour.” Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.
Clean energy from wind is the rage, especially in the wind-abundant Pacific Northwest. Besides federal and state tax production credits and other subsidies, Washington voters passed Initiative 937 in 2006, requiring utilities in the state with 25,000 customers or more to use renewable resources to generate 15 percent of their power needs by 2020. I-937 stipulated hydroelectric power is not considered renewable. It requires 3 percent of the goal to be achieved by 2012; 9 percent by 2016. Incidentally, wind watts are more expensive than hydro.
In 2006, clean wind power fit nicely into the green wave of environmental protection. But a few weeks ago, I received an e-mail note from Ron “Wick” Thomas, a Vancouverite with whom I have jousted on many issues. Thomas maintains the clean, green energy of wind power is a hoax, and backs up his claim with several articles. “What happens when wind power generation fails because the wind doesn’t blow?” he asks. Answer: There must be a backup power source. Thomas is critical of insufficient information and misinformation on wind power.
Critical balancing act
Research produces more issues, and questions. For example, the Bonneville Power Administration, whose lines carry wind-generated electricity, must balance the flow of power, and mix intermittent wind with hydro, especially when wind flow drops sharply. There is a risk of too much power — or too little — and a blackout.
Here at home, Clark Public Utilities announced March 24 it is purchasing wind power from Eurus Combine Hills II LLC, which is building a wind farm near Milton-Freewater, Ore. Cost of the power this year is $17.l million. The CPU has a contract to sell the power for $13.9 million, leaving a loss of $3.2 million. The resold power, this year and next, will likely go to California.
Grant County PUD, in Eastern Washington, which owns Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams on the Columbia River, is installing new turbines and generators and was given credit through an 11th-hour revision of I-937, said general manager Tim Culbertson. The new equipment uses less water, produces more power and increases salmon smolt survival. Culbertson expects renewed interest in small nuclear projects, and more power generation fueled by natural gas. Coal-fired plants at Centralia and Boardman, Ore. will be closed, and electrical rates will eventually rise, he predicted.
Despite questions about its operation, wind power development has brought an economic surge to the area during a sour economy. Larry Paulson, Port of Vancouver manager, said recently that wind energy contracts produced 220 jobs and 56,000 longshore work hours in 2009. That activity has continued this year.
On the horizon is a possible $2 billion power-generation project in Klickitat County. But hydropower — clean, carbon-footprint-free electricity — deserves more respect and attention.
That’s why the state Legislature must revise I-937 to list hydro as renewable energy.
Tom Koenninger is editor emeritus of The Columbian. His column of personal opinion appears on Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com.