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Pac NW Has Renewable Energy – Now

May 25th, 2009 · No Comments

With a look at his area’s opportunities for augmenting low-GHG power from hydropower, a guest post from Badger from the Pacific Northwest.

Driving around Washington State and Oregon this weekend, I saw more examples of how the Pacific Northwest is leading in installing renewable energy systems, not only in the future, but right now, with creative ideas, public-private partnerships, and private investment.

How’s your part of the country doing?

A little background on the power grid in Washington State and Oregon: years ago both states legislated Public Utility Districts, which are independent government units usually at the county level providing power to rural areas of both states and selling power into the western US grid. Indvidual PUDs built, own and operate (with government bond guarantees, but without subsidy) dams, as a consortium own and operate at least one nuclear facility, one coal facility (boo) and a wind farm in southeastern Washington (Nine Canyon). They also operate a fiber network which brought server farms for Google to The Dalles, OR, Microsoft to Quincy, WA, and Yahoo! to Wenatchee, WA, both for high-speed connectivity and cheap electricity. Some Columbia River dams, Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph, Dalles and Bonneville were built and are operated by the Federal government.

I’ve mentioned in the past that our school district, several years ago, took delivery of the first full-sized hybrid school bus in the nation, developed by a consortium including the bus manufacturer, our local PUD and the school district itself, and other members. Our district continues to operate the bus successfully – electricity here is already much cheaper than diesel fuel.

Over the weekend, we drove from north central Washington State to Portland, OR for our daughter’s college graduation, and then back home again. We usually take US97 south to the Oregon border, and then I84 west to Portland. Just before Ellensburg, WA, which is home to Central Washington University, US97 runs together with I90 for a few miles, and one of the things you pass in that stretch is the Ellensburg Community PV project.

The project currently isn’t that large, but it has an interesting twist:

According to Ellensburg Resource and Solar Community Manager Gary Nystedt, what makes the project special is the way the community can invest in it. People whose homes are powered by city electricity can contribute money to the project. In return they receive a solar credit on their utility bill for the next 20 years.

Even then, the Ellensburg project by itself isn’t a big contributor to renewable energy, but:

Since the Ellensburg Solar Community first went on line in 2006, two other communities — Ashland, [OR], and Bainbridge Island [WA] — have created similar projects.

Leavenworth [WA] and Vashon Island [WA] are trying to launch their own also. Nystedt said he recently received calls from New York and Australia with inquiries about how to create a community solar energy project.

Rather than waiting for something to happen, WA State communities are making things happen, if only in a small way.

Things are happening in bigger ways though. Globally, windpower this year will pass the fictitious “1 Exajoule installed” benchmark set by people who don’t believe renewables can contribute to solving CO2 and oil dependency problems. According to Wikipedia’s Wind Power article:

At the end of 2008, worldwide nameplate capacity of wind-powered generators was 121.2 gigawatts.

One of the complaints about wind power is that it’s “capacity factor” (the percentage of time over the entire year it can deliver rated power) is somewhere between 20% and 40%. 121.2 gigawatts 24 hours a day for 365 days represents a little over 1 million gigawatt-hours of energy, but about 265,428 gigawatt-hours when a 25% capacity factor is applied. Which turns out to be 0.96 exajoules, and wind generator installations didn’t stop at the end of 2008.

In fact if you follow US97 past Goldendale, WA, where it begins to descend to the Columbia River at Biggs Rapids, even as late as last January, you could see wind generators only in the distance on the Oregon side of the Columbia – on a good day. On a cloudy or hazy day, they seemed to disappear, so we had the odd experience of seeing them on one trip, and thinking they had been removed on the next trip.

Returning home Monday afternoon, it was a beautiful, sunny day, and we stopped at a view point just after ascending the bluff on the WA side of the river. What you can see now on the OR side is amazing – there are at least 300 wind towers visible in the distance, extending to the horizon in the south and 2 or 3 miles to the east, which is as far as you can see before the hills block any farther view.

But the reason we stopped at the view point wasn’t to look at Oregon. For the first time, the same situation is repeating on the WA side of the river – there are already something like 100 wind towers visible on the WA side, again, trailing off as far as you can see to the east, and some within 100 feet of the highway. On past trips we’d seen generator blade sections on flatbeds – the actual rotor diameter is as much as 288 feet. The towers are 350 to 500 feet tall with up to 2.1 MW generators on the top, and entirely white. Estimates are that it takes about 9 months of operation to replace the energy used to manufacture and install a tower and generator, so these definitely have energy gain.

You can’t really see the extent of wind farms in WA or OR from the highway, but you can on this map, which is too large to display here, and also several years old – for example, Windy Point I and II, which are shown as proposed on the map, are the installations we were looking at on the WA side of the river.

A couple of the proposed installations have been scrapped – Saddleback and Sevenmile Hill – two smaller wind farms west of The Dalles, OR (which is the purple circle on the map). Together they represented about 120 MW of capacity, and were scrapped because of local citizen opposition – they would have been visible from the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Without those, the  map represents about 4,500 MW (4.5 gigawatts) of nameplate capacity, with another 500 MW close by, or somewhere between 1 billion and 2 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year with a street value of  much more than $100 million, depending on capacity factor. The Columbia Gorge isn’t always windy, but is most of the time – for example, I know people who moved there so they could windsurf nearly every day.

The installations east of The Dalles (all but the two canceled) are in what’s mostly wheat country where it isn’t sagebrush or bare rock. All of the installations are privately funded, by a number of different companies, and pay rents of $4000 to $8000 per megawatt annually to landowners. And as the link indicates,  the total installation is expected to provide somewhere around 300 jobs directly, more indirectly, in an area which is sparsely populated and economically depressed. The wind farms are private investments, and while there may be some tax credits or subsidies involved, investors and not the government are liable for any accidents.

What’s even more interesting, is that wind power in the Columbia Gorge turns the conventional criticisms of wind power upside down. There was no citizen opposition to the bulk of the installation east of The Dalles, between Arlington, OR and Wasco, OR, or on the Washington side. Unlike Pickens’ Texas plan (the Columbia Gorge projects, in total, are larger than Pickens’ plan), there’s no need for miles and miles of new power lines to connect to the grid – the wind farms are all close to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) grid which ties together the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and runs right past the wind farms.

But the most interesting part is how capacity factor plays with the rest of BPA’s grid. One of the biggest criticisms of wind power is that it’s not available when the wind isn’t blowing, and when the wind blows, the power may not be needed at that moment. Batteries or pumping water up hill to store energy add more cost to wind power installations.

BPA does one other thing besides providing the grid – it controls the flow of water through all of the dams on the Columbia River. BPA has to adjust flow to accomodate both peak and minimal demand for electricity. It has to make sure that in January and February that there’s enough water to meet electricity demand, when no significant rainfall has flowed into the Columbia since September or October (realistically, since June, since in most of the Columbia basin there’s little rain during the summer).  It has to make sure the lake levels in lakes like Lake Chelan or FDR Lake behind Grand Coulee stay within legal limits. At present, Lake Chelan’s levels (the lake covers about 50 sq miles) vary by a little over 20 feet during the year, but have to be near peak for the summer tourist season when electricity demand is high. Dam licenses also require sufficient flows at different points throughout the season for salmon runs and for other purposes. Irrigation of orchards and wheat fields also places demands on the river’s flow.

With all that, BPA already has a storage system in place for excess wind power – just by closing dam gates and reducing flow. It has baseload capacity already in place for days when winds are too low. And it has years of experience in managing and forecasting the Columbia’s flow. The Columbia River and its dams become a giant battery to store excess power, fill-in baseload requirements, and return the excess power at times of peak demand. There’s even a possibility that by augmenting hydro with wind power, even more kWh of hydro will be available because a lower average flow will still be able to supply current demand.

The best part is that none of this is future-fantasy – much of it is up and running already and more is already under construction, even if Republicans deny global warming or the more foolish Democrats block energy legislation. It certainly isn’t sufficient to solve the global problems we face, but it is appropriate and cost effective technology for our corner of the US – our contribution to the solution. It actually enhances systems we already have in place, and can serve as both an example and a laboratory for other parts of the country which are lagging behind.

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Tags: Energy