A road trip through the amazing landscapes of Eastern Washington is like being in a classroom with wheels and a windshield. Even if you never venture off the interstate, you’ll learn a lot just through observation about geography, geology, modern agriculture — and energy policy.
A recent — recent, as in the last two decades — addition to those landscapes is the wind farm, each with dozens of three-bladed turbines distributed across ridge tops and slowly churning away as they generate electricity.
Those turbines aren’t just the recent past of the Northwest’s electricity generating future, they’re supposed to be a big part of its future. Renewables, a category that also can include solar and more exotic forms like geothermal or tidal, will, so the theory goes, help “de-carbonize” the region’s generating portfolio of coal and natural gas, leading eventually to an “all-green” electric grid.
Achieving that goal will require a whole lot more solar and a whole lot more wind, which makes it all the more interesting that one utility is breaking with energy orthodoxy by saying, “No more wind.”
Benton Public Utility District, based in Kennewick, has about 55,000 residential, commercial and industrial connections. Most of its electricity supply comes from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal marketing agency for dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and for one nuclear plant. Eighty percent of Benton PUD’s total supply comes from hydro; about 5 percent is generated by wind, through power purchase contracts with the operators of two wind projects in the state.
The future and composition of the Northwest energy portfolio are in flux with such factors as demand growth, retirements of coal-fired plants and mandates for utilities to go green. Benton PUD says it’s aware of “a resurgence in proposed wind power development activity in the Pacific Northwest, including projects proposed for eastern Washington and Benton County specifically.”
But in a recently released report, “Wind Power and Clean Energy Policy Perspectives,” the utility’s commissioners say they “do not support further wind power development in the Northwest.”
More large-scale wind farms they say, will “contribute very little to keeping the regional power grid reliable and will not help Benton PUD solve our seasonal energy deficit problems” (when it needs to purchase additional power for winter and summer peaks), will drive up customer rates, won’t make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, will hurt revenues that utilities like Benton receive from the sale of surplus hydropower and will needlessly clutter up the “scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas in our region for little if any net environmental benefit.”
“We are continuing to sound the alarm regarding the unacceptably high risk of power grid blackouts in the Pacific Northwest being precipitated by overly aggressive clean energy policies and deepening dependence on wind power to replace retiring coal plants,” the commissioners say in a news release. “Benton PUD is calling on Governor Inslee and our state legislators to learn from California’s experience and to believe what utilities in Washington State are telling them. Rolling blackouts jeopardize the health, safety and well-being of all citizens and cannot be accepted in a region that, thanks to hydropower, is the envy of the nation when it comes to clean and low-cost electricity ...
“While development of wind farms may be politically fashionable and appeal to many in the general public as a harmonization of nature with electricity production, the science and economics indicate powering modern civilization with intermittent generation resources like wind and solar power comes at a high financial and environmental cost.”
Nothing like some blunt and bracing talk to get a fight started.
Actually, a lot of fights, and these are fights that, like a wildfire, have been smoldering here but have burst into full-fledged conflagration elsewhere, like California.
Now it will be interesting to see if other utilities around the state join in and push back at mandates to sign up for expensive generating resources that those utilities don’t need, or at least don’t need or want in that form.
For the record, Tacoma Power gets 89 percent of its electricity from hydro, half of that from its own generating facilities, the balance from BPA purchases. It gets a small amount of wind energy, also from BPA. The utility’s current integrated resource plan says that it’s not currently in the interest of Tacoma Power to invest directly in solar or wind projects.
What Benton PUD is advocating for is using natural gas as a bridge fuel to accommodate growth and “firm up” the regional grid, while transitioning to the technology of small modular nuclear reactors.
It’s a technology that several companies in the Pacific Northwest are working to refine and one backers say answers many of the questions and risks of older design, mammoth nuclear plants, such as safety and waste disposal. The Benton PUD position paper says more investment in wind energy will hinder the development of next-generation nuclear.
Old-style nuclear has a tainted financial legacy in the Northwest — there are still some people around here who remember the WPPSS debacle — and new-style nuclear is still unproven at commercial scale and application.
Renewables are still going to get a look and attract some investment dollars as utilities figure out the best mix of resources to keep the lights on and rates reasonable.
But as the Benton PUD report illustrates, just because those wind-turbine farms are self-proclaimed “green” resources doesn’t mean they are exempt from pointed questioning as to just how much the regional grid, consumers and businesses that are being asked to rely on wind really ought to.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that Tacoma Power gets 89 percent of it electricity from hydropower.