In a river basin known for its hydropower, another natural resource, wind, steadily is becoming a viable addition to the region’s electricity supply. Hundreds of wind turbines, linked by power lines and connected in groups to the region’s high-voltage transmission system, have been erected on windy ridge tops within sight of the Columbia River in northeastern Oregon and southern Washington.
Typically the turbines consist of a three-bladed rotor and a generating machine of 600 to 1,500 kilowatts located atop a 150-200-foot tall tower. In some areas, such as a series of ridge tops between the Columbia River and Walla Walla, Washington, the lines of towers stretch for miles.
Wind power is a clean and renewable source of electricity limited only by the variability of the “fuel.” That is, power production diminishes as wind speed declines. For that reason, the generating capacity of wind power is far greater than the actual production of energy.
Wind power is a cost-effective addition to the region’s energy supply. Production costs average 4 - 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Production incentives provided by the federal Department of Energy for the first ten years’ of operation lower the cost to a little over 3 cents, which is competitive with the least-expensive natural gas-fired power plants. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council anticipates wind power development will continue as several of the existing wind farms have room for expansion and other sites likely will be developed.
In 2007, wind power makes up about 4 percent of the region’s electricity generating capacity. The Council’s 2004 Northwest Power Plan anticipates adding 6,000 megawatts of new wind power capacity by 2024, the Council’s current energy planning horizon. This would increase the wind power share to about 10 percent if other new sources of electricity are developed consistent with the Council’s plan.
The power plan calls for achieving 700 average megawatts of new energy efficiency — conservation — between 2005 and 2009, and up to 6,000 megawatts of new wind power over the 20-year planning period. One average megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts of electricity delivered continuously for a period of one year. That is enough electricity for about 600 Northwest homes.
In March 2007, the Council and the Bonneville Power Administration issued an action plan for integrating wind power into the regional power supply. The Council and Bonneville co-chaired a broad-based steering committee of more than 20 Northwest energy experts who developed the report, assisted by some 80 others who addressed technical issues of wind integration.
The action plan recognizes that wind power projects are being rapidly developed throughout the Northwest, and that while the region’s existing power system can most likely accommodate the 6,000 megawatts of wind energy anticipated by 2024 — or perhaps much sooner given the current pace of development in 2006 and 2007 — there will be costs to incorporate these new wind sources, such as additional investments in high-voltage transmission lines. As well, integrating large amounts of wind power into the regional electricity supply will necessitate new regulatory and utility cost-recovery policies and recognition in the Northwest that wind by itself cannot meet the region’s future power needs.