BOISE – Idaho has so much wind that tumbleweeds pile up along its fence lines and windsurfers careen across its lakes.
Yet the 13th-windiest state in the nation lags in wind energy development, even as neighboring Washington, which ranks 24th, has become a leader in capturing power from the wind. Washington ranks fifth in the nation for wind energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Only one wind turbine was installed in Idaho in the past two years, and it was at someone’s house.
“Washington has a lot more wind farms than we do, and that is because of policy, not because of wind,” said Todd Haynes, a research engineer at Boise State University and co-owner of a small wind farm.
Two regulatory cases at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission are now being settled, ending a two-year stalemate that has blocked most new wind energy development in Idaho. As a result, the door could open to development of a renewable resource whose potential eclipses all of Idaho’s existing energy resources combined.
“This is huge,” said Gerald Fleischman, an engineer with the Energy Division of the Idaho Department of Water Resources. “This is not a small, side alternative energy source that it’s nice to talk about and it’s going to help us out a little bit. That is not what it is. It is a big, monster resource.”
Fleishman calculates that Idaho could produce twice as much energy from wind as it produces and uses from all sources. “That’s the potential from identified sites. The real potential is probably bigger than that,” he said.
Yet Idaho utilities have been wary of new wind farms in the state, in part because of a complex web of economic and regulatory factors. Idaho Power, Avista Corp. and PacifiCorp, the state’s three major utilities, all joined in a case before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission that resulted in a two-year shutdown of new small wind project approvals.
The utilities were concerned that a federal law requiring them to buy renewable energy like wind power from small producers at the same cost they’d pay for other power on the open market didn’t fully recognize the cost to cope with an energy source that rises and dies with the wind.
“Wind is unique because of its intermittency,” said Bob Lafferty, manager of wholesale marketing and contracts for Avista. “It probably blows about one-third of the time.”
The federal law, the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978, or PURPA, lets states set limits. Idaho in recent years capped PURPA power projects at 10 megawatts, but for the past two years, the Public Utilities Commission set the cap for wind projects at 100 kilowatts – barely enough power to run a typical home for 10 days. That stopped all new applications for PURPA wind projects.
The proposed settlement, now being finalized for submission to the utilities commission, allows the utilities a discount for wind power, calculated to reflect that “integration” cost. That includes the cost to come up with other power sources when the wind simply doesn’t blow.
A separate case between Idaho Power and a proposed Southern Idaho wind farm addresses the utility’s demand that the wind developers pay for $60 million in interconnection costs for transmission upgrades. Instead, the wind developers may allow the utility to stop taking their power at times when its transmission lines near capacity. That settlement also awaits PUC approval.
Gene Fadness, spokesman for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, said part of the argument that utilities use against wind is that it’s too unpredictable. But technological advances in recent years have helped with that, he said.
“I think we’ll see wind projects that have waited to start and have not been able to because of the delay,” Fadness said. “I think initially we’ll see a bunch.”
Idaho now has only three commercial wind farms. The first, a three-turbine plant 20 miles east of Boise, was developed by farmer Bob Lewandowski. After Lewandowski died, a group of Boise State faculty and graduate students bought the wind farm, which hasn’t been a big moneymaker but has opened research possibilities to the university. Plus, a BSU dorm has signed an agreement with Idaho Power to purchase some of the wind energy produced at the small plant to power the dorm.
John Gardner, chairman of the department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at BSU, has a federal grant to do research into how to build better small wind turbines for sites where the wind doesn’t always blow at its strongest – like the Lewandowski site.
“The main problem with wind turbines in general is that electrical generators want to run at a fairly constant speed, and the wind is not nearly as cooperative,” Gardner said. “So what we want to do is allow the rotors to move at the best speed for the wind at that moment, and generators run at a constant speed – so it’s like an automatic transmission.”
The idea, called “continuously variable transmission,” is among the federal government’s research priorities. Five BSU faculty members are working on it now.
Large turbines used in the world’s largest wind farms already overcome the problem, Gardner said, by using variable pitch rotors and other approaches. But those are expensive and difficult to maintain, and they don’t work well for small turbines. “The economy of it … just doesn’t scale to the smaller ones well.”
Boise State’s engineering college has signed an agreement with the Lewandowski wind farm and is looking forward to using it for research.
Gardner says he sees limits now for wind power generation. “It is a great potential for helping us be more sustainable, but it’s not stand-alone,” he said. “Until we develop ways to store the energy in a significant way, it’s at best going to supplement.” He said he and his colleagues are working on research grant proposals for local energy storage for wind farms. “That could make it more like a constant power source for the grid,” he said.
Wind power is coming into its own worldwide now, with Europe the top location for new wind turbines. As a result, demand has skyrocketed, and there’s now a two-year wait to get new wind turbines. Plus, commodity prices for things like steel and concrete also have risen sharply.
While Idaho had its moratorium in place, “The cost of turbines has gone up about 50 percent for the same size turbine,” Fleischman said. “I know the demand is bigger than the supply right now.”
There are 18 small wind projects in Southern Idaho that already have power sales agreements with utilities in place – 17 with Idaho Power and one with PacifiCorp in eastern Idaho. Many more are in earlier planning stages, including a few possible sites in North Idaho. However, Avista officials said their studies have identified more wind energy opportunities in the Washington part of their region than in Idaho. They’re planning to generate 7.5 percent of their energy from wind regionwide by 2017.
Washington voters in 2006 required utilities to purchase specific amounts of energy from renewable sources, helping push renewable energy development. Idaho has no such requirements. Yet the state has many renewable energy projects operating under PURPA, most of them involving small hydropower projects on irrigation canals.
“Hopefully the commission will rule favorably so that we can get back into business,” said Peter Richardson, an energy lawyer in Boise who represents several wind developers. Issues such as how interconnection and integration costs are handled by utilities determine whether the wind industry “lives and dies,” he said. “It really is a political question.”
Both Avista and Idaho Power have mainly developed new natural gas-fired turbine plants in Idaho in recent years. But with recent major cost increases for natural gas, Fadness said, “Natural gas has kind of run its course.”
Industry-wide, most utilities are looking at coal, nuclear and renewable energy for new power sources, he said.
Richardson said natural gas has “doubled, tripled in price, and no one’s predicting it’s going to come back down to historic low levels. So utilities are looking to diversify, and wind is going to be a part of their portfolio.”
He added, “It’s an exciting time, and hopefully the Idaho policymakers will permit this resource to be developed, because right now they’re not.”