Renewable energy thirst fueled wind farms on gusty ridges
But that demand soon might be drying up
ELLENSBURG – Gusty winds sweep through Central Washington’s Kittitas County, scattering tumbleweeds and spinning the blades of 149 turbines on Whisky Dick Mountain. The westerly wind is a gift of geography. Moist air from the Pacific Ocean picks up speed as it’s forced through Snoqualmie Pass. As it hurtles down the eastern slopes of the Cascades, it rushes through Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse wind project.
Since 2006, the Seattle-based utility has harnessed the wind, converting its force into kilowatts of electricity. When wind speeds hit 9 mph, the turbines start producing power for the utility’s customers in the Puget Sound region.
Wind farm development has been on a fast track across the Northwest, with at least 40 farms in operation and several more under construction. Anyone who’s driven to Seattle or Portland has seen the evidence. The towers – as high as 22-story buildings – dominate wind-swept corridors east of the Cascades.
But the boom in Northwest wind farm development may have hit its peak.
About half of the wind power produced here is sold to California utilities, which are under state mandates to get 33 percent of their energy from new, carbon-free sources by 2020. Earlier this year, however, California passed laws requiring utilities to purchase more of their renewable energy from in-state sources.
The new legislation won’t affect existing purchase agreements for Northwest wind, but it’s likely to put a damper on new developments.
EnXco, a multinational French company with offices in Portland and San Diego, previously built two wind farms in Eastern Washington, but it’s holding off on two other Washington projects.
“It’s probably not a surprise that the projects we’re building right now are in California,” said Virinder Singh, enXco’s director of regulatory and legislative affairs. “We have to go where the market is.”
The rules for changes to California’s renewable energy requirements are still being written, and the impact isn’t entirely clear yet. However, “California is clearly signaling that it wants more of its renewable energy to come from California,” Singh said.
In the Northwest, wind development went through “a phenomenal trajectory,” said Tom Karier, Eastern Washington representative on the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Since the late 1990s, the Northwest has installed nearly 6,000 megawatts of wind energy. That’s enough to supply 1 1/2 cities the size of Seattle, based on the wind blowing 30 percent of the time, which is typical for wind farms here. About $12 billion worth of investment has poured into wind farm development, aided by generous federal tax and production credits.
But Karier doubts that pace can be sustained. Future demand for wind development will rely less on California and more on Northwest needs, he predicted.
Utilities in Washington, Oregon and Montana face their own state mandates to get more of their power from carbon-free sources. In Washington, a voter-approved initiative requires large utilities to ramp up the amount of electricity from new renewable resources, hitting 15 percent by 2020. Wind has been utilities’ carbon-free resource of choice, though solar, biomass and geothermal projects also count toward the goal.
Karier said he expects wind development in the Northwest to continue, “but at a much slower rate.”
A cost-effective alternative
Puget Sound Energy moved aggressively on wind development. The utility, which serves 1.1 million customers in Western Washington, has built three wind farms east of the Cascades. When its Lower Snake River wind farm comes online next spring, Puget Sound Energy will be able to supply more than 10 percent of its customers’ average electric load from wind.
Wind is really the only cost-effective way to meet Washington’s renewable energy requirements as they’re currently written, said Roger Garratt, the utility’s director of emerging technologies and resource acquisition. Solar energy isn’t as viable in the Northwest as it is in sunny states. Other technologies, such as biomass and geothermal plants, face challenges to large-scale production, he said.
“If you have a big number to hit, wind is a way to hit that number fairly economically,” Garratt said.
The utility expects to add 1 million new residential accounts by 2020, primarily in suburban areas around Seattle. Puget Sound Energy needed to add generating capacity anyway, and on a cost basis wind compares favorably with natural-gas fired turbines, said Roger Thompson, the utility’s spokesman.
Garratt said utilities look at costs in several ways. Wind energy costs about twice as much as the current wholesale cost of electricity in the Northwest – about 6 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 3 cents. But running a wind farm, he said, is like driving a Toyota Prius: While the cost of building a wind farm is high, the marginal cost of generating electricity is low because the fuel is free.
That’s an advantage wind shares with hydropower, Garratt said. It helps the utility’s wind farms compete costwise with electricity from natural-gas-fired turbines and an existing Montana coal plant.
‘Controversial on a lot of levels’
Wind farms often receive a warm reception in rural counties. The construction phase typically brings 200 to 300 workers to town. Each tower and turbine represents a capital outlay of about $3 million, which translates into thousands of dollars for local taxing districts.
Klickitat County in the Columbia River Gorge actively courted wind farms, viewing them as compatible with the ranches and wheat farms in the thinly populated, economically depressed county. More than 600 wind turbines have been erected in seven large developments, including 500-megawatt Windy Point/Windy Flats, which stretches for 26 miles along the Columbia River’s ridgeline.
Wind developments have paid $13 million in local taxes over the past five years. The tax money has been used to buy new firetrucks and ambulances and even build a new school and fire hall, said Mike Canon, the county’s economic development director.
“Klickitat County is fortunate that we got as many wind farms built as we did,” he said, adding that some projects are on hold, given the uncertainty of future demand from California utilities.
But the welcome isn’t universal. In central Washington’s Kittitas County, home to three wind farms with a fourth in the planning stage, “they are controversial on a lot of levels,” said Paul Jewell, a county commissioner.
Many of the county’s 41,000 residents are either urban refugees from the Seattle area or longtime residents who prize the open vistas. They view the massive towers, topped by red blinking lights, as a blight on the landscape, Jewell said. Others oppose the turbines from an ideological basis, saying they don’t support federal subsidies for wind development.
Back in 2007, Kittitas County zoned 500 square miles of its sparsely populated eastern side as a wind-farm resource overlay zone. Two wind projects proposed outside the zone faced strong opposition. They were overturned at the local level, but the developers appealed to Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which approved both projects.
The state’s intervention fueled local resentment. Project opponents felt they were getting stuck with the negative impacts of wind farms benefiting distant utility customers, Jewell said.
He’d like large wind projects to pay some type of local impact fee. There’s no question that wind farms benefit Kittitas County’s coffers, Jewell said. Each turbine represents about $4,500 in yearly taxes to the county’s general and road funds.
But after the flush of construction jobs ends, wind farms employ relatively few permanent workers, he said. Fewer than 50 people are needed to run Kittitas County’s three operating wind farms.
“A factory would take up a lot less land and bring 20 to 30 times the job growth,” Jewell said.
More turbines coming
The Wild Horse project escaped controversy. Built on an old ranch in eastern Kittitas County, the 12,000-acre wind farm is sandwiched between large blocks of public land, more than a mile from the nearest house.
“It wasn’t in the view shed that many people valued,” said Brian Lenz, Puget Sound Energy’s government and community relations manager in Ellensburg.
To further community acceptance, Puget Sound Energy allowed traditional uses of the land to continue. The 4,500 elk in the Clockum herd graze on part of the wind farm, and hunters drive through the property to reach state lands open to hunting. Members of the Yakama and Wanapum tribes dig bitterroots at the site each spring. As part of environmental mitigation, the wind turbines were situated to avoid sage grouse habitat.
Each year, thousands of people visit Puget Sound’s Renewable Energy Center, located on site. They can get public tours of the Wild Horse facility, learning that the 129-foot-long turbine blades were made in Denmark and other operational trivia.
The turbine heads swivel 360 degrees, with a computerized system that orients the blades to the best winds.
At wind speeds between 28 and 56 miles per hour, the turbines run at full capacity. They shut down when winds exceed 56 mph because strong gusts can bend blades and damage equipment.
Puget Sound Energy isn’t done building wind farms. To provide its growing customer base with the renewable energy required under Washington’s law, the utility expects to nearly double its wind generating capacity over the next 20 years. That means more turbines on the landscape – funky and futuristic to some but stark and industrial to others.
To Lenz, there’s a whimsical aspect to the giant structures and spinning blades.
“The synchronicity is what I look for,” he said. “We had one lady from Walla Walla call them our Rockettes.”