Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dualing Renewables

Washington state has a history of bold energy initiatives. Beginning with the construction of the massive Grand Coulee Dam during the Depression, the next 20 years turned the Columbia River into a series of lakes as dams were build to control runoff, provide irrigation and generate electricity. As a result of this investment, the state gets a large proportion of its power from hydroelectricity and has some of the lowest electricity rates in the US.

During WWII, Hanford served as one of the three original sites for the Manhattan project to build the atomic bomb, creating a local economy in the Tri-City region favorable to nuclear. Thus during the 1970's, as construction of nuclear power plants became progressively more problematic in much of the country, the state commenced construction on a set of six nuclear plants near the Tri-Cities. In contrast to the investment in hydroelectricity, this project ended poorly; in the early 1980's the project collapsed in debt and all but one of the plants were mothballed.

More recently, the state passed the Washington Energy Independence Act of 2006. As a result, electric utilities in Washington that serve more than 25,000 customers are required to obtain the following percentages of their electricity from "new" renewable resources:

o At least 3% by January 1, 2012

o At least 9% by January 1, 2015

o At least 15% by January 1, 2020

Significantly, the Act does not count hydroelectric power as renewable and, as a result, the last few years have seen the construction of several large wind farms. With 3500 megawatts installed capacity, the state gets three times more power from wind than from its one operating nuclear plant. As the graph below shows, the needs of the region at some periods, typically 5-8000 megawatts, are substantially less than generated by hydro alone (11-14000 megawatts). As a result, the bulk of the wind power is exported to California and other states outside the Northwest.

The massive growth in energy supply, however, has not been met by a similar increase in transmission capacity and the Bonneville Power Administration is considering shutting down the wind farms at certain times of the year. As described in the Seattle Times:
As the wind industry expands, the BPA has found it more difficult to transmit all that power and still meet other responsibilities, which include selling hydro power outside the region and spilling water over dams to aid the passage of migrating salmon.

Last June, the BPA balancing effort turned into a high-wire act as a late snow melt unleashed a gusher of water down the Columbia River at the same time that winds whipped up the power turbines.

BPA officials said that they couldn't divert all the water around the hydroelectric turbines without putting too much dissolved gas into the river and placing salmon at risk. So they ended up running more water through the dam turbines and giving away their surplus power to utilities all over the West.

That spurred the agency to develop a new proposal to periodically shut down wind-power farms to help balance loads. The plan was embraced by public utilities across the region.

The proposal to occasionally shut down wind production has met with a storm or criticism from the wind industry, which sees the initiative as an unfair burden on their industrial sector. For many wind-power producers, a big part of the payback is collecting tax credits for power production. Thus, not only revenues but also the tax credits would be lost during shutdowns.

Over the longer term, as described here, BPA is looking to improve the information infrastructure in ways that will allow them to more effectively integrate wind power into the existing distribution network.

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