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Upgrade to Power Grid Wise Investment

by Staff
The Olympian, December 24, 2008

A stronger transmission system is a must for Bonneville. President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear he will push hard for a new national green energy policy, one that weans the nation off its dependency on foreign oil while curbing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

To get the new energy policy ball rolling, energy efficiency and green energy projects must be included in whatever economy stimulus package winds its way through Congress early next year.

The Northwest has a project tailor-made for the green energy economy - expansion of the Bonneville Power Administration transmission system.

BPA is the federal power marketing agency born out of the federal government's response to the Great Depression, bringing hydroelectric power to the region 75 years ago. The construction of the dams and taming of the Columbia River was the largest public works project of the New Deal era, shaping a regional economy based on low-cost hydroelectric power.

As the region continues to grow and require more electricity, renewable energy from wind farms is playing an ever-increasing role. Therein lies the problem, and the opportunity.

The wind farms are in rural, remote areas of Oregon and Washington, east of the Cascade Mountains, in the Columbia River Gorge and far from the high-growth populations centers of Puget Sound and the Willamette Valley. BPA doesn't have the transmission capacity to deliver the green wind power to homes and businesses in the Interstate 5 corridor where 85 percent of the region's electricity demand resides.

But Bonneville has mapped out a plan to build about 600 miles of high voltage transmission lines at a cost of about $1.5 billion. Several of the projects are engineered and ready for construction. Others require more environmental review.

Now is the time for the region's members of Congress to make sure BPA transmission expansion projects are included in the president's economic recovery-green energy stimulus package.

The projects fit well with the incoming Obama administration's support for green energy and green jobs. By some accounts, an expanded BPA transmission grid would create 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, including 4,700 in construction and 5,000 in manufacturing.

The project could serve as a model for other regions of the country where renewable energy projects are often located far from the population centers where the power is needed.

The federal Department of Energy predicts that 20 percent of the country could be powered by wind power by 2030. But to reach that target, it would require a $60 billion investment in the nation's energy grid.

Here in the Northwest, wind power capacity has reached 2,000 megawatts, which is enough electricity to power two Seattle-sized cities. Ironically, it's also nearly equals the amount of power the two Satsop nuclear power plants would have generated, if they had been completed.

The fact that another 4,700 megawatts of wind power is slated to come online in the Northwest in the next several years speaks to the urgent need to upgrade and expand the BPA transmission system.

Washington and Oregon have laws on the books that require the region's larger utilities to develop green energy resources. Thousands of Puget Sound Energy customers, including more than 3,200 in Thurston County have signed up for the utility's Green Power program, paying a premium for green energy. In most cases, wind power is the utility's renewable energy source of choice.

The nation has a myriad of infrastructure deficiencies, all worthy candidates for investment and inclusion in the economic stimulus package. But expansion and modernization of the nation's 200,000 mile-long electric transmission and distribution system is one of the most pressing needs, especially so if alternative energy supplies are going to reach their full potential.

"It's the sleeper issue," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island and a staunch supporter of a new green energy economy. "We need a grid for this century, not the last."

The first order of business is for Congress to double BPA's borrowing authority to $7 billion to pay for the transmission projects and other improvements in the system. The expanded authority should be included in the economic stimulus bill.

This isn't a bailout or a federal grant. It's a wise investment in green energy, backed by the ratepayers of the Northwest.

Upgrade to Power Grid Wise Investment
The Olympian, December 24, 2008

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