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Blowin' in the Wind

by Dick Watson
NW Current, February 28, 2007

Bob Dylan said, "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." There are many of us who hope he was right. Specifically, we've been hoping that the energy that is blowin' in the wind can help solve our current energy dilemma.

Given the pressures of increasing fossil fuel costs and the pressing need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, wind energy has tremendous appeal. Here in the Northwest, more than 1,400 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity has become operational since the first commercial project came online in 1998. An additional 1,600 MW of wind energy is projected to be online by 2009. On an annual energy basis, that's somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 percent of regional electricity use.

While that's pretty impressive, many believe that 3,000 MW is just the tip of the iceberg for wind development in the Northwest. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fifth Power Plan includes a goal to develop 6,000 MW of wind capacity by 2020. In the council's analysis, the importance of wind power derived from its value as a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices and the possible future costs of carbon emissions.

The goal of 6,000 MW of wind capacity was applauded by some, but it encountered a good deal of skepticism from others. Most of that skepticism derived from the variable nature of wind energy. An electric utility has to match energy generation to demand at all times. Therefore, the utility has to have the capability to adjust overall production minute by minute to accommodate the variation in the energy output of its wind projects. The variation in project output is another source of uncertainty that system operators must manage. When the amount of wind energy is relatively small, this is not considered too great a problem. But when the amount of wind is large, it could become a problem.

There are also issues surrounding the transmission required to bring wind energy, mostly developed in the less populated eastern parts of the region, to the load centers in the west. The general under-investment in transmission of the past several years and the variable nature of wind energy are both issues of concern.

In recognition of these questions, the council included in its action plan several items aimed at resolving the uncertainties surrounding wind development. The items are beginning to bear fruit in the regional Wind Integration Action Plan (WIAP) [See "Current Thinking: Integrating wind," nwcurrent, Aug. 2006].

The seriousness with which the Northwest is taking wind energy is reflected in the development of the WIAP, an effort led by the council and Bonneville Power Administration, and including regional utilities, wind power developers, state energy commissions and other energy professionals. First, the process was guided by a steering committee made up of leaders in the Northwest utility and wind energy industries. Second, the steering committee directed some of their best talent to participate in the technical work groups.

The technical work groups in January submitted to the steering committee an initial draft of the WIAP, which outlines a set of actions that should be undertaken over the next two years.

The initial report identifies other important issues and includes recommendations for addressing them. Among the recommendations is the establishment of a Wind Integration Forum to carry the group's work forward. Most would agree the WIAP is a great first step.

Dick Watson
Blowin' in the Wind
NW Current, February 28, 2007

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