Wind Energy's Success Creates
by Matthew Preusch
The rows of white turbines spinning over wheat fields and ridgelines in eastern Oregon are ample evidence that renewable energy from wind is real and growing.
So much so that the aging network of transmission lines and power stations that carries energy around the region is loaded to its limits.
But wind developers are just getting started. And thousands of miles of new power lines carried by skyscraper-sized steel towers will need to be laid across deserts, farms and forests as more wind farms rise in farther-flung corners of Oregon and the West.
It won't be cheap, or without controversy.
More than half of Oregon is public land that Oregonians value for recreation, unobstructed vistas and habitat for sensitive species. And the cleared corridors that accommodate such transmission lines cut a wide swath.
Expanding the power grid is one trade-off of the national effort to expand clean energy technology and combat climate change.
"There's no question that we are changing the face of the state right now," said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend, which is tracking transmission proposals in eastern Oregon. "And the important part is that we do that in a way that is responsible and reflects our values."
View full sizeEnergy experts have long lamented the inadequacy of the nation's energy grid. The federal government estimates that even though electricity demand has increased nationally by a quarter since 1990, construction of new transmission facilities has slowed.
The Department of Energy also says $60 billion in new investment in transmission, or about 12,650 miles of new lines nationwide, is needed by 2030 to get 20 percent of power from wind.
Oregon ranks fifth among states for wind power capacity. It now gets 7 percent of its power from wind, versus 1 percent a few years ago. And the state will require large utilities to source a quarter of the power they sell from renewable resources such as wind by 2025.
The creation of federal dams such as Bonneville over the past century was accompanied by the build-out of major new transmission lines to carry the power they produced. And over the past decade, excess capacity on those old lines -- due in no small part to the disappearance of energy-eating aluminum smelters -- has been filled up by new wind projects.
But now those lines are getting full.
"Especially with all the wind projects on the east side, the cross-Cascades capacity is beginning to be congested," said Michael Mikolaitis, director of transmission projects for Portland General Electric.
PGE proposes building a 200-mile, 500-kilovolt line from near Boardman in northeast Oregon, across the Cascade Mountains and into the Willamette Valley, one of a half-dozen or so proposed transmission projects in the Northwest.
PGE says it has requests to carry 700 megawatts of wind power from proposed wind farms near Maupin and Arlington, and its planners expect the line to serve 400 megawatts beyond that. (One megawatt of wind power is enough to power about 200 homes.) The new line also would connect to PGE's planned natural gas plant, another existing natural gas plant and a coal plant near Boardman.
PGE hopes to break ground in 2013 and have the line up and running two years later.
But building a transmission line is complicated. Terrain varies. Transmission towers are up to 190 feet tall, and they are built in corridors 125 to 250 feet wide that have to be kept clear of trees.
"These corridors have a long-term environmental impact in that they are permitted clear-cuts. Most of the time they are hundreds of feet wide, and that impacts wildlife habitat and clean water," said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for the group Oregon Wild.
About 27 miles of the Cascade Crossing line would be on U.S. Forest Service land, with an additional 30 miles over the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation and most of the rest on private land.
New lines often mean new rights of way, and across the American West, there are about 10,000 miles of new high-voltage lines -- those exceeding 200 kilovolts -- being considered in the next 10 years, according to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council. At a meeting of Western governors in June, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal lamented that transmission lines could make his state look like a jumbled plate of spaghetti.
"We are talking about in a very short time span having a massive build-out of the power infrastructure. And if we do this the wrong way, there's going to be a large price tag environmentally," Fernandez said.
Most of Oregon's wind development has focused on the Columbia River Gorge, where there are existing transmission lines, farmers willing to lease their land for turbines and good wind, at least in the summer.
"If you take a look at maps of where the high-quality wind sites are, they're generally not where people live. And ultimately the energy that's produced needs to be delivered to consumers," said Brian Silverstein, senior vice president for transmission services at the Bonneville Power Administration.
The agency, which markets the power from federal dams, has 15,200 miles of transmission lines in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, that make up about three-fourths of the regional grid. And it proposes 225 miles of new lines, mostly to handle the increased energy production from new wind farms, Silverstein said.
Those thousands of miles of lines don't take into account the multitude of smaller feeder lines that will be needed to connect scattered wind projects to the grid. A good example is the roughly 50-mile line Columbia Energy Partners proposes to carry power from its planned wind farm on the north end of Steens Mountain in Harney County.
Originally envisioned to cross the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the line was rerouted after opposition from environmental groups. The new route would cross mostly private land, with six power poles proposed on Bureau of Land Management land, said Columbia President Chris Crowley.
"Our project is permitted, and it's on private land. But to connect to the grid, we have to cross federal land. And that's proven to be the hook," Crowley said.
The BLM has 30 pending applications for transmission projects in the West, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. On Wednesday, Salazar and other administration officials announced an agreement to streamline the permitting process for transmission projects on public land.
Simultaneously, Western states and federal agencies are trying to plot where new transmission corridors should be located based on where the renewable resources are greatest and potential environmental impacts the least.
That includes the West-wide Energy Corridor, a plan to designate 6,000 miles of new energy corridors on 3 million acres of federal lands in Oregon and 10 other Western states where applications to build new pipelines or electricity lines would be expedited.
Power lines waiting to go up
Idaho Power: Roughly 300-mile line from Boardman to Hemingway, Idaho
PacifiCorp: Roughly 30-mile line from to Wallula, Wash., to McNary; 375-mile line from Hemingway, Idaho, to near Klamath Falls
Portland General Electric: 200-mile line from near Boardman to Salem
Pacific Gas and Electric, Avista Utilities and British Columbia Transmission Corp.: 1,000-mile line from Northern California to southeastern British Columbia
TransCanada: 970-mile line from central Alberta to near Columbia River Gorge
Bonneville Power Administration: Nine projects totaling about 225 miles of lines
Source: utility companies
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