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Sunday, September 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Power shift: Wind now seen as a viable alternative energy source
By Tricia Duryee
Eric Markell has been watching the wind blow for 25 years, hoping that someday it would heat homes and light buildings.
The wind's energy potential wasn't taken seriously until recently because it was too costly and unpredictable, said Markell, Puget Sound Energy's senior vice president of energy resources. Now with vast improvements in the reliability of wind technology, utilities are considering it as an alternative to traditional resources like hydroelectricity and natural-gas-fired generation in a major way.
PSE is paving the road, by announcing last week that it would pay up to $300 million for the proposed Wild Horse Wind Power Project near Ellensburg. The purchase makes PSE the first utility in the state to buy a wind farm.
And the Bellevue-based utility is just one of many in the Northwest trying to fulfill demand for power through wind, said Barrett Stambler, director of renewable business development of PPM Energy, which sells power.
Portland General Electric, PaciCorp and Avista also are looking for renewable power sources, he said. In all, he estimates, the utilities want to acquire about 2,500 megawatts by 2010.
"PPM has made wind power one of its most important business agendas, because there is so much interest by customers to diversify their energy sources," Stambler said.
But the process is not simple. With few wind farms completed in Washington, wind power is not readily available. Developers have started working on several sites but are struggling to get farms off the ground as residents rally against them and they wait for the federal tax credit to be renewed that would make the resource more competitive on price.
"Wind must and should have a permanent key place in our portfolio," Markell said. "The struggle is in actually getting it done."
How it works
Washington state has only a few wind farms. The two largest are in the southeastern part of the state near the Columbia River, where the wind often blows in excess of 45 mph.
The farms' 200-foot-tall turbines with three 100-foot-long blades can be seen from miles away. When the wind is really blowing, the tips of the blades spin at 120 mph.
When the blades reach full speed, generators kick in and send power to underground lines that deliver it to a substation for use in homes and businesses around the area.
A wind farm hits its maximum generating capacity when the turbines turn at top speed. But the wind doesn't always blow, so a farm actually produces less than its capacity.
The Wild Horse farm, being developed by Houston-based Zilkha Renewable Energy, is to have 100 to 133 turbines that would generate up to 220 megawatts of energy at full capacity.
One megawatt of wind power can create enough energy to serve 330 homes for a year, Puget Sound Energy says. That means Wild Horse could produce enough power to supply up to 73,000 homes a year.
The farm is in the permitting process. Zilkha filed an application in March with the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
If the project and others are completed in the Northwest, it will significantly add to the amount of wind power being produced here. Currently, only 1.3 percent 651 megawatts of the 51,200 total megawatts being generated in the Northwest is from wind, according to Jeff King, the senior resource analyst at Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland.
"That doesn't sound like much, but it has grown from nothing five years ago," he said.
That could grow to as much as 8 percent if the 3,600 megawatts under development are built. That could be enough power to serve 1.2 million homes for a year, or more than 1-½ times the number of households in King County.
Getting laughed at
Ever since the West Coast energy crisis in 2000, utilities have been searching for a stable resource to offset natural-gas cost increases and dwindling hydroelectric generation. Wind has become a natural candidate because it is free and renewable.
When Stambler started marketing wind to utilities, he said, he found little interest in the idea.
"You tended to be pushed off to the [research and development] department as opposed to talking to the mainstream power purchasers," Stambler said. "I was just trying to get meetings and not get them to laugh at me."
But utilities have been forced to look seriously at alternative power sources at least partly because of the growing demand for power, and wind is gaining acceptance.
PSE estimates that by 2008, it will need sources capable of generating 350 megawatts more power to serve its users. When it sought proposals for power sources, the utility received 50. The company narrowed the list to seven three of those wind farms, including Wild Horse.
Three farms are proposed for Kittitas County.
In addition to Wild Horse, Zilkha plans the Kittitas Valley Wind Project along Highway 97 between Cle Elum and Ellensburg. About 121 wind turbines would be installed on 90 acres and generate about 180 megawatts, or enough for about 45,000 homes. It is in the permitting process.
The third is Desert Claim, owned by enXco, a wind-energy company that develops, builds, operates and manages wind-energy projects out of Palm Springs, Calif. It is on Puget Sound Energy's short list of possibilities.
EnXco has filed an application with Kittitas County and proposes building a maximum of 120 wind turbines about eight miles north of Ellensburg to generate at least 180 megawatts of electricity.
Developers say Kittitas County is a perfect location for wind farms because in addition to being windy in the foothills east of the Cascade Mountains it has Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines. Easy transmission is a key to making wind power affordable. It is also fairly close to the Seattle area, where there is high demand for power.
Part of the frenzy to acquire wind power is because of the cost. Coal can cost $50 to $55 a megawatt hour, and natural gas costs $60 to $70. Wind is cheaper, with PSE estimating it will cost $45 a megawatt hour after a tax credit.
Developers of wind farms are hoping Congress will renew a tax credit of $14 for each megawatt hour of power they generate. The credit, which expired last December, gives the developer a tax benefit for the first 10 years of the project and helps offset the cost of building a wind farm.
The American Wind Energy Association said the number of wind farms built since the expiration of the tax credit has dropped dramatically. Last year, the wind industry built a near-record 1,687 megawatts, but since the expiration of the credit, less than 30 megawatts of new capacity has been built, with no more than 350 megawatts in new projects expected by the end of the year.
Still, developers have proposed several new projects in Washington state, leading some residents to complain that the gigantic wind turbines will hurt their property values.
Protecting views, wildlife
Imagining the windmills repeated three times in Kittitas County, near Ellensburg, has upset some residents.
Opponents are organized under the name of Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines. They show up for public hearings and talk about how the area is a scenic national byway, how their land is a few hundred feet from the nearest turbine and how their property values will decrease.
They also talk about a threat to wildlife specifically, birds who are killed when they fly into the spinning blades. Fewer birds have been killed since the turbines were made taller, but there is still some risk of bird deaths.
Ed Garrett, spokesman for the opponents, isn't convinced that Kittitas Valley is the only place where Zilkha can build its farms.
The power lines that span the valley don't bother residents, Garrett said, but the turbines do. The nearest turbine is about 400 feet from his property, Garrett said, and nearly 60 percent of his view of stars one of main reasons he moved to the valley is blocked.
The Kittitas Valley project has received the most complaints, Garrett said.
"Our issue is about the siting," he said. "Build in an area that's unpopulated."
Garrett's argument, said Zilkha project manager Chris Taylor, is a typical "not-in-my-backyard" complaint.
"Wind is great as long as you can't see it," Taylor said. "One of the reasons we thought that particular site wouldn't raise any visual objections [is that] most of the turbines are around existing transmission towers. They say they don't notice those anymore.
"The argument we'd make is once [the turbines] go in, in a few months or a year or two, they'd adjust to that and stop noticing them, too. You can't miss them, obviously it would change the perspective but people get used to them."
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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