WASHINGTON — Seventy-five years ago, during the height of the Great Depression, one of the largest public works projects of the New Deal began to take shape on the banks of the Columbia River in eastern Washington.
Seven thousand workers employed by the Works Progress Administration built Grand Coulee Dam — a mile wide and twice as tall as Niagara Falls — along with Bonneville Dam and a transmission grid that electrified the Northwest. Their efforts inspired folksinger Woody Guthrie. The electricity from the dams still powers the region.
Now, as the current economic downturn deepens, there is talk of another major public works project for the Northwest — one that would deliver green wind power to the Interstate 5 corridor, which connects Seattle and Portland, and, by some estimates, help create 50,000 jobs.
With Congress set to consider a new stimulus plan early next year, the region's lawmakers want to provide funding for the Depression-era Bonneville Power Administration to expand its transmission system.
The plan could be a perfect fit with the incoming administration's support for green energy and green jobs. It also could emerge as a model for turning the nation's antiquated 200,000-mile transmission system into a clean energy superhighway.
"It's the sleeper issue," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who's emerged as one of the leaders on green energy issues and climate change in the House of Representatives. "We need a grid for this century, not the last."
The Northwest is a microcosm for a problem bedeviling utilities nationwide as they develop renewable energy resources, mostly in remote areas, but face bottlenecks in delivering the power to population centers.
The Bonneville Power Administration, one of a handful of not-for-profit federal utilities, markets about one-third of the electricity consumed in the region. It sells the power produced from 31 federally owned dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries. It also owns and operates 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.
Washington and Oregon have adopted laws requiring utilities to start developing alternative sources of power. The renewable energy of choice in the region is wind.
Giant wind farms with state-of-the-art windmills have sprung up in the Columbia River Gorge and elsewhere east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. So far, wind is generating about 2,000 megawatts of electricity in the region, enough to supply two cities the size of Seattle. Another 4,700 megawatts are expected to come on line in the next five or so years.
The problem is the BPA doesn't have enough capacity on its existing transmission lines to carry the wind power from the eastside to the Puget Sound area and Oregon's Willamette Valley.
"Eight-five percent of our load is in the I-5 corridor, and there is no wind in that corridor," said Brian Silverstein, BPA's vice president for planning.
BPA wants to build about 600 miles of new transmission lines at a cost of about $1.5 billion. Several of the seven projects it has in mind are ready to go, with others still requiring environmental reviews.
Nationally, the Energy Department predicts that 20 percent of the U.S. could be powered by wind energy by 2030, but it would cost about $60 billion in new transmission lines and facilities to reach that target.
The problem is not just getting wind power to market, but also solar and other alternative energy resources. The nation's existing transmission system is woefully inadequate. In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the grid a "D" rating and a consulting firm, the Brattle Group of Cambridge, Mass., has estimated it would cost nearly $900 billion to modernize the transmission and distribution system.
"In the Northwest and across the country, we need more transmission infrastructure to move electricity from remote areas into populations centers like Seattle, and more coordinated regional grid operations," said Rob Gramlich, policy director at the American Wind Energy Association.
All of this comes at a time when a credit crunch has made it harder and harder for utilities to borrow money.
Inslee and other Northwest lawmakers and public utilities are hoping the stimulus plan that Congress hopes to have on President-elect Barack Obama's desk the day of his inauguration could help solve the problem.
"It's one of those magic times when crisis is an opportunity," Inslee said.
Because it is a federal utility, BPA has what amounts to a line of credit with the U.S. Treasury, known officially as borrowing authority. The plan is to double the amount BPA can borrow to more than $7 billion to pay for the transmission upgrades, improvements at the dams and other projects.
The money carries an interest rate comparable to market interest rates. BPA has made 25 annual payments to the Treasury of nearly $1 billion each. The money comes from Northwest ratepayers.
Washington state's two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have spoken to the Senate leadership about including increased borrowing authority for BPA in the stimulus bill.
BPA and other utilities also have discussed the need for increased transmission lines or improving existing ones running to California and fast-growing Southwest states. California utilities already have been in the Northwest prospecting for wind power and other renewable energies. A group of private utilities has unveiled a California to British Columbia transmission project.
Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington state Public Utility District Association, said including expansion of the BPA transmission system in the stimulus bill is a no-brainer.
"It's a modern version of what was done during the Great Depression," Johnson said.
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