Cold front shows promise of wind power in the West

Idaho StatesmanOctober 22, 2012 

The cold front that moved through the Pacific Northwest and on to the Great Plains a week ago illustrated the promise of wind power if the region’s transmission system is upgraded as planned.

I know that a lot of Idahoans aren’t very excited about wind power right now, based on the results of the Idaho Statesman’s recent poll. And until something changes, Idaho’s wind gold rush is over, due to the elimination of a sales tax rebate, lower natural gas prices and discontented utilities.

ut more than 600 megawatts’ worth of wind farms have been built across southern Idaho in the past five years and will be generating power for another 20 years. Maximizing their efficiency is in everyone’s interest, and the cold front gave us a glimpse of how it might happen.The front came off the Pacific and up the Columbia River Gorge early Tuesday, with high winds that quickly turned up the hundreds of turbines there to full power. At 2:50 a.m., turbines were producing 3,169 megawatts, surpassing — for the first time ever — the 3,165 megawatts of hydroelectricity generated on the Bonneville Power Administration’s system.

It peaked at 5:35 a.m., generating 4,361 megawatts of electricity, just as residents of Washington and Oregon were starting their day. Then the wind subsided slightly around sunrise, and the hydro dams took the lead again for most of the morning.Then, from 11 a.m. until 5:50 p.m., wind raced ahead as high, steady gales blew through the region.

BPA’s entire load is 5,101 megawatts. So wind was supplying 85 percent of the load at its peak, according to energy forecasting firm 3Tier, which reported the milestone.BPA, however, exports a lot of its power, and the region was producing 11,000 megawatts total, including wind, hydro and thermal, according to the Earth Techling Newsletter from Portland.

That excess power went to California and elsewhere, to customers who either were contracted for long-term green power or were buying on the spot market.Idaho got some of that power through our transmission links to BPA customers in the Magic Valley, Idaho Falls, Salmon and elsewhere. But when Idaho Power Co. gets its proposed Boardman-to-Hemingway transmission line built, it will be able to take advantage of wind power hours before it arrives in Idaho.

The cold front arrived in Idaho late that morning and drove the turbines on the new wind farms built across the state to their high gear. Idaho Power reported a peak of wind power generation of 518 megawatts at 3:34 p.m. That is out of a peak capacity of 638 megawatts, said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman.

For most of Tuesday afternoon and into the evening, wind turbines generated 450 to 500 megawatts of electric energy, about a third of Idaho Power’s load. Then the storm moved east into Wyoming, where it spun Rocky Mountain Power’s new wind turbines for several hours.Had the Gateway West transmission line that is planned to connect Wyoming to the Hemingway power station west of Boise been built, the entire region could have benefited from the largely stable and predictable wind throughout the day.

Both Idaho Power and BPA have constraints on their hydrosystems in the fall for salmon, and that’s when wind power is a benefit, not a burden. In the spring, when the wind blows hard, the hydro system is also going full guns because of the mountain runoff. That’s when wind power is a problem for the utilities to handle without more transmission capacity.

When Idaho Power’s peak power demand set a record of 3,245 megawatts at 4 p.m. July 12, wind turbines generated just 14 megawatts.But the 3Tier forecasts that perfectly predicted the wind power rise last week showed that utilities will be able to predict and integrate wind power into their systems more easily in the future, especially when the transmission system is complete.Perhaps Woody Guthrie, the folk singer who wrote about BPA in the 1930s, would write, “Blow On, Columbia, Blow On,” if he were alive today.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service