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.
But more than 600 megawatts of wind power plants have been built across southern Idaho in the last 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 how it might happen.
The front came off the Pacific and into the Columbia Gorge early Tuesday morning with high winds that quickly turned up the dozens of turbines there to full power. At 2:50 a.m. wind 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 area. It peaked at 5:35 a.m. generating 4,361 megawatts of electricity as residents of Washington and Oregon were just starting their day, then 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 took the lead as the high steady winds blew across the region.
BPA's entire load is only 5,101 megawatts so energy forecasting firm 3Tier, which reported the milestone, said it was producing 85 percent of its load at the peak. However, BPA exports a lot of its power and the region was producing 11,000 megawatts total, including wind, hydro and thermal, according to Earth Techling Newsletter from Portland.
It was sending its excess power to California and elsewhere to customers who either were contracted in longer term for the green power or 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 Boardman to Hemingway transmission line built it will be able to take advantage of the wind hours before it arrives in Idaho.
The cold front arrived in Idaho late in the 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 at 3:34 p.m. megawatts. That is out of a peak capacity of 638 megawatts, said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman.
For most 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 turned up Rocky Mountain Power’s new wind turbines for several hours.
Had the Gateway West transmission line that is planned to be connected to the Hemingway power station west of Boise been built, the entire region could have benefited from the largely stable and dependable wind throughout the day.
Both Idaho Power and BPA have constraints on their hydrosystems in the fall for salmon and the wind power is a benefit, not a burden. In the spring when the wind blows hard the hydro system also going full guns because of the runoff.
And when Idaho Power’s peak power demand set a record at 4 p.m. July 12 at 3,245 megawatts, wind turbines generated just 14 megawatts. But 3Tier showed with its forecasts that predicted the wind power rise last week perfectly, that utilities will be able to predict and integrate wind power into their systems easier in the future, especially when the transmission system is complete.
Perhaps Woody Guthrie, the folksinger who wrote about BPA in the 1930s, could write “Blow on Columbia, Blow on,” if he were still alive.