Air, Water Powerful Partners in Northwest

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

PASCO, Wash. -- Like mail-order brides, thousands of long-limbed wind turbines are coming to the empty outback of Washington and Oregon, where they are being married off, via the electrical grid, to hulking old hydroelectric dams.

These are arranged weddings for a warming world -- designed never to give birth to greenhouse gases.

The Pacific Northwest is hardly alone as it chases the wind for clean power. Anxiety about climate change and surging demand for electricity have triggered a wind-power frenzy in much of the United States, making it the fastest growing wind-energy market in the world. Power-generating capacity from wind jumped 27 percent last year and is expected to do the same this year.

But it is in the Northwest where wind power, an often capricious source of electricity, meshes most seamlessly with the existing electricity grid, which relies heavily on hydroelectric dams, power managers say. This meshing of power sources is done in a way that maximizes power reliability while minimizing the grid's need for energy from fossil fuels, which release the greenhouses gases that cause global warming.

"It is synergy on a scale that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," said Ken Dragoon, research director at the Renewable Northwest Project, a coalition of public-interest groups and energy companies.

For this synergy, thank concrete monstrosities such as Grand Coulee Dam, a federal barrier that has been squatting on the Columbia River since 1942 and is still the largest electrical generating machine in North America. Grand Coulee and other huge dams in the region are proving to be extraordinarily nimble mates for the graceful but fickle wind turbines.

When the wind fails here or when big cities demand peak power, dams can step in almost instantly and steady the electricity load. Hydroelectric power plants ramp up faster and more efficiently than coal-fired or nuclear plants, and without the chronic uncertainties in cost that plague gas-fired plants. The Pacific Northwest gets more of its electricity from hydro -- 67 percent -- than any other region of the country. That's mostly because the Columbia, by itself, embodies a third of the continent's hydroelectric potential.

The era of dam building, though, is long gone, and existing dams cannot keep up with the new demand for power.

As a result, wind capacity in this region is exploding, from just 25 megawatts in 1998 to a projected 3,800 megawatts by 2009. Last year alone, Washington state added 428 megawatts of wind power, trailing only Texas in new installations. One megawatt of wind power can supply the needs of 225 to 300 homes, on average, each day.

Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, said the electrical grid in the Northwest is uniquely accommodating to wind power because of the dominance of hydroelectricity, and because of relatively reliable wind, progressive utility companies and new state laws demanding renewable energy. Those laws require utilities, over time, to generate 15 to 25 percent of their energy from sources that do not cough carbon into the air.

In a draft of a wind-power report that is scheduled for release this week, four major Northwest utilities and a federal agency called the Bonneville Power Administration say that they have found "no fundamental technical barriers" to integrating 6,000 megawatts of wind power into the regional grid.

That would produce clean electricity for 1.3 million to 1.8 million homes -- and increase the use of wind power, as a percentage of total regional electricity production, to 8 percent. It is now 3 percent.

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