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Wind Energy Growing by Gusts and Bounds

by Michael Jamison
The Missoulian, August 14, 2009

Wind turbines continue to sprout up in the Northwest KALISPELL - Last week, the region's electrical grid came howling into the future, blowing away historic records for transmitting wind-driven energy.

"Wind power is growing rapidly in the Northwest," said Brian Silverstein, at the Bonneville Power Administration. "It's the largest source of new power in our system."

In January, BPA set the high bar for wind power transmission at 1,000 megawatts. It was widely applauded as a substantial achievement toward diversifying the region's grid.

But that mark was doubled on Aug. 6, when more than 2,000 megawatts of wind-blown energy coursed through the grid.

On that day, wind turbines in eastern Oregon and Washington spun enough electricity to light all of Seattle and Portland.

"Within just a few years, we've seen more wind projects come on line," Silverstein said, "and BPA has been working quickly to connect the new projects into the regional power grid."

Bonneville is generally more well-known for its water power; the quasi-governmental agency markets hydroelectric power from the region's 31 federal dams, selling some 40 percent of all the electricity used in the Pacific Northwest - including power for thousands of Montana homes.

In recent years, however, BPA has looked increasingly toward other renewable energy sources, with a strong emphasis on wind.

"It's great to see wind power mature, along with BPA's ability to integrate it into the system," said Rachel Shimshak, of the Renewable Northwest Project. Growth in renewable energies, she said, has "resulted in thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars of investment in local communities, and provided a boost to creating a clean energy economy."

Of the nearly two dozen wind farms that contributed to the 2,000-megawatt mark, almost a third came on line just this year. Most wind farms in the region are owned by private developers, but are hooked into BPA's grid. They arrived on the heels of the region's first wind turbines, installed near Walla Walla, Wash., in 1998.

In response, the agency continues to build transmission infrastructure needed to move the new power. In addition, BPA recently began construction on the first of 14 planned weather stations, to help forecast windy days.

Bonneville also broke ground this summer on a major new transmission line, intended to deliver another 575 megawatts of wind energy.

"The Northwest has clearly distinguished itself as a leader in the effort to add wind to the mix of resources that helps power the nation," Silverstein said. BPA has moved quickly, he said, because "states are calling for adding more clean, renewable sources of energy to the region's power supply."

In Montana, the wind power is delivered to tens of thousands of homes through local public utilities, as well as outfits such as PacifiCorp and Avista.

Wind, however, comes with its own set of problems - particularly the fact that it doesn't blow when you want it to, and so often must be "backed up" by traditional power plants. Bonneville administrator Steve Wright has made solving those problems a top priority in recent years, and on Wednesday said "it's exciting to be figuring out in real time how to make this all work."

And so far, as solutions have emerged, wind has blown away expectations. A 2007 regional energy plan predicted 6,000 megawatts of wind on the grid by 2023. Now, Wright said, Bonneville predicts "more than 6,000 megawatts of wind power in the BPA grid alone in the next five years."

That, he said, is enough energy to power five Seattles, the equivalent of two big nuclear plants.

Michael Jamison
Wind Energy Growing by Gusts and Bounds
The Missoulian, August 14, 2009

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