Chasing The Wind

By Lisa Cohn

Reprinted With Permission From Oregon Business Magazine

Oregon's Cheap Hydroelectric Power Is The Envy Of The Nation, But Deregulation And Environmental Concerns Have Utilities Looking To Wind Power For Help.

For years, wind prospectors have known about the wind-rich ridge tops and wheat fields in Oregon that could serve as sites of wind farms that generate non-polluting energy. Places such as the Vansycle Ridge in Northeast Oregon feature rolling hills whipped by wind ripping out of the Columbia basin at speeds of up to 19 miles per hour-energy just waiting to be harnessed.

Until recently, however, Oregon's winds have lashed unfettered over the Columbia River, past golden wheat farms and over fields where cattle graze.

But now, national developers are suddenly eager to funnel Oregon's gusts into wind turbines and sell the energy as an alternative to polluting electricity from gas- and coal-fired plants. In June, FPL Energy, Miami, Fla., announced its intention to build a 200-megwatt (MW) wind farm along the Vansycle Ridge, and SeaWest WindPower, San Diego, Calif., said it wants to develop up to 500 MW of wind power in Oregon and Washington, beginning with a 26-MW plant in Gilliam County.

Together, these projects will churn out enough wind energy to serve more than half a million homes.

With the announcement of these projects, the Northwest leads a national surge in wind-energy development, says Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, Washington, D.C. In 1999, the industry experienced its best year ever, installing more than $700 million in wind turbines.

"We're seeing proposals coming up right and left nationally, but the Northwest is leading," she says.

Oregon has become a magnet for wind developers because the state holds the two essential ingredients needed to ensure a wind power project's success: acres of open, wind-kissed sites and thousands of environmentally conscious consumers who in recent months expressed their willingness to pay up to 5 cents more per kilowatt-hour (kWh), or unit of energy, for electricity that yields no air pollution and kills no salmon.

Developers and utilities in areas that have suffered higher electricity prices, such as the Midwest, Texas and California, have actively pursued wind farms. For example, turbines that produce 186 MW of wind power are now operating in Texas. Still, the Northwest, which gets 40% of its electricity from generating plants powered by fossil fuels such as natural gas or oil, is the new frontier of wind power. Montana alone, by conservative estimates, has enough wind potential to handle 15% of the entire country's demand.

"We think the Pacific Northwest market has a fairly large appetite for renewable energy," says Dave Roberts, a spokesman for SeaWest.

Oregon's hunger for renewable energy began in the early 1970s, says Peter West, assistant director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland group that promotes the development of renewable energy. A craving on the part of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB), led them to begin searching for alternative energy sources to diversify their sources of power and uncover nonpolluting options. They wanted information about wind-generating machines--which looked like giant, upside -down egg beaters-and in collaboration with federal agencies helped fund first-of-a-kind research at Oregon State University.

The OSU researchers identified about a dozen windy ridges and open fields in the Northwest and set up mini meteorological towers to collect wind speed data, says Stel Walker, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at OSU who took part in that early effort. Among the research sites was the Vansycle Ridge, undulating wheat fields that didn't seem an obvious choice for a wind farm, says Walker. However, thanks in part to the data collected over the years by OSU, the ridge is now the focus of wind power development by FPL Energy.

"A lot of the wind power development in the Northwest right now is due to the data that BPA and Stel Walker have put together," says West. "OSU has years and years of data that helps developers conclude the odds are good about certain sites."

In the 1970s the BPA and EWEB began investing in experimental turbines that eventually self-destructed but that yielded important information about the region's wind power potential. EWEB, for instance, was awed by the raw strength of winds that spelled the end of a project north of Newport, says Gary Jackson, an EWEB senior civil engineer. Winds of up to 120 miles per hour cracked the turbine blades of EWEB's experimental turbine at Agate Beach.

After high winds ripped apart the turbine blades of an identical machine in California, EWEB took caution.

"After that, our machine was never allowed to run on its own. We always monitored it. We always had the fear the same thing would happen," says Jackson.

Wind power from that first project cost 43 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), 20 times as much as the 2- to 3-cent/kWh hydroelectric power produced by EWEB's hydroelectric dams at the time, says Jackson. However, technological improvements drove down the price. Today, wind energy is nearly comparable in price to other sources of energy-about 4 cents/kWh, while electricity from gas-fired generating units costs about 3 cents/kWh. In fact, factor in the environmental value of wind's pollution-free energy, and West concludes that wind power is less expensive than other sources over a 20-year period.

Right now, however, wind power costs more-though when some utilities recently began asking customers if they wanted to pay this extra penny or so to receive "green" wind power, many residential customers accepted without so much as a blink. Still, for that premium price customers often want power companies to offer to construct brand new renewable energy facilities that will reduce the region's dependence on fossil fuel-fired generating units.

"If customers pay a premium, they have a right to know the world will be a little greener," says Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Portland, Ore., which funnels money from green power sales into new renewable energy facilities. "They want to affect a change in the environment."

Under a Portland General Electric (PGE) program unveiled in January, about 1,500 customers have opted to improve the environment by paying an extra 5 cents/kWh to purchase wind power, says Kregg Arntson, a company spokesman. PGE will funnel half the price premium into helping develop new wind power facilities, and promises to add new turbines as additional customers sign up.

Such programs have boosted the development of renewable resources across the country, says Paul Komor, research director for E Source, a private energy information provider in Denver.

In Oregon and the Northwest, the biggest boost has come from the BPA, which offers discounts to utility customers who agree to purchase clean energy.

Because its customers have responded enthusiastically, the BPA is expected to purchase up to 300 MW of wind energy in the near future from developers like SeaWest and FPL Energy, said Ed Mosey, a spokesman for the BPA.

"The big driver in all this wind power development is the BPA," says Baker. "Developers will come here if they have a buyer."

And if recent electricity price trends continue, wind power soon will be even more attractive to utilities and their customers. Over the summer, utilities and some industrial customers reeled from the effects of spot market prices that skyrocketed from about $35 per megawatt-hour to more than $1,000 per megawatt-hour in response to regional power shortages. In addition, the price of natural gas--which fuels many electricity generating plants--has doubled over the last two years. Both factors translate to higher electricity rates.

The economic and environmental benefits of wind power never looked so good. That's exciting news to OSU's Walker.

"We've been waiting for this to happen for a long time," he says.

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In the early 1970s, Oregon State University (OSU) researchers Stel Walker and Bob Baker created a system--eventually adopted by "wind prospectors" across the country--that allowed them to mine the Northwest's fields and hilltops for sites that could serve as homes for future wind farms.

Using the OSU technique, which combines low-tech wizardry and intuition, wind prospectors like Baker, principal of Impact Weather in Washougal, Wash., tell developers and utilities when, how and where breezes and gusts are most likely to rotate the blades of wind turbines.

"OSU was one of the first universities in the U.S. to have a wind program," says Walker. "We led the nation with the techniques we developed for siting and evaluating wind turbines. We essentially spawned the rest of the research in that area."

A wind prospector's first clue is the wind speed information collected at airports. Using this data, the meteorologists identify potential study sites, then scour the wheat lands or farms, equipped with a compass, hand-held wind measuring device, binoculars and topographical map, says Baker.

But the most important leads don't come from charts, graphs or computer printouts, but from telltales signs that the winds have imprinted on trees, bushes and grass, says Baker.

If storm winds consistently rip out of the East, prospectors discover trees with limbs laid bare on the East side. They also glean information from dunes carved by gusts, grasses flagged by breezes, and farm crops lashed by storms, says Baker.

In other words, data helps, but conclusions are often based on a feeling.

"It's really an art form," says Baker, "understanding the natural things wind will do."-L.C.