Winds of Change

Airborne Energy is being Harnessed to Meet the West's Power Needs

By Lisa Cohn

In the early 1970s, Oregon meteorologist Bob Baker began an intense search for a valuable natural resource: wind.  He and other researchers at Oregon State University traveled by helicopter and four-wheel drive, combing the Northwest for wind-rich ridgetops and wheat fields that could serve as homes for wind farms.

They prospected in agricultural towns with names such as Touchet, Helix and Wallula, seeking trees deformed by gales and grasses flagged by breezes.  They interviewed farmers who shared tales of gusts blasting screen doors open and storm winds ripping past feeding troughs.

By the end of the decade, the researchers had found nearly 30 "sweet spots"-sites with average wind speeds of at least 17 MPH and proximity to power lines- where windmills could transform gusts, gales and breezes into nonpolluting electricity.  These promising wind-kissed sites included a long grassy bluff near Goldendale, Washington; a ridge southwest of Kennewick, Washington, at the crest of Horse Heaven Hills; and grazing land on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation east of Glacier National Park.

With funding from the Portland-based Bonneville Power Administration -a federal agency that markets electricity from 31 Northwest dams and several power plants -the OSU researchers installed meteorological equipment at all of the sweet spots and also at promising sites where wind speeds averaged at least 15 mph.  From 1975 to 1986, they gathered data from more than 50 locations, documenting what their intuition already told them: Parts of the Northwest were among the windiest landscapes in the nation.

And yet, for years, the winds streamed largely unharnessed over most of the region.  "We collected the information and published reports, but they sat idle because the Northwest had ample hydroelectricity, and the price was low," Baker says.

As part of a test program, Bonneville Power did spend more than $2 million to lease a south-central Washington site from 1980 to 1986 for operation of three experimental turbines whose construction was funded by the Department of Energy.

Put simply, turbines produce energy through the following process, explains the DOE: When the wind blows, it turns the blades, which spin a shaft, which connects to a generator that changes mechanical energy into electrical energy.

The experimental turbines were two-bladed machines, which, from bladetip to bladetip, stretched the length of a football field, says Ron Holeman, a retired BPA engineer who was active in early efforts to develop renewable energy.

"From those trials we learned that the best turbines have shaft-and-rotor assemblies that rotate at variable speeds, picking up speed or slowing down based on the speed of the wind.  The early turbines were designed for rotors to spin at a set speed.  For instance, some had jointed bladetips whose ends pivoted in response to wind flow, blocking or embracing the wind to keep the rotor at a consistent speed. They were mechanically complex and subject to breakdown."

When the BPA ended its testing in 1986, the agency didn't actively pursue wind power again until 1992, when it solicited wind-project proposals. The call for proposals resulted in development of a project near Laramie, Wyoming, from which the BPA agreed to buy 15.3 megawatts of power. Owned by PacifiCorp, a Portland-based utility, and the Eugene (Oregon) Water & Electric Board, the project came online in 1999.

Power is described by how much energy is produced at any given time, and is usually expressed in number of kilowatts per hour. A megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts an hour. Every megawatt of wind power generates enough electricity to serve approximately 250 homes a year, so 15.3 megawatts was enough to provide power for nearly 4,000 households.

That's about 4 percent of the Northwest households that can be served by wind energy today. Windpower production has increased dramatically in the Northwest over the past two years, thanks largely to a drought that spiked traditional power prices during the winter of 2000-2001, and partly due to groundwork laid throughout the West by an enterprising California company, U.S. Windpower.

U.S. Windpower was formed in San Francisco in 1974 on the heels of the 1973&-1974 Arab Oil Embargo, which led to long lines at U.S. gas pumps. The company focused on research and development for many years, building just a small wind project, in New Hampshire, in the mid 1970s. Although U.S. Windpower was based in California, the company originally envisioned the East Coast as its strongest

market. It changed direction in 1980 after another international event led to especially high electricity prices in California.

After the Shah fled Iran in January 1979, oil production was greatly reduced in the Mideastern country, causing a huge drop in world supply. Oil-consuming nations were using 2 million barrels a day more than was being produced, and the Carter administration began programs to encourage development of alternative forms of energy.

California's rapidly growing population had made the state particularly oil-dependent and vulnerable to fluctuations in supply. It was eager to reduce its dependence, and by 1981, U.S. Windpower had contracts lined up with several Golden State utilities. The company became one of the earliest developers of wind power at Altamont Pass, near San Francisco.

"We agreed to install wind plants that would produce about 500 megawatts. These were $500 million deals," says Barrett Stambler, who was a recent Yale University business school graduate when he joined the company as manager of power contracts in 1986. Shortly after he arived, U.S. Windpower--which was expanding throughout the United States and Europe--changed its name to Kenetech Windpower, a play on the idea of kinetic energy, which is generated by motion.

Stambler dreamed of persuading utilities and consumers to use clean, renewable power. "Utilities knew environmentally sensitive plants were worth doing," he says. "Consumers were becoming more interested in purchasing green power."

It was also clear that the utility industry was moving toward deregulation (which began occurring state-by-state in the late 1990s), so utilities wanted to gain experience offering alternative products before they were faced with competitors that did so, Stambler says.

In the Northwest, surging populations and increasing energy demand in Washington and Oregon prompted utilities to explore renewable-energy projects, and Stambler began knocking on Northwest utilities' doors in 1990 to tell them about Kenetech. In 1993, the company opened a Northwest office, and hired Bob Baker away from Oregon State, sending him into the Northwest's agricultural communities to convince farmers to lease their lands for power projects.

Stambler's enthusiasm and Baker's knack for befriending farmers reaped rewards. A number of utilities, including PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, Puget Sound Energy and the Snohomish Public Utility District, agreed to purchase wind power from Kenetech, and by 1994, Kenetech also had a good start on the land it needed to create Northwest wind farms.

Contracts were signed with farmers and other landowners to lease 50,000 acres of arid ridgetops southwest of Walla Walla, Washington, along the Washington-Oregon border. The company planned to use the land for a giant wind plant that would produce 300 megawatts.

But technical problems arose. The company had faced a series of design and mechanical problems over the years, and in Texas and California, blades began flying off Kenetech turbines in high winds. The company couldn't raise enough money to correct the problem and had to declare bankruptcy. In 1997, FPL Energy—owned by FPL Group, and a sister company to Florida Power & Light--bought Kenetech's equipment, wind data, permitting studies and leases.  Despite its demise, Kenetech did pioneering work to bring wind power to the West, says Stambler, who is now director of renewable business development for Portland-based PacifiCorp Power Marketing­PPM-which sells power to Northwest utilities. "Wind power had begun to take hold in the Northwest, and Kenetech was largely responsible for that," he says.

Today, the Northwest is one of the country's leading areas of windpower development. FPL Energy decided to continue, and even expand, the Walla Walla Valley project, which it named the Stateline Wind Energy Center. Construction began in January 2001, and 399 turbines now snake along high-desert land peppered with bunchgrass and thistle. Stateline produces 263 megawatts a year, and construction is under way to boost that to 300 megawatts, making Stateline the world's largest wind farm operated by a single owner.  Wind farms may contain clusters of turbines from many different owners, and the various developers that succeeded Kenetech at Altamont have collectively grown the wind farm into the Second-largest windpower-producing site on the planet, generating a total of nearly 550 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Another California location, Tehachapi, in the mountains southeast of Bakersfield, is the world's largest wind farm, at 620.19 megawatts.

PacifiCorp Power Marketing-a subsidiary of Glasgow-based ScottishPower, which also owns PacifiCorp, the Portland utility-is selling the Stateline project's wind power to Northwest utilities and to the BPA, which is purchasing 90 megawatts. "We have big aspirations for wind power," says PPM spokeswoman Jan Johnson. "Our goal is to add 2,000 megawatts to our total portfolio over the next five to seven years, with much of that generated here in the West."

Since the late 1990s, other developers and utilities have built, or announced plans to build, wind-generating units on many of the sweet spots identified by Bob Baker and other meteorologists. If all the proposed projects are completed--seven are up and running, and 13 are in the planning-and-development phase--the electricity they harness from the wind will yield about 1,650 megawatts by 2004, enough to power more than 412,000 homes a year, says Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland nonprofit organization that promotes development of renewable energy.

Windpower activity is growing so rapidly in the Northwest, it attracted the attention of Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems, a leading manufacturer of windpowered turbines. In July Vestas moved its North American headquarters from Palm Springs to Portland, and the company has said it may build a turbine-manufacturing plant in the Northwest.

"Two years ago, the Northwest had about 100 megawatts of wind power online," Shimshak says. "Today, we have four times that much. In two years we could have 1,000 megawatts. The Northwest is a terrific place to develop wind, with available land, decent wind and willing buyers. And we have the most diverse group of wind-energy projects anywhere in the country."

Windpower developers include Energy Northwest, a Richland, Washington-based consortium of 17 public utilities that operates the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant north of Richland, she says. In September, Energy Northwest completed a 37-turbine, 48-megawatt wind plant on wheat farms near Kennewick, and eight public utilities in Washington are buying the power.

Even the owner of two aluminum plants is developing wind energy, Shimshak says. In January, Golden Northwest Aluminum, based in The Dalles, Oregon, completed a 24-megawatt wind plant in Klondike, in North-central Oregon, and has been selling the wind energy to the Bonneville Power Administration.

Golden Northwest decided to develop the wind plant after energy prices skyrocketed two years ago when the Northwest experienced the second-worst drought on record and the West Coast wholesale-power market was in disarray thanks to utility deregulation problems in California. In December 2000, the 1,200­employee company-whose two plants were using around 600 megawatts of power-shut down its aluminum operations, deciding it could make more money by developing new power sources than it could by making aluminum. It worked with the BPA to sell the power Golden Northwest would have used, and had contractual rights to purchase, and invested the proceeds in energy-generation projects such as the wind-power plant, says Allen Barkley, general manager for Golden Northwest's wind-power subsidiary, Northwestern Wind Power.

Golden Northwest's arrangement with the BPA helped keep the company alive, and this past September, CEO Brett Wilcox announced that Golden Northwest expects to restart a portion of one of its aluminum plants, rehiring 75 people and adding them to the ranks of the 355 people employed by energy development and sales. As part of its effort to survive in the challenging aluminum market, the company is also developing clean-burning natural-gas-fired plants to help meet its aluminum-production needs. Together, Golden Northwest's power projects will generate 844 megawatts, Barkley says.

Shimshak notes that Northwest energy shortages not only affected companies such as Golden Northwest Aluminum, they also concerned consumers, further spurring interest in wind power. During winter 2000 and spring 2001, wholesale power prices jumped from as little as $25 per megawatt-hour to as high as $1,000 per megawatt-hour, with prices sustained at more than $200 per megawatt-hour for several months during that period. Suddenly, wind power, at $30 to $50 per megawatt-hour, was more than competitive with traditional sources of electricity.

Wind-power developers descended on the Northwest and vied for the right to lease wind-blown agricultural lands in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming. But although these developers were tying up the land in case they wanted to use it, the market for wind power was still uncertain. The guts and gamble of PacifiCorp Power Marketing gave at least one company the confidence to go ahead with a major project.

In November 2000, PPM approached FPL Energy and committed to buy all the wind power produced at the Stateline project-which at that point consisted of little more than plans on paper. PPM would take the risk of trying to sell the power to utilities.

"We said, `We'll create a market for this power,' " says Stambler.  "Our goal is to make wind power a core energy alternative for the region, to make wind a mainstream source of power." 

With its financial exposure minimized, FPL Energy proceeded with the precedent-­setting Stateline project. PPM is happy with how things have turned out. Since July 2001, when Stateline began producing energy from its first turbines, PPM has sold virtually every megawatt through long-term contracts with customers such as the BPA, Spokane-based Avista Utilities and the Eugene Water & Electric Board, Stambler says. "That means that wind energy, once viewed as a `boutique' item, has successfully competed directly with other, traditionally less expensive sources, such as hydroelectricity," he says.  PPM CEO Terry Hudgens agrees. "Our wholesale-mostly utility-customers say, `Bring us more,' and so we are."  One of Hudgens' customers is Seattle City Light, which was hit hard by spiraling wholesale-power-market prices between November 2000 and March 2001.

While hydroelectric power has low production costs, its availability is variable and unpredictable, says Seattle City Light superintendent Gary Zarker. When the Northwest experienced its record drought, the utility was forced to buy much more wholesale power than usual to meet customer demand. Since wholesale prices were consistently 10 times their normal levels, the utility had to borrow nearly $300 million and also implement surcharges that by the end of the winter totaled 58 percent more than traditional costs, Zarker says.

No one was happy. The utility decided to take steps to make it unnecessary to buy wholesale power even in a drought. By October 2001, it had not only boosted the amount of hydroelectricity it contracted to receive from the BPA, it had also arranged to purchase power from a gas-fired electricity plant, and it had added wind power to its energy portfolio. Seattle City Light is buying 100 megawatts of wind power from PPM and may increase that to 125 megawatts by August 2004.

"With our current portfolio, we even have surplus energy to sell nearly every month of the year under nearly any water conditions," Zarker says. "Now we're the ones selling power on the wholesale market. The revenue from those sales-expected to be $100 million this year-is helping us pay off the debt we accumulated during the crisis."

The Bonneville Power Administration has now jumped into clean energy with similar enthusiasm. Since 1999 it has more than doubled, to 34 megawatts, its wind-power purchases from the Wyoming wind project.  It has added the 90 megawatts from Stateline and the 24 megawatts from Northwestern Wind Power's Klondike project, and it is also purchasing 50 megawatts from a project in the north­central Oregon town of Condon. That brings BPA wind-power purchases to a total of 198 megawatts, serving around 49,500 households a year. The agency is considering additional wind projects that could serve about 158,000 households, says George Darr, manager of the BPA's renewable-energy program.

"To make sure our energy portfolio in the region is well-balanced, we made a decision to aggressively pursue the most environmentally acceptable resources available," says BPA spokesman Ed Mosey.

The BPA, along with PacifiCorp Power Marketing, has been key to the growth of wind power in the Northwest, says Shimshak from the Renewable Northwest Project. "As purchasers of wind power, PacifiCorp Power Marketing and the BPA are making the market happen."

Even though Northwest energy shortages have abated for now, interest in developing new clean­ power sources has not, Shimshak says. "It's difficult in a region with a power base of hydroelectricity to determine when you have shortages and when you have plenty, because the hydroelectric system's output changes with the amount of rain the region receives, and supplies are also affected by how much power we can purchase from California during the winter."

One of the main challenges of developing wind power is integrating it into the transmission system-the poles and wires that transport electricity, she says. Because the wind does not blow all the time, the electricity it produces is intermittent compared with electricity produced from traditional sources. This makes it difficult for transmission­ system operators to plan how much wind energy will be traveling the lines at any given moment, so they often impose penalty charges if wind-power plants fail to produce as much electricity as scheduled.

Federal tax credits for wind-power production, along with sales-tax exemptions in some states such as Washington, have helped offset the cost of the penalties, says PPM's Stambler, and the cost of generating wind energy has fallen thanks to technological improvements such as larger, more efficient turbines and better blade design.

The cost of producing renewable energy has dropped from about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to as little as 3.5 cents to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour today, says Ron Holeman, the retired BPA engineer. That's without transmission penalties, which in some cases are minimal but in others add more than 10 percent to the price, Stambler says. But because PPM has signed 20- to 25-year contracts with utilities, the price of wind is like a fixed-rate mortgage for them, he says. The price doesn't go up.

In contrast, some suppliers of hydroelectric power include adjustment clauses even in long-term contracts. Hydropower may also vary widely based on the producer. Power a utility gets from a project it owns may cost less than four-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour-less than $4 per megawatt-­hour-during the same period an outside supplier is charging $30 a megawatt-hour to cover indirect expenses and provide a return to investors.

The price of electricity from gas-fired plants is even more variable. It is often indexed to current gas prices. If gas prices are falling, not having a fixed price may be good. If gas prices are soaring, not having a fixed price may be bad. In early October, gas-fired electricity was 4 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Stambler says. "If gas-fired electricity is 3.5 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, and wind isn't much more expensive-or is even cheaper-isn't it prudent to have a chunk of wind power in an electricity portfolio?" he says. "The price of wind power will continue to be in the 3 cents-per­kilowatt to 5 cents-per-kilowatt range even if the Northwest experiences power shortages again and other prices skyrocket to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour or more."

However, for both wind and hydroelectric power, even if the price is locked, the supply a utility receives is not, says Darr from the BPA. A wind or water drought may mean projects can supply less power than anticipated, compelling utilities to make up the difference from other sources in their power portfolios, or to buy power on the wholesale market. That's why a diversified portfolio makes sense, he says.

Although historical data on wind droughts is limited, it appears that no droughts have occurred in the West for at least 20 years, Stambler says, and he believes the varied locations of wind farms help to even out overall flow, since the wind may be strong in one place when it's weak in another.

The 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour he cites for wind power is the cost to generate the power. The retail cost that utilities charge customers must factor in overhead, just as utilities do in setting prices for power produced by traditional sources. When utilities offer wind power as green power, they also often ask customers to pay extra to help fund new green-power projects and to help market green power to encourage more people to use it.

A typical residential customer of Portland General Electric uses 903 kilowatts of electricity a month and pays $74.65 a month, says Mark Fryburg, a PGE spokesman. For 100 percent green power, a typical residential customer pays about $7 extra per month. Customers also have the option of paying an extra $3.50 a month to purchase just 100 kilowatts of "clean wind." The utility funnels a portion of the extra money into acquiring new renewable-power sources.

PGE began offering renewable power in January 2000, and more than 15,500 residential customers now purchase renewable energy, which includes a mix of wind power and geothermal power, with about half the mix being wind.

"Our customers tell us they want to buy renewable energy because it fits their values," says Thor Hinckley, PGE manager of renewable-power programs. "People in the Pacific Northwest are especially interested in environmental protection and creating a sustainable future."

A typical Oregon household buying a combination of wind- and geothermal-generated electricity supplied by Green Mountain Energy a Texas company that provides power to utilities such as Portland General Electric, can reduce carbon dioxide pollution from fossil-fuel electricity generation by nearly 1,750 pounds a year, says Green Mountain spokeswoman Marci Grossman. "That avoids as much carbon dioxide as not driving a car almost 2,000 miles."

About 23 Northwest utilities now offer customers clean-energy choices, says Shimshak from the Renewable Northwest Project, including smaller utilities such as Ashland Electric and Orcas Power and Light.

In March, a restructuring law took effect in Oregon that requires Privately owned utilities to channel 3 percent of their annual retail sales revenues into efforts that support energy efficiency and renewable­energy development. California passed a similar law in 1996 to earmark up to 3 percent of private-utility retail revenues for programs such as renewable energy, and Montana passed a law in 1997 requiring its private utilities to devote 2.4 percent of retail revenues to programs such as conservation and renewable energy. In 2000, Washington passed legislation requiring most utilities public and private-to offer green-power programs to customers.

Use of wind power not only generates green energy, it's also proving to be a boon to wind-blown agricultural communities that have become homes for wind farms. In Walla Walla County, Washington, for instance, tax payments from Stateline wind project developer FPL Energy are expected to total $1.8 million this year, providing funds for essential services such as schools, libraries and emergency medical services, says Larry Shelley, county assessor. FPL Energy has become the country's second-largest taxpayer, he says.

There may even be opportunities to generate money from wind-power-related tourism.  "The Port of Walla Walla has already received phone calls from people who would like to get tours of the projects," says Jim Kuntz, Port of Walla Wall executive director.  "It's one more tourism activity for people considering coming to the Walla Walla Valley."

In economically depressed Gilliam County in north-central Oregon, wind-project construction workers filled vacancies in hotels and motels last year as San-Diego-based SeaWest WindPower installed 83 turbines on a knoll of wheat fields near Condon.  SeaWest, whose power is purchased by the BPA, is expected to pay approximately $550,000 in property taxes each year, says Betsy Pattee, planning director for Gilliam County.

The Northwest's farmers and ranchers are also reaping benefits from the wind rush.  Developers provide handsome payments to landowners willing to provide a home on their land for turbines.  Landowners typically receive a percentage of wholesale sales from wind generated on their property, with payments averaging more than $2,000 per turbine per year, Stambler says.  That's good news for farmers who have been struggling to keep their farms afloat.

Agriculture isn't easy in the Walla Walla silt loam that makes us the gusty ridge 1,200 feet above the floor of the Walla Walla Valley, say Royal Raymond, a farmer based in Helix, Oregon.  Water is a precious commodity along the ridge, where residents must dig 300 to 1,000 feet to meet their water needs, so Raymond, whose grandfather homesteaded the property in 1878, specializes in dryland wheat farming.

Over the years, as wheat prices have dropped, many of his neighbors have given up and sold their property to Raymond's family.  But thanks to hosting more than 25 turbines from FPL Energy's Vansycle Ridge Project based in Oregon, near the Stateline project Raymond has been able to survive.  The turbines were built on his property in 1998.  "There is quite a bit more income, from 15 acres of

electricity production, that we could have gotten from wheat," he says.  "This enables us to continue to farm.  It's nice to be able to continue doing what you and your family have been doing for generations."

In the sagebrush country of Touchet, in eastern Washington, Shirley Hindman likes to watch the cattle grazing under the 165 wind turbines on her family's property.  When FPL Energy began installing Stateline-project turbines in February 2001, Hindman wondered how she'd fell about the blades swishing day and night.  She liked to be along with nature.  But she's grown accustomed to the "foof, fof" sound the machines, and has come to enjoy watching the way they rotate, almost magically, to catch the wind.

In other parts of the country, raptors and other birds sometimes flew into the older turbines because the birds could not see the blades, but new larger, slower-turning blades that are angled at the tip have reduced the problem significantly.  While this aspect of wind farms remains some what controversial, Hindman has not seen any birds fly into the turbines on her farm.

She plans to use her family's lease payment to rid the farm and surrounding lands of yellow star thistle, a nasty weed.  She wants to return the land to its natural condition and encourage the growth of native sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers along the ridge.  FPL Energy has committed to help, at no charge, and this fall, employees worked on weed control and reseeding the area with native plants.

"Unless you are rich, this is the only way to restore the land," Hindman says.

Even if restoring the land means altering the skyline forever, that's OK, she says.  The 165-foot towers now dominate the horizon, their 77-foot-long blades cutting a pathway 154 feet in diameter across the sky.  "Without the weeds, even with the wind towers, the land will be better served," Hindman says.  "Native plants will have a chance to survive."

And she values what wind-power development has done for her community.  Many previously unemployed workers now have jobs helping to monitor and maintain area wind farms.  "This has been a benefit for everyone," she says.  "The turbines don't hurt the environment.  They don't have any poisonous by products.  How could anyone help but be excited by this?"

Writer Lisa Cohn lives in Portland.