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Feature Story - October 2007

Alternative Energy Sources

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Renewable Energy Projects Proliferate Across the Northwest

Driven in part by the converging concerns of climate change, the increasing scarcity and price volatility of fossil fuel resources, and an insatiable demand for electricity, Washington and Oregon are in the midst of a renewable energy building boom that appears as sustainable as the power sources they seek to tap. 

Alternative Energy Sources

According to the Renewable Northwest Project (RNP), a coalition of public-interest organizations and energy companies, existing wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuel facilities are currently supplying approximately 4 percent of the region’s power load.   That is but a fraction of the ambitious targets set by recently enacted renewable energy standards for large utilities in both states.  Utilities in Washington must obtain or generate 15 percent of their power (approx. 1,500 average mw), from renewable sources by 2020.  Oregon’s standard calls for 25 percent (1,500-1,600 mw) by 2025. 

“Washington and Oregon are leaps and bounds ahead in renewable energy policy,” says RNP senior policy associate Troy Gagliano, noting that both states have also added financial incentives that encourage both the construction and use of these sources.  “It’s a clear signal that these states are committed to renewable energy development.”

So too are the region’s power companies. “We’re at 5% now, and are pretty active in getting up to required 15%,” says Roger Garratt, director of resource acquisition for Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Bellevue, Wash., which is working toward a voluntary goal of 10% renewable power by 2013.

The Pacific Northwest’s largest utility producer of renewable energy, PSE, currently operates two Washington wind farms capable of serving 100,000 homes, and recently signed a 20-year agreement to purchase up to 50 mw from the new 223-mw Klondike III project near Wasco, Ore., scheduled to become operational later this year.

“The challenges of meeting these goals have been no more significant than what you’d expect when adding a new resource to the system,” Garratt says.  “However, the soaring cost of wind power projects is a source of concern.”
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Wheels are turning

Rising costs are hardly surprising given the intense popularity of wind power, currently considered the easiest and most cost-effective renewable energy source to tap. 

“Ninety percent of our contracts with utility buyers are locked in for 20 to 30 years,” says Jan Johnson, a spokesperson for Portland-based PPM Energy, Inc., developers of the Klondike III facility, which also counts Pacific Gas & Electric and the Eugene, Ore., Water and Energy Board as customers.  “It’s like having a fixed-rate mortgage compared with the price volatility of other fuel sources.”

Currently, however, there are only a limited number of wind-generated megawatts to go around.  The high-tech turbines and blades, which represent nearly two-thirds of each project’s total cost, are in high demand with approximately 60 “utility-scale” wind projects underway in more than 20 states this year, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Much of this activity is centered in Washington and Oregon.  Among the other projects under construction in addition to Klondike III are Portland General Electric’s 125.4-mw Biglow Canyon Wind Farm in Sherman County; Ore., the first phase of which is expected to start operation in December 2007; and the 140-mw Marengo near Dayton, Wash., developed by PacifiCorp of Portland.  Thirteen other Northwest wind projects are in the proposal or permitting stage, according to RNP.

Alternative Energy Sources

And while wind power is a relatively simple concept, the process of creating a large-scale generating facility is actually quite complicated.  The windswept open spaces east of the Cascades may seem ready-made for large generating facilities, but the sites must be large enough to accommodate the 500 to 3,000 feet of spacing between individual turbines, and up to 1 mile of distance between rows. 

“A wind farm can span 200,000 acres, but the actual footprint of the turbines and support equipment is less than one percent,” Johnson says, adding that the land is leased from farmers who continue to use the remaining property.  “We also conduct extensive studies of wind patterns, as well as potential wildlife and bird impacts, to ensure the facilities are placed in the most appropriate locations.”

Johnson adds that depending on location a wind facility’s permitting process can take between six to 24 months.  Construction of a 200-mw wind farm usually requires about six to nine months.

Geotechnical issues can also contribute to a project’s cost, given the need to accommodate 7- to 10-ft. deep foundations up to 52.5 feet in diameter, and requiring as much as 348 cu-yds of concrete each.

Garratt adds that constructing the facilities also involves a high degree of specialization, particularly the cranes needed to erect the turbines, which limits the range of contractors that can participate in these projects.  He notes that PSE’s construction manager, Austin, Tex.-based Renewable Energy Systems Americas, Inc., tends to use the same subcontractors for roads, collector system trenching, and other infrastructure.

“Given the costs involved, that experience pays off in an efficient construction process,” he says.

New light on solar power

Perhaps the only renewable energy resource more dependable than the wind is solar power.  But abundance doesn’t necessarily translate into affordability, particularly for large-scale generation. 

Up to now, the high cost of photovoltaic equipment and limitations on net metering—the credit customers receive for using renewable power—has limited solar power applications to individual homes and buildings.  According to RNP, the largest operating solar facility in the Northwest is a 172-kw system serving a soft drink bottling plant in Klamath Falls.

But advances in technology and other changes could well change the way utilities look at solar power, according to Gagliano.

“The development of new photovoltaic technologies are helping to make large-scale solar power much more affordable,” he says.  “Projects in Germany and Japan, two leaders in solar power, can generate up to 10 megawatts, providing proof of what can be done and where the technology is headed.”

PSE is exploring the possibilities of solar power by constructing a $3.7 million, 500-kw solar power facility adjacent to its Wild Horse wind farm near Ellensburg, Wash.  More than 2,500 solar panels will be located at an old quarry site that the utility says receives as much sunshine as the city of Houston, Texas.

While the Wild Horse facility will have the capacity to serve the energy needs of 300 homes, Gagliano says large-scale solar power systems will be especially valuable in supplementing existing energy sources during periods of high demand, a strategy known as “peak shaving,” eliminating the need for utilities to purchase expensive additional power on the open market. 

“Often, those periods arise during extreme heat events when utilities need power the most,” he explains.  “Solar has been seen as a niche technology, but prices are coming down and there is growing interest for residential, commercial, and industrial applications.”
 
Crowded channels

Renewable energy’s bright future in the Pacific Northwest may be clouded somewhat by the challenge of transferring all that wind-and solar-generated power to Washington and Oregon’s population centers west of the Cascades.  The transmission lines, three-quarters of which are owned by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), are already becoming stressed by the region’s rapid growth over the past two decades.

“The growth of renewable energy isn’t creating the need for more transmission capacity, but it is raising the issue more quickly,” Gagliano says, citing a BPA study that predicts that the existing network can accommodate another 6,000 mw of power.  “We could be there in the next few years.”

Gagliano is quick to add that the first priority is to use the existing lines more effectively, an issue that he says BPA recognizes.  “They’re examining their processes and requiring renewable energy developers to demonstrate that they are serious about moving their projects forward,” he says. 

At some point, however, the growth of renewable energy from east of the Cascades will require additional investment in the region’s transmission network.  Garratt, whose company also owns transmission lines, says that while new rights-of-way may be needed, even augmenting lines in existing corridors may stir public concern.

“I haven’t seen intense contention on transmission line projects in this region,” he says, “but you always have to approach the issue carefully.  The Cascades are everybody’s backyard in the Northwest.”

Home-grown energy

Biofuels such as ethanol, produced from refined vegetable oil, have also received significant attention in the Northwest, particularly with the recent completion of the nation’s largest biodiesel refinery near Hoquiam, Wash. Constructed and operated by Imperium Renewables, which also operates a 5-million-gallon refinery in Seattle, the $65 million facility is designed to produce 100 million gallons of biodiesel annually.

The Hoquiam plant is the tenth biodiesel plant operating in Washington and Oregon, with more on the way according to Nikola Davidson of the Northwest Biofuels Association. 

“Governments and businesses in both states are using 20 percent biodiesel fuel for their fleets,” she says.  “Should the proposed biodiesel requirement for federal vehicles be enacted, users such as military bases will require millions of gallons.”

Davidson adds that while Washington is doing what it can to fast-track the permitting of new biodiesel refineries, getting it to the retail level is proving more difficult. 

“There seems to be a disconnect between state politicians, who strongly support biofuels, and local politicians and fire marshals,” she says.  “A lot of education is needed to bring everyone up to speed on what biofuels are all about.”

That education effort may need to reach consumers and other potential as well.  Although Seattle has the nation’s highest concentration of personal biofuel vehicles, ethanol-enhanced diesel remains more expensive than conventional diesel, which along with natural gas, is also a primary fuel source for utilities’ small “peaker” generating stations.

Gagliano notes that transporting the raw materials for making biofuels becomes cost-prohibitive once the refinery has to reach beyond a 50-mile radius.  “As demand for this material increases, it will become a commodity and be subject to the same cost fluctuations as other fuels,” he says.

Davidson insists that biofuels are here to stay, and will only grow as petroleum-based products become both scarcer and more expensive.  “The technology enjoys strong support from agencies and politicians from both parties,” she says.  “It’s not only a viable answer to our fuel needs, but also a potentially valuable tool for rural economic development.”

Projects Fuel Job Growth

Those three words—“rural economic development”—may prove to be the biggest dividend from the Northwest’s renewable energy construction boom.  The RNP says that the seven new wind farms completed in the 12 months ending in October 2006 have generated up to $6.8 million in annual property tax revenues.

RNP adds that the projects have created nearly 1,400 construction jobs, along with the associated purchases of food, fuel and lodging.  State incentives to purchase locally manufactured construction materials and equipment for these projects have spurred the emergence of a homegrown renewable energy industry in the northwest.  PSE’s Wild Horse solar facility, for example, with be the first commercial installation to use solar panels manufactured in Washington. 

“The whole renewable energy arena is clearly one that will receive a lot of interest and attention for a long time,” Garratt says.  “There will be lots opportunities for the region’s construction community to be involved.”


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