Rule forces us to ask how much the wind costs

Wenatchee WorldSeptember 26, 2013 

In 2006 we people of Washington voted to force ourselves to buy an ever-increasing share of our electricity from windmills. The law set out in Initiative 937 said “renewable” sources, but it might as well have said wind power, since abundant hydroelectricity is deliberately excluded, leaving wind the only “renewable” power source that is remotely practical.

And, if the goal was to force investment in wind power, it worked. Just drive to Ellensburg to see the whirling results.

The region now has a wind power capacity, on paper, of 4,500 megawatts. That is certainly a lot, four Seattles, even if it only happens in moments of heavy bluster. There will be more. The law requires large utilities to obtain 9 percent of their power from renewables by 2016 and 15 percent by 2020.

But all this windy carbonless renewability raises some reasonable questions, such as: How much? Who pays? Is there a better way? Are we actually reducing our carbon footprint, or are we covering Eastern Washington with windmills and raising our electric rates for not much environmental gain?

I would like to know. A coalition of legislators and businesses wrote to state Auditor Troy Kelley earlier this month, seeking an official performance audit to answer these and more pointed questions, including “Is the implementation of I-937 saving businesses and consumers money as promised?” and “Are the renewable energy targets of I-937 resulting in cheaper energy production as promised?” and “Have the policies of I-937 resulted in Washington utilities selling excess hydropower to other states?”

The Legislature’s appropriation for a similar-but-limited study was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee as redundant and needless. There will be resistance to a study of similar scope by the state auditor, especially from environmental groups that consider I-937 unquestionably good. But this will certainly lead to the suspicion that the windy powers that be really don’t want to know the answers, or worse, don’t want the people paying the bills to know the answers.

The Bonneville Power Administration has an interesting Web page worth checking from time to time (transmission.bpa.gov/business/operations/wind/baltwg.aspx). It shows how much power we are making from hydro, thermal and wind sources in near-real time, updated every five minutes, and compares them to the power we are using, the load.

You will notice there are times we make a lot of power from wind. There are times we make almost none. And it rarely has any relation to how much power we are actually using.

We often have an enviable abundance, and since we are forced to buy the wind, we sell the hydro. Perhaps this cuts carbon emissions by replacing dirtier power somewhere else, but back home we must pay for expensive power and sell the cheap power.

Is it worth it? It is a reasonable question.

Tracy Warner is a Wenatchee World columnist. Email him at warner@wenatcheeworld.com.

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