Wind power may be too much of a good thing | Don Brunell

Could Washington and Oregon’s growing fleet of wind turbines become too much of a good thing? Perhaps.

Could Washington and Oregon’s growing fleet of wind turbines become too much of a good thing? Perhaps.

At present, there are more than 2,200 megawatts of wind energy flowing through the Pacific Northwest at any given time. That is enough electricity to light Seattle and Portland for one hour. State and federal energy policy encourages the development of more wind projects, and developers have received billions of dollars in incentives.

Wind power is touted as the cleanest and greenest renewable energy resource. “You’ve got a non-carbon-emitting source of energy that’s free,” said Doug Johnson of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

Well, that’s not exactly true, according to Todd Wynn of the Cascade Policy Institute. Wynn points out that wind turbines are an unstable energy source — if winds are too strong or too weak, turbines can’t operate. “Because of that, wind power requires backup power in order to maintain a steady supply of energy to the power grid.”

Ironically, that means that as we add more wind power to the grid we must also add more backup power. Fortunately, here in Washington, BPA can use clean, renewable hydropower as a backup.

But there’s a problem. While hydropower currently supplies 70 percent of our state’s energy needs, BPA says our hydropower reserves are dwindling. And if Portland federal Judge James Redden has his way, those reserves will diminish faster. Redden wants more dam water spilled for migrating fish rather allowing it to go through electric turbines.

If we don’t have enough hydro to back up wind power, then we’ll need to use other sources. BPA’s Johnson favors natural gas “…because those facilities can ramp up and down very quickly and move with the wind just like the hydro system.”

But Wynn points out the irony that, as we add more wind energy, we must add more fossil fuel as well. “They’re creating fossil fuel plants because they’re putting wind energy on the grid.” The result: Clean, renewable wind power will leave a greater carbon footprint.

Further exacerbating the problem is the push to close TransAlta’s coal-fired generating plant at Centralia. If it is forced off line, we will have 15 percent less electricity to serve today’s homes, stores, factories, hospitals and schools. In addition, that loss of energy will drain the reserves needed to back up wind power projects.

Fortunately, here in Washington, there is a solution: nuclear power.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a 586 square mile piece of desert used to produce enriched uranium for our nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and many of the most experienced nuclear scientists work there.

Washington’s only nuclear power plant is located at the site. The Columbia Generating Station produces enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle. Unlike hydro, wind and solar generation facilities, it is not dependent on weather conditions — it can produce electricity 24 hours a day.

Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases and is a good supplement to wind power because operators can adjust power levels quickly to meet the BPA’s immediate needs.

The Hanford Reservation already has a planned energy park to power the new vitrification plant which turns nuclear waste into a stable glass form. But the site could also be developed to produce more commercial electricity, and there is plenty of room to build other nuclear plants, test new clean-coal technology and fire up new natural gas plants.

Why not build out the 60 square miles designated for the energy park to generate more support for wind and solar power? It makes sense and would help Washington protect its greatest competitive advantage: cost-effective reliable electricity.