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Will wind farms raise power prices and increase blackouts? Benton PUD thinks so

  • Nov 9, 2020 10:14 am GMT
Tri-City Herald

Nov. 8--Adding more wind turbines in the Northwest is a bad idea, says the biggest public utility district in the Tri-Cities region.

The drawbacks of adding more wind farms outweigh the possible small environmental benefit and could raise electric prices locally, says the Benton Public Utility District.

The Benton PUD, with 54,000 customers in the Tri-Cities area, issued a formal declaration that it does not support further development of wind power in the Pacific Northwest.

It is concerned that increases in Northwest retail electricity rates could harm the economy by eroding the "economic development advantage low rates has given our region."

Although the PUD does not call out any specific projects in the policy paper, its wind farm opposition comes as Scout Clean Energy of Colorado is preparing to apply for a permit from Washington state for the new Horse Heaven Wind Farm in Benton County.

The project along 24 miles of the ridgeline of the Horse Heaven Hills south of Kennewick to near Benton City would include up to 235 wind turbines, plus solar panels and battery storage.

Scout Clean Energy believes Benton PUD policy paper is "out of step with current technology" and "inconsistent with state policy, most importantly the Clean Energy Technology Act," said Javon Smith, who is in charge of community relations for the new wind farm.

Renewable Northwest, a renewable energy advocacy organization based in Portland, agrees.

"The paper relies on false and outdated claims over current scientific data and economics," Nicole Hughes, executive director of Renewable Northwest, said in a statement.

Benton PUD concerns about potential new wind farms include quality of life in Benton County, the cost of electricity and the need to develop power projects that can operate consistently no matter the weather to reduce the risk of power grid blackouts as coal plants are shut down under the Clean Energy Technology Act.

Northwest windpower

"Existing wind farm development in Washington state and along the norther Oregon border has already resulted in the industrialization of previously scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas in the region in and around Benton County," said the 15-page PUD policy paper.

"Before PUD customers and citizens throughout our region accept further sacrifice of the natural beauty and open spaces that are part of our way of life, we want them to know there are other options we should be asking our legislators and utility industry leaders to urgently and seriously consider," the PUD paper said.

Reasonable questions have been raised about the ability of wind power to cost-effectively contribute to the nation's power needs and the full environmental and ecological impacts of wind power compared to other energy technologies, the paper said.

Wind power in the Pacific Northwest will not result in consequential reductions in national or global greenhouse gas emissions for Washington state utilities, the paper said.

Because of hydroelectric generation, Washington state has a reliable energy source that has historically contributed no more than 0.5% to the national's annual total greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production.

Electricity blackout risk

The Benton PUD is concerned that the continued push for more wind projects by developers and many elected officials will do nothing to alleviate the looming risk of power grid blackouts in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington state's 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act sets a deadline in five years for eliminating coal-fired energy. But the politically preferred technologies, including wind and solar power along with batteries, are not ready to provide solutions at the scale needed to prevent possible blackouts as soon as next year, the PUD paper said.

The Northwest Power and Conservation council estimated that accelerated coal-plant retirements could increase the risk of blackouts to a 26% probability by 2026 if utilities are unable to replace the generating capacity of shuttered coal plants.

The best environmentally responsible strategy to meet the Clean Energy Transformation Act's end goal of 100% clean electricity in Washington state by 2045 is to transition from coal power to natural gas and then natural gas to nuclear, the PUD paper said.

All provide consistent power that is not dependent on the weather.

With existing hydro and nuclear power in the Pacific Northwest, meeting the 100% clean electricity goal in the region through additional wind and solar would require a land area 20 to 100 times the area of Seattle and Portland combined, the PUD paper said.

Wind power requires 30 to 45 as much land and 10 times as much concrete and steel to produce the equivalent power of nuclear, the paper said.

Hydro, nuclear power

Now Benton PUD, which relies mostly on hydro and nuclear for power, must purchase additional power during hot summer months and some of the worst winter cold snaps.

But those are typically times when the wind does not blow, which will not help Benton PUD when it is trying to purchase more power.

Energy production from wind farms in the region is often high at the same times that hydro generation peaks, limiting the value of surplus hydro sales.

Benton PUD is among the utilities that can sell their percentage of power purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration when they do not need all of it to help offset what they charge local customers.

"Building more wind farms in the PNW will contribute to untimely energy supply gluts and low short-term market prices, which reduces surplus hydro energy sales revenues, increases net hydro power costs and puts upward pressure on retail rates Benton PUD and other utilities charge our customers," it said.

Utilities end up "double paying" because they have to have backup generation that is adequate to meet most of the peak energy demand on the grid when the wind is not blowing.

"This 'double paying' is why electricity rates in countries and states with high wind penetrations are rising despite the declining costs of this popular renewable energy source," the PUD paper said. "Benton PUD believes further wind power development will unnecessarily contribute to increases in Northwest utility retail electricity rates, which could erode the economic development advantage low rates has given our region."

As more large wind farms contribute to surplus annual energy supplies at times in the region, the opportunities erode for new types of nuclear, such as small modular reactors, to become economically viable, it said.

Criticism of wind farm policy paper

The Benton PUD policy paper represents the perspective of just one of Washington state's 28 public utility district, and it appears to be an outlier, said Smith of Scout Clean Energy.

"Benton PUD's position appears to be based on little more than a personal preference not to see wind turbines," said Hughes in her statement for Renewable Northwest.

"There is not data out there to support a claim that the addition of wind in our portfolio in the Northwest will result in an increase in electricity rates," she said.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council predicts that wind and solar costs will continue to drop, she said.

But advance nuclear options will be considerably more costly than electricity from wind farms, she said.

Scout Clean Energy is relying on the analysis of Randy Hardy, head of the Bonneville Power Administration in the 1990s, to discount the Benton PUD's concerns that wind production would add to the regional hydro surplus and depress prices for sales during the spring runoff.

The Horse Heaven Wind Farm's production would be dwarfed by hydro generation, according to Hardy.

But more importantly, the generation of the proposed Benton County wind farm during the winter will be especially valuable as Pacific Northwest coal plants retire through 2030, creating a need for more electricity.

"This winter capacity benefit in my view, far outweighs any marginal April market price impact from HH (Horse Heaven) -- both for Benton PUD and the PNW generally," he said.

"While there is a small, yet vocal, number of people who oppose this project, it's important to also note that there are many others who support the Horse Heaven Wind Farm because of the significant economic benefits that will be generated, as well as the environmental benefits of developing renewable energy in this region," Smith said.

Opposition to wind farm

Two Tri-Cities residents who share some of the PUD's concerns have started the website to raise awareness of the risk to the Columbia Basin's panoramic views.

"The hills and ridges rising behind the Tri-Cities are visible from far in the Columbia Basin. They need to be protected from massive development as they are the signature of our region," says the website developed by Rich Gerlitz of Richland and Markus Stauffer of Pasco.

Stauffer is a retired geochemist and Gerlitz is retired from the financial industry.

"A Hike on Badger Mountain Will Never Be the Same" says one post on the website, showing a view of a ridgeline topped with wind turbines to illustrate the possible view from the top of Badger Mountain.

More will be known about exactly where in the Horse Heaven Hills the proposed turbines could be sited once Scout Clean Energy submits a site certification application to the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Gerlitz has fond memories of driving a combine for 12 hour overnight shifts in the Horse Heaven Hills as a young man.

He remembers gazing at the night sky and full moon, not the blinking red lights of wind farms, he said.

Such a project would not be allowed if it was marring the view of Seattle residents, such as in Elliott Bay, he said.

Stauffer said he is concerned that the massive turbines proposed for wind farms last only 15 to 25 years, and are difficult to recycle.

If new, more efficient or less costly technology were to make wind turbines obsolete, driving wind farm and companies into bankruptcy, its unclear who would be responsible for the defunct wind turbines that create visual pollution, he said.

But Smith counters the opposition from Stauffer and Gerlitz saying that Scout Clean Energy can only build projects in places where numerous landowners want to participate.

"We currently have substantial acreage under wind energy lease and easement agreements, and because these are voluntary, we simply would be not at this point without the support of many local residents," she said.

The project has the potential to stimulate the local economy by creating hundreds of construction jobs, full-time operational jobs, as well as millions of dollars in property tax revenue for the host community, according to Scout Clean Energy.

Washington state application

Scout Clean Energy had initially announced plans to seek a permit from Benton County, but announced on Friday it would use the alternate method of applying through the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), the state board charged with the siting of major energy facilities.

It expects to file an application with the state in the coming months.

"In recent months the project size and scope have expanded, adding to the environmental review complexity," said Dave Kobus, Scout's lead project manager for the Horse Heaven Wind Farm. Initial plans did not include solar energy and battery energy storage.

"EFSEC provides a 'one-stop' siting process for major energy facilities and will ensure robust public involvement opportunities that match or exceed the local permitting process," he said.

The EFSEC board includes a representative from the state's Departments of Ecology, Commerce, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources, plus the Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Because the proposed wind farm is in Benton County, the county is expected to be allowed to add a voting member to the siting council.

Benton County also will review the application for consistency with local land use and zoning laws.

At the end of the EFSEC review -- which includes public meetings, independent experts, environmental studies and formal hearings -- EFSEC will forward a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee for a final decision.


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