The Transformer – June 25, 2007

Volume 4, Number 5

Power Council-BPA study shows feasibility

of integrating wind in the Northwest


In December 2004, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council – the regional power-planning agency representing the governors of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington – released its 5th Northwest Power Plan. The 5th Plan was groundbreaking. Not only did it call for meeting half the region’s expected 20-year load growth with energy efficiency, it called for meeting most of the rest with 6,000 megawatts of wind generation.

The 5th Plan recognized the significant wind development already taking place in the Northwest. Since its publication and passage of Washington state’s clean-energy standards initiative and Oregon’s renewable energy standard, the pace of wind development has quickened. As more and more wind projects sprout up across the region, planners wonder how much wind the power system can reliably and economically incorporate into the electricity system.

To answer that question, the Power Council partnered with the Bonneville Power Administration in August 2006 to convene a steering committee of high-level utility executives, utility regulators, renewable resource developers and clean-energy advocates.  Each organization on the steering committee committed staff to a technical working group to address several issues surrounding wind integration and achievement of the wind capacity called for in the 5th Plan. The recently published Northwest Wind Integration Action Plan is the result of the hard work and collaboration of many of these diverse stakeholders.

The Renewable Northwest Project, a Coalition member and partner that promotes renewable energy projects and policy throughout the region, worked with the Council and BPA on the study. RNP staff produced this edition of The Transformer, which outlines the study’s findings.

Good news … no technical barriers to wind

The Northwest Wind Integration Action Plan brings good news. The study concludes that the existing power system can accommodate at least 6,000 megawatts of clean and abundant wind power at moderate overall costs.  It advises, however, that additional transmission capability will be needed in a few years to bring that power to our homes and businesses.

The report features several important policy findings and conclusions:

  1. No fundamental technical barriers exist to operating 6,000 megawatts of wind in the Pacific Northwest.
  2. Regional and international studies reveal that the cost of accommodating wind on power systems amounts to a relatively small fraction of overall wind power costs.
  3. Utilities in the region can further reduce costs through cooperative strategies.
  4. New transmission capacity will be needed to develop the most economic wind resource regions.

Role of wind power

The Northwest has historically relied on a variable resource – hydropower — that, like wind, rarely generates at full capacity. Today, roughly half the energy consumed in the Northwest is hydropower, with most of the rest produced by a variety of fossil and nuclear resources. The report says most utilities will need new resources to meet growing electricity needs and that wind power’s main role is reducing fossil fuel consumption, which means cleaner air, fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and less exposure to volatile wholesale fuel markets.

Due to its enormous flexibility and storage capacity, the hydrosystem seems a perfect partner for wind generation. When the wind blows, hydro resources can be backed down, effectively storing the wind generation as water behind the dams. Hours or days later, the water is released to generate power that supplants purchases from fossil-fueled resources. In the end, nearly all the wind energy is expected to result in scaled-back operations at fossil-fueled power plants.

Additional studies are needed to determine the most cost-effective ways of operating hydro systems to facilitate integration of substantial amounts of wind power. The report did not determine whether any operational changes made to incorporate wind would affect protocols to protect fish. One thing is clear, however: fish come first!

Wind brings no additional need to build power plants. The report notes that wind contributes relatively little to meeting peak demand, but utilities have other controllable resources to do that. Wind power’s primary purpose is displacing higher-cost energy. Utilities’ controllable power plants will be turned down as the wind blows, and turned up as the wind subsides.

Integration costs

The report assesses the costs of using other resources to manage wind power’s relative variability. Primary factors include the cost of reserving sufficient flexibility at existing power plants, and of operating those plants to balance wind-power changes as needed.

Wind integration costs vary by utility, and are affected by the utility’s size, its portfolio of generation resources and aspects (such as geographic diversity) of the wind power resources it needs to integrate. Citing several regional utilities’ preliminary studies, the report finds that the cost of integrating wind makes up about 10 percent of the total delivered energy cost of wind power.

While the utility studies will be further refined, their cost estimates are in line with those assumed in the Council’s Power Plan.  They also confirm the conclusion found in many Northwest utilities’ integrated resource plans, that wind is a least-cost resource.

Need for transmission

According to the integration study, the region’s transmission system can absorb the next few years of wind-project growth. After that, however, new transmission lines will be needed to meet growing Northwest electricity demand and to reach high-value wind resources.  Geographically diversified wind development helps smooth variability and thus lowers wind-integration costs.

Because wind isn’t expected to meet peak demand, traditional transmission-line development practices and marketing services might not be the most cost-effective way to integrate wind.  New transmission products can efficiently balance the needs of peaking resources such as gas turbines with those of wind and similar energy resources.  Cooperation among transmission planners, regulators, utilities and the wind-development community is essential to creating a workable model for planning, financing and marketing transmission for wind energy.

Regional cooperation lowers costs

The report finds that cooperative regional efforts can further reduce overall wind costs.  For example:

  • Utilities can help balance system needs by sharing the variability of their wind facilities and their load variability across service boundaries — similar to what is now done for hydropower.
  • Flexible generation resources may be shared across utility boundaries.
  • Transmission extension plans should be based on identification of the region’s best wind development areas.

Fortunately, the region has a long history of forging cooperative agreements aimed at increasing the size of the pie for all regional consumers.

The road ahead

The wind-integration report includes several recommendations for smoothing the way for future increases in wind resources.  Chief among the recommendations is establishment of a Northwest Wind Integration Forum to shepherd the other actions items.  Efforts are already underway on several of the proposals, including development of a regional wind resource data set that can be used to improve future studies, and utility sharing of certain flexible resources.

The Northwest is blessed with clean resources such as hydropower and wind.  Working together, the region’s utilities can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and find the most cost-effective means of incorporating renewable power.  The Northwest Wind Integration Forum deserves continuing support from utilities and other stakeholders to ensure a clean and affordable energy future for the region.

Additional Resources:

Northwest Wind Integration Action Plan
Renewable Northwest Project

What do you think?

We are interested in your reactions to these articles. We will print as many responses as possible in future editions of The Transformer. Please email comments to