The numbers don’t add up for the Horse Heaven Hills wind farm | Opinion

Bob Brawdy/

The numbers don’t add up for the Horse Heaven Wind Farm (HHWF) — unless your goal is to produce the least amount of electricity possible when it’s most needed, while negatively impacting the most land, wildlife, and people possible.

It’s common sense to recognize that the intermittency and variability of wind power is a significant deficiency when the grid is expected to deliver continuous and uninterrupted electricity no matter what the weather.

The question is, can you assign a number to this deficiency? The answer is yes, and utilities in the Northwest have done it.

In response to increasing risk of Northwest power grid blackouts driven by rapid retirement of coal plants and crippling restrictions on new natural gas power plants included in Washington and Oregon clean energy laws, a consortium of utilities organized by the Northwest Power Pool started an effort called the Western Resource Adequacy Program (WRAP).

One major objective of the WRAP was to adopt common grid reliability planning and analysis standards, including calculating what percentage of installed wind farm generating capacity across selected geographical areas can be counted on when electricity demand is highest, i.e., the coldest and hottest days of the year.

What the WRAP team determined is Washington wind farms are expected to provide the lowest effective winter capacity than any region analyzed by a factor of more than two to three, depending on the month. In the worst case, utilities who add Washington wind to their portfolio will only be allowed to use 8% of the maximum generating capacity possible as credit toward their January dependable supply inventory.

Washington wind is expected to perform better in summer months, but June and July are when hydropower is usually operating at maximum levels and the power grid doesn’t need as much help from other technologies. The greatest need in summer for dependable generating capacity usually occurs in August and September when hot temperatures are still in play and the hydro system water flows have petered out. These are also the months the WRAP team determined Washington wind summer effective capacity numbers drop to 18% and 13% respectively.

Clearly the WRAP assessment shows not all wind farms are created equal and that matters to utilities trying to balance affordability with reliability and environmental impacts.

For further perspective, the next time you are driving by Hermiston or Boardman in Oregon, keep in mind the three natural gas power plants you can see from Interstate 84 occupy 15 to 20 acres each and are providing between 474 and 635 megawatts (MW) of 98% effective capacity year-round, with carbon dioxide emission rates between 50% and 60% less than coal.

In contrast, the 850 MW Horse Heaven Hills wind farm lease boundary area is over 72,000 acres and the project would only be credited by the WRAP for 68 MW of January effective capacity and 153 MW for August.

It would take more than seven projects the size of the HHWF to provide the January effective capacity of a single clean burning and dependable natural gas power plant.

This is illustrative of why a myopic focus on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions through a deepening dependence on energy-dilute wind power must ultimately come to terms with the laws of physics and the high financial and environmental cost of achieving a reliable power grid with this technology.

Yes, I know the HHWF developers are including battery storage and solar in their project. And who wouldn’t when politicians offer generous tax subsidies to cover the exorbitant cost of propping up their favorite technologies. Just keep in mind, existing grid-scale lithium-ion battery technology is limited to a four-hour discharge time, is material intensive, and lasts about 3,000 cycles, which is 8 to 15 years depending on the frequency of charging and discharging.

Yes, elections have consequences. And when it comes to clean energy policies in Washington, the negative ones are beginning to materialize. Utility engineers have been backed into a corner by politicians who are now designing the power grid to their liking.

There is no doubt, wind farms are going to be built. But if you still think the numbers should matter, the HHWF and any other Washington wind farms should be low on the list of alternatives. For more perspective, please see:

Rick Dunn is the general manager of the Benton Public Utility District.