Science & Technology



Winds of change: What will power the Northwest's future?

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

MARTINSDALE, Mont. -- Carl Borgquist wants to spend more than $1 billion to transform a remote butte fringed by pine trees into a giant water battery.

This might seem a madman's folly if not for the roller-coaster nature of wind and solar power production, which can soar when few need electricity, then fade in the evenings when people come home to turn on the lights.

When demand is low, Borquist would store energy in the form of water pumped from a low-lying pond to another pool carved out of the rim top. When demand is high, this flow would be reversed and run through turbines to produce hydropower for Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Borgquist is betting this technology -- called pumped storage -- will claim a role in a cleaner grid as the region's utilities move off coal. On a wintry day, he walks through the sagebrush and grass, where the wind has sculpted a rippled crust of snow, and he imagines what could be.

"We are ready to build," declares Borgquist, whose Bozeman-based company has spent six years planning and gaining permits for the Gordon Butte project. "The world is moving in our direction."

This might appear a big leap of faith as President Donald Trump pledges to revive coal and rejects the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions. But Borgquist is making his pitch, here, in the Pacific Northwest, where carbon-free electricity is forecast to play a pivotal role in the transition to cleaner energy, providing power for light, heat and vehicles as the internal combustion engine -- Washington's largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions -- loses favor.

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In Montana, where the export of coal-fired electricity offers high-wage jobs and important tax revenues, this future would mean plenty of economic pain. Yet this pathway also could offer opportunity in the development of pumped storage and power wrested from fierce winds that blow hardest in the winter, when Washington and Oregon most need electricity.

But it remains unclear how much -- and how fast -- the regional grid will go green, and whether Montana will grab a piece of the action.

Federal support for renewable energy has withered under Trump, who has repeatedly disparaged the science linking the combustion of oil, natural gas and coal to rising temperatures and sea levels.

In Washington and Oregon, the governors have committed to trying to comply with the Paris Agreement and have set an ambitious 2050 goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels. They also have backed legislation that would put a price on carbon, and help drive motorists away from fossil fuels.


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