Science & Technology



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

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Bryan Rogan, a partner in a local Montana group that developed this wind project, would like to expand to provide electricity for Washington or Oregon. But it would cost tens of millions of dollars to build a substation to hook up to the lines that could carry the power out of state. That would probably only happen if the much-larger pumped-storage project helped to foot the bill, Rogan said.

Montana's formidable wind has drawn other developers.

In the southeastern part of the state, California-based Orion Renewables has proposed putting in as many as 350 turbines some 80 miles north of Colstrip.

The project would represent a roughly $1 billion investment, employ from 20 to 40 people and over the years pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes and lease fees to landowners, according to Michael Cressner, Orion's business development manager.

But plenty of people in the Colstrip area aren't impressed. They see wind as a poor substitute for coal that employs more than 700 through the mine and power plant people that sustain their town.

"There's not a lot of jobs. There's no parking lots set up in front of those windmills," said John Williams, Colstrip's mayor.

"There is no doubt that a wind farm is a different animal -- it is not a silver bullet in terms of an economic impact," Cressner said. "But what I think is unfortunate is to make wind the enemy when it can provide benefits to this community."

Does PSE owe Montana?

For Puget Sound Energy, Montana is familiar territory.

Utility officials shuttle back and forth to the state to visit Colstrip or testify at the state Capitol in Helena as they have wrestled with the difficult decision of when the coal plant shuts down.

To help make peace with Colstrip, the utility has offered $10 million to assist the town's adjustment to the closure of the first two generating units by 2022. And a PSE official now serves on a task force convened by Montana's governor to help overcome barriers -- such as transmission tariffs -- to developing renewable energy.

But a PSE official says there is no special responsibility to develop new sources of electricity in Montana.

"It sounds good to say 'We owe Montana,'" but let's not forget we paid to build that (Colstrip) plant and paid to operate it," said Ron Roberts, the utility's director of thermal resources. "I do understand, you know, the sense of wanting to do renewables in Montana ... You have got to remember, the other obligation is to get a good cost for our customers."

So far, PSE sees a significant role for natural gas, which is in abundant supply as fracking technology has unleashed vast new reserves. It is mainly composed of methane, a greenhouse gas about 28 times more potent than carbon emissions over the course of a century. And the methane often leaks into the atmosphere during production, transport and use of this fuel.

A 2017 PSE planning document predicts -- after 2025 -- adding new gas turbine plants able to produce enough electricity for more than 1 million homes. But PSE officials say the plants would only be occasionally used during peak demand.

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The document sketches out an alternative that involves no new gas plants, but plenty of conservation and renewables. That scenario was estimated to cost 20 percent more, and thus is not the preferred option.

Environmental groups accuse the utility of an institutional bias that favors natural gas.

"Their long-term planning consistently favors replacing that coal with new fracked gas plants,'' said Caleb Heeringa, a Seattle-based spokesman for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

PSE does have deep ties to the gas industry.

The utility's largest owner, Australia-based Macquarie Group, is heavily involved in international gas trading. The utility's chief executive Kimberly Harris now serves as chair of the American Gas Association, an industry trade group.

But for PSE, the continued reliance on natural gas also poses risks in a region with strong support for cleaner fuels.

Big regional power customers -- such as Microsoft -- want carbon-free power, and so do a lot of customers.

PSE officials say they are prepared to rethink their long-term strategy, and that the new gas plants may never be built if, in the years ahead, technology and carbon policy combine to create better options.

This year, PSE executives even backed a legislative bill to place a substantial price -- $40 per ton -- on carbon when estimating the costs of new power production from gas plants. That price would escalate over time, and make renewables a lot more attractive.

Borgquist hopes that means the utility will take a fresh look at Montana, and the butte that holds his dreams for the region's energy future.

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