April 7, 2007

The gap between the blades

A story from this week's Billings (Mt.) Outpost (click the title of this post), brought to our attention by the News Watch service of National Wind Watch, describes the problem that wind brings to the grid, namely, the need for NEW backup power. This is the same case described in an earlier post, a unique situation where the utility is actually stuck with the wind energy rather than just shunting it off into the larger grid where its effects are minimal.

Who will spark the gap?

With the standby power necessary to smooth the erratic output of Montana's premier wind power facility becoming difficult to come by at any price, the state's energy technocracy wonders.

The Judith Gap wind farm is an impressive operation. According to the company that runs it, Invenergy, its 90 turbines stretch 400 feet into the Big Sky when the blades are fully extended, and each one produces enough electricity to power 300 homes. It's a showcase project in Montana's move toward renewable energy.

Yet the cluster of dynamos itself faces a looming power shortage.

To integrate the Gap's green electrons into the area's power delivery system, a back-up source of power is required. When the wind isn't blowing, the power that is scheduled to come from the farm has to come from somewhere else.

All forms of large-scale power generation need other sources of power to help them stay in sync with the demand for electricity or the "load" as the pros call it. Those sources are sometimes called "regulating reserve." NWE had some trouble matching the wind to the load during Judith Gap's first year of operation, an activity that Mr. Fine described as "chasing the wind."

From moment to moment, government regulations require that supply stays within 90 percent of demand, or the utility is considered to be out of compliance. If the company stays out of compliance for too long, fines result.

Before Judith Gap, NWE had never been out of compliance. In 2006 the company violated the standard repeatedly, NWE officials told the PSC. In order to stabilize its lines, the company added another 25 megawatts of reserve power to the 30 megawatts that it traditionally required, PSC Vice Chairman Doug Mood said. The cost of reserve power is passed on to ratepayers.

NWE has the situation under control for now, but at the end of the year one of the primary contracts for that back-up juice will end, and so far NorthWestern hasn't found a new outlet to plug into, company and PSC officials have said.

Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, has noted that with other wind projects in the region coming online, firming power might become impossible to obtain. If that leads to crippling fines for line instability, the Judith Gap facility might have to shut down, he said. ...

Gov. Brian Schweitzer added that energy costs from the wind project are competitive with new coal plants.

"Here are the numbers," the governor said. After one year of operation the Judith Gap project was producing power at $41.63 per megawatt. The wind portion of that was $32 per Mw. That was put together with natural gas from Butte to get $41.63. The new coal plant in Hardin came in at $44 per Mw, and the proposed Great Falls plant will produce power at $48, the governor said.

"Those are the facts," he said. "That's NorthWestern Energy's numbers. It may be that some people don't have all the facts."

The governor was comparing apples and oranges, Mr. Molnar said. The power generated at Judith Gap could not be matched to the load. It was not "dispatchable, curtailable or reliable," meaning that the wind power couldn't be used to back up other sources of power and can't easily be reduced to match demand.

The governor's remarks were "just the usual blather," he said.

Forty percent of the power produced at Judith Gap has been sold into the Idaho system at a loss, because there was no market for it here, Mr. Molnar said. "Why would you pay $42 for a waste product when you can buy usable product for $46?" ...

As back-up power resources get scarcer and more expensive, the company has had to look at building its own, [NWE Communications Director Claudia Rapkoch] said. ... Will Rosquist, a rate analyst for the PSC, concurred that NWE would have to provide its own ancillary power if the third party market dried up. Failure to do so was not an option. ...

wind power, wind energy