Northwest may blaze U.S. path to green grid
Expanding BPA's transmission system could send wind power to I-5 corridor and produce up to 50,000 jobs
WASHINGTON — During the height of the Great Depression in 1933, one of the largest public-works projects of the New Deal began to take shape on the banks of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington.
Seven thousand workers employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built Grand Coulee Dam — a mile wide and twice as tall as Niagara Falls — along with Bonneville Dam in the Columbia Gorge and a transmission grid that electrified the Northwest.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie was commissioned to write songs about the project, and the electricity from the dams still powers the region.
As the current economic downturn deepens, there is talk of another major public-works project for the Northwest, one that would deliver green wind power to the Interstate 5 corridor, which connects Seattle and Portland, and by some estimates would help create 50,000 jobs.
With Congress set to consider a new stimulus plan early next year, the region's lawmakers want to provide funding for the Depression-era Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to expand its transmission system.
The plan could be a perfect fit with the incoming administration's support for green energy and green jobs. It also could emerge as a model for turning the nation's antiquated 200,000-mile transmission system into a clean-energy superhighway.
"It's the sleeper issue," said U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, who has emerged as one of the leaders on green-energy issues and climate change in the U.S. House. "We need a grid for this century, not the last."
The Northwest is a microcosm for a problem bedeviling utilities nationwide as they develop renewable-energy resources, mostly in remote areas, but face bottlenecks in delivering the power to population centers.
The BPA, one of a handful of not-for-profit federal utilities, markets about one-third of the electricity consumed in the region. It sells the power produced from 31 federally owned dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries. It also owns and operates 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.
Washington and Oregon have laws requiring utilities to start developing alternative sources of power. The renewable energy of choice in the region is wind.
Giant wind farms with state-of-the-art windmills have sprung up in the Gorge and elsewhere east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. So far, wind is generating about 2,000 megawatts of electricity in the region. An additional 4,700 megawatts are expected to come on line in the next five or so years.
The problem is the BPA doesn't have enough capacity on its existing transmission lines to carry the wind power to the Puget Sound area and Oregon's Willamette Valley.
"Eighty-five percent of our load is in the I-5 corridor, and there is no wind in that corridor," said Brian Silverstein, BPA's vice president for planning.
BPA wants to build about 600 miles of transmission lines at a cost of about $1.5 billion. Several of the seven projects in mind are ready to go, with others requiring environmental reviews.
Nationally, the Energy Department predicts 20 percent of the United States could be powered by wind energy by 2030, but it would cost about $60 billion in transmission lines and facilities to reach that target.
The problem is not just getting wind power to market, but also solar and other alternative-energy resources. The nation's existing transmission system is inadequate.
In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the grid a "D" rating and a consulting firm, the Brattle Group of Cambridge, Mass., estimated it would cost $900 billion to modernize the transmission and distribution system.
"In the Northwest and across the country, we need more transmission infrastructure to move electricity from remote areas into population centers like Seattle, and more coordinated regional grid operations," said Rob Gramlich, policy director at the American Wind Energy Association.
All of this comes at a time the credit crunch has made it difficult for utilities to borrow money.
Inslee and other Northwest lawmakers and public utilities hope the stimulus plan Congress wants to have on President-elect Obama's desk the day of his inauguration could help solve the problem.
"It's one of those magic times when crisis is an opportunity," Inslee said.
Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington state Public Utility District Association, said including expansion of the BPA transmission system in the stimulus bill is a no-brainer.
"It's a modern version of what was done during the Great Depression."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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