Biglow Wind Farm consists of about 80 enormous windmills on the ridge of the Columbia River Gorge. Standing underneath one, you can actually hear the blades swooshing past at 120 miles-per-hour.We continue our energy series, the Switch, with a look at the one renewable source of energy that started booming a decade ago: wind power.
Companies like GE and Seimens make turbines; the federal government offers utilities big financial incentives to build wind farms; and as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, hundreds of windmills have gone up in Oregon alone.
Today, Eric Melbardis has offered to take me up a tower to see a turbine up close.
Eric Melbardis: “What we’re going to do now is climb to check on a couple of technicians that are performing preventative maintenance. See you in a little bit.”
Kristian: “So I’m the first 30 or 40 rungs up a ladder that reaches almost up to the sky. It goes up 260 to 280 feet which is the equivalent of the justice center in downtown Portland, that may be about 26 stories high and I’ve just got to keep climbing.”
Eric Melbardis: “Okay we made it. Right here that I’m standing on is the main shaft and this is actually connected to the blades which are out in front of us. This turns a gearbox which kicks up the speed, which turns a generator, which sends the electricity back down to the grid.”
Kristian: “Alright cool, can we go up?”
Kristian: “It’s just an incredible sight. I can see Mt. Hood in the background. And I can probably see all the way to, I would imagine that’s Idaho, and certainly Washington on the other side of the Columbia River Gorge here. This really is going to be covered in turbines in a few years. Any spot that there’s going to be some wind, I would imagine and that’s close to transmission, they’re going to have someone renting out their land so they can catch the wind.”
Back on the ground, Gary Hackett runs Biglow for Portland General Electric from a small office. He says wind farms are the biggest change farmers here have seen since tractors.
Gary Hackett: “The land in Sherman County is basically dry land farming. And the population of the whole county is 1800 people. So the wind farm has brought tremendous opportunity to the area in the form of jobs, opportunities for folks to get a new career path and stay home.”
Plus, farmers can get $6,000 a year or more for each turbine. And while these truly are massive machines, their footprint is small — about the size of a shed — meaning farmers can still work the land.
In an effort to reduce reliance on foreign oil — and to battle climate change — Oregon has told utilities that a quarter of their power needs to come from renewables by the year 2025.
PGE embraced wind after its Trojan nuclear power station closed in the 1990’s. Company spokesman Steve Corson says PGE chose wind because the fuel is free and they can build big.
Steve Corson: “Wind at this point is really the best or the most commercial scale renewable resource that we have available to us. We’re working on solar, we’ve had a couple of significant solar projects that PGE has pursued in the Portland area. But really wind is the one that is at a commercial scale right now.”
But wind has a problem. It’s an “intermittent” source of energy.
Elizabeth Kocus: “Unfortunately the wind doesn’t blow 24/7 so. Yeah, we’ve had a solid week out here with no wind.”
Vestas technician, Elizabeth Kocus, says the turbines here at Biglow only turn a third of the time. So sometimes the plant can’t produce a single kilowatt during a heat wave or snowstorm — right when demand is peaking.
That means PGE has to back-up its wind farms with a baseload source – like coal, or gas.The other problem with wind is it can’t be stored when winds are high.
One idea is to use the excess electricity to pump water uphill. So when it’s needed, the water can be released through a turbine — like behind a dam. And, says PGE spokesman Steve Corson, in the future, electric cars might also play a role.
Steve Corson: “Each of those cars have batteries and those batteries of course are a way to store electricity. And in some ways that’s a holy grail within the industry, in that we have not had any large scale option for storing electricity — other than say the way we’re able to store water for the hydro system.”
Here’s how it would work: you’d plug your car in at the office and then type into a computer that you’ll need it again at five — to drive home. Throughout the day, utilities can then use the battery as a reservoir.
Other persistent problems with wind power include birds that fly into the blades and die, and aesthetics.
One wind turbine might seem pretty, but massive wind farms may resemble the “nodding-donkey” oil derricks that speckle the landscapes of Texas.
But wind turbines don’t have to cluster in farms and they don’t have to be big. In fact, a couple of dozen companies are racing to place small turbines on your roof.
Oregon Wind for example makes a vivid green one with a distinct helix blade. Sattie Clark is the company director.
Sattie Clark: “It looks a little bit like an old style washing machine agitator on a pole. So if you can imagine it rotates when it’s contacted by wind from any direction. It can be extremely turbulent wind. It does need clean laminar air flow that the big propeller style turbines require.”
But small turbines have their own set of problems.
Oregon Wind’s machine will cost about $2000 when it goes on to the general market next year. And for that, you only get enough power to light a 100-watt bulb.
But Clark says, the turbines have a very specific market.
Sattie Clark: “Somebody who’s got a tolerance for a slightly longer payback period because they care about doing the right thing…. And because they want to invest in technologies that are going to be helpful to the world in the future.”
Wind has boomed because it’s already cheap and getting cheaper.
Roby Roberts is an executive with Vestas turbines. He says the cost of five to nine cents per kilowatt hour will gradually drop to two cents – about the cost of coal power. And while wind only produces about 3 percent of Oregon’s electricity he says, in ten years it could be as much as 20 percent.
Roby Roberts: “In Europe there’s a 20 percent energy requirement and so we’ve been able to see this as a stable long-term stable market. We’ve been able to develop our markets and develop a manufacturing base. We only have one major manufacturer in the U.S. now. But we see with this new congress and the new administration, a real need for domestic manufacturing.”
Roberts says Congress should continue offering federal tax credits.
Roby Roberts: “Traditionally we will see a 75 to 85 percent decrease in our industry when the production tax credit goes away.”
Congress just renewed those tax credits for wind, but set an expiration date of eight years – too soon, the utilities say, for them to really build a deep base of renewable power.
BY KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, OPB NEWS –http://news.opb.org/article/4909-wind-power-very-green-very-intermittent-source-power/