Washington State’s Power Peril (wind and solar–not gas, hydro, nuclear)
By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 2, 2021
“… anti-hydropower interests are attempting to capitalize on a shift in political power together with emotionally charged arguments and opinions to weaken support for hydropower, while falsely promoting wind and solar technologies as environmentally benign replacements.”
“Negative [wind] impacts associated with viewsheds, decommissioning and turbine disposal, tourism, birds, wildlife, and flashing lights were at the top of the list of concerns identified by a Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce opinion survey.”
I recently read an interesting opinion piece by the general manager of the Benton County Public Utility District in Washington State, Rick Dunn, “Clash of Titans: Clean Energy, Conservation and NW Power Grid.” Published in Clearing Up, a Pacific Northwest energy review, the controversies of renewable energy as “clean” and “green” (which I noted back in 1997) come to the fore.
A better environment and keeping the lights on are both at risk with the Pacific Northwest’s decarbonization policy. So documents GM Dunn, a mainstream believer in renewable energy who fears not being able to provide the electricity his constituents need. Dunn is also aware of his region’s concern about the takeover of the landscape by industrial wind turbines if not massive solar arrays.
Excerpts from Dunn’s editorial are presented below in quotation form.
- While I was not surprised when Oregon joined Washington to pursue 100 percent clean electricity, it was tough to hear of Oregon’s prohibition on the siting of new natural gas-fired power plants.
- As a utility executive with a better-than-90-percent clean power-supply portfolio, but in need of dependable capacity to cover persistent and consequential summer energy deficits, it continues to be difficult to accept that states with nation-leading clean and low-cost electricity are forcing utilities and our customers to gamble grid reliability on the hope that overdevelopment of wind and solar power inside and outside our region will be the answer to replacing dependable capacity provided by retiring coal plants.
- One frustrating irony is that some of the same entities that helped convince policymakers to back utilities into a corner and force a deeper dependence on wind and solar power are continuing to cavalierly call for the erosion and outright removal of carbon-free hydroelectric generating capacity—the very hydropower on which Washington and Oregon’s 100-percent-clean aspirational visions and bragging rights were established.
- And rather than celebrating our existing nation-leading clean energy capabilities, anti-hydropower interests are attempting to capitalize on a shift in political power together with emotionally charged arguments and opinions to weaken support for hydropower, while falsely promoting wind and solar technologies as environmentally benign replacements.
- The industrialization of natural landscapes, ecological disruption and volumetric waste challenges that would be the result of replacing diminished hydro generation with wind and solar power never seem to be a part of the anti-dam conversation, and they should be.
- Clearly dams have significant environmental and ecological impacts and it is right to continuously scrutinize and scientifically evaluate their operations. What is not right is to proclaim an unwavering commitment to science when it suits narrow ideological interests while being willfully blind to the fact all energy conversion technologies have limitations and life-cycle impacts that should be considered in a balanced costs-versus-benefits analysis.
- Unfortunately, 100-percent-clean-energy policies now have utilities on a path where we are required to assume that some power generating technologies have disproportionately high environmental costs and others have only benefits.
- This is not only intellectually dishonest, but may also increase the fragility of the Northwest grid as aggressive renewable energy policies experience project development friction resulting from longstanding conservation policies and pushback from rural citizens who will clearly bear the greatest burden if the development of thousands of miles of new transmission lines, and sacrifice of potentially millions of acres of natural landscapes to wind and solar farms, continues as envisioned by policymakers.
- … There is nothing like a proposal to build the state’s largest wind farm within view of the nearly 300,000 citizens of the Tri-Cities area in Benton and Franklin counties to force the hard questions about Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) and 2021 State Energy Strategy (SES).
- At a nameplate generating capacity of up to 1,150 MW of combined wind, solar and battery storage technologies, the Horse Heaven Wind Farm would include 850 MW of wind power with up to 244 wind turbines as tall as 600 feet stretching for more than 25 miles across the horizon and covering an area encompassing 113 square miles of the iconic Horse Heaven Hills.
- While project developers are undoubtedly drawn to Washington by the substantial existing wind footprint and 100-percent-clean headlines generated by CETA, I wonder if the developer expected a letter to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife expressing significant concerns with the proposed project based on a potential clash with conservation efforts.
- In an April 2021 letter, WDFW stated, “These areas, as well as the entire Horse Heaven Hills ridgeline, are used seasonally and year-round by a variety of avian species, some of which are State, Priority, Candidate, and Threatened Species.
- In fact, the entire Horse Heaven Hills ridgeline is an important area for avian species and other wildlife, including reintroduced Pronghorn antelope. It is a strategic location that provides suitable habitat for a variety of native plant and wildlife species and has been recognized as such through a variety of scientifically validated stakeholder publications.”
- The Fish and Wildlife Commission then followed up its EFSEC letter with a unanimous vote Aug. 27 to move the ferruginous hawk from the state’s threatened species list to endangered status and identified wind power development as a contributing factor to its decline.
- Unsurprisingly, and in addition to WDFW concerns, the Tri-Cities community with a 95 percent non-emitting hydro- and nuclear-based electricity portfolio has expressed overwhelming opposition to the wind project based on EFSEC filings by virtually every local jurisdiction as well as economic-development interest groups.
- Negative impacts associated with viewsheds, decommissioning and turbine disposal, tourism, birds, wildlife, and flashing lights were at the top of the list of concerns identified by a Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce opinion survey.
- Additionally, community leaders have expressed significant frustration with the developer’s decision to use the optional EFSEC process to attempt to gain Gov. Jay Inslee’s approval of the project in lieu of working directly with local planning authorities.
- The wind project is an early and compelling test for two fundamental tenets of Washington’s State Energy Strategy, which are to “build an equitable, inclusive, resilient clean energy economy” and to “ensure public participation and inclusion of historically marginalized voices.”
- Furthermore, the SES states, “Public and community participation is important to ensure energy policy is informed by local knowledge, meets local needs and is viewed as legitimate by the local community.”
- While these goals and objectives are easy to state and easy to agree with, it will be extremely difficult to deliver on their promises. Particularly if low-capacity and energy-dilute wind and solar projects requiring vast land areas continue to be the primary means for reducing electricity emissions and developers are allowed to continue using the EFSEC process to gain project approvals.
- And like conservation policies aimed at protecting animals and ecosystems from industrial development in rural and sensitive natural habitats, the promises of the SES are not likely to make renewable energy development easier.
- Policymakers need to confront the reality that clean-energy policies with strong preferences for wind and solar power are likely to face land-use conflicts as a significant limiting factor and that this project development uncertainty could contribute to the fragility of the Northwest grid as the scheduled rapid retirement of coal-fired power plants proceeds as planned and the strategy to overbuild wind and solar projects faces the prospect of project development gridlock in some areas.
- This same uncertainty will likely be amplified further when you consider the potential pushback by citizens and agencies representing Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, states that continue to be identified by Washington policymakers as essential to the wind, solar and transmission line development necessary for achieving their aggressive clean-energy goals.
- To gain additional perspective, Washington’s SES indicates a near-doubling of electricity consumption would be required by 2050 to significantly decarbonize the transportation sector and natural gas end uses….
- Of course, no single technology is being proposed as a solution, but when you consider wind farms on average require about 140 square miles of land for every 1,000 MW of installed capacity, a land area equivalent to 60 Seattle’s would have to be covered with industrial wind turbines to achieve just the incremental energy envisioned by the SES.
- And while land use would be significant for solar power as well, the volumetric and potentially toxic waste stream based on the current size of a 300 W solar panel would cover a football field to a depth of over 1.6 miles.
- If you do the same math to account for the 100,000 MW of solar capacity already installed in the U.S., the football field is already piled 4 miles high. While clearly it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, it is worth considering that according to the U.S. Department of Energy, all 83,000 metric tons of used fuel resulting from the entire history of our country’s commercial nuclear power production would fit on a football field at a depth of less than 30 feet.
- I submit that if policymakers are serious about rapid decarbonization, we must come to terms with the scale of energy resources that will be required, as well as the looming land-use conflicts that beg for a serious discussion regarding technologies like advanced nuclear with a much higher energy density and vastly smaller footprint.
- It continues to frustrate me that policymakers remain reticent to advance the dialogue on nuclear power when companies like NuScale have developed designs for a small modular reactor complex that could generate 720 MW of always on and non-emitting energy on a footprint of only 0.05 square miles.
- And while Washington’s CETA and SES keep the door open for nuclear and other technology breakthroughs, I have yet to hear a policymaker or clean-energy visionary mention the simple fact that building large-scale, energy-dense power generating stations as close to population centers as possible would be more efficient and would minimize the need for long-distance transmission lines that are always met with opposition.
- It was very encouraging for me to hear a recent presentation by Grant County PUD officials in which they acknowledged the unspoken environmental impacts and operational deficiencies of intermittent wind and solar as part of their decision to seriously consider advanced nuclear power. Yes, spent fuel from commercial nuclear power is consequential and challenging, but it is nearly impossible for me to imagine how deep decarbonization of the transportation sector and natural gas end uses is achieved without it.
- While I am firmly in the “lovers of hydro camp”, we must acknowledge hydropower was the first variable generating resource and that with each passing year in the era of coal plant retirements and deepening dependence on variable wind and solar, we may be one El Niño drought away from a polar vortex-induced Northwest grid emergency.
- And while laudable and necessary utility efforts are underway to try and overcome the shortcomings of balkanized reliability planning that for many years has counted on surplus inventories of dependable generating capacity, we cannot be certain the Western Resource Adequacy Program will quantify and help deliver adequate amounts of new physical generating resources in the time frame needed to cover deficiencies that may be revealed by simultaneous drought and extreme weather conditions.
- I acknowledge the “laws of the land” appear to have written off cleaner-burning natural gas as a logical replacement for retiring coal plants, but if your clean-energy vision has your eyes looking to eastern Washington and Oregon and lands in adjacent states as the only solution to meeting policy mandates, keep in mind the eyes of us who live in these lands are looking back at you.
- And we are wondering when your community will be ready to talk about the possibilities of forward-looking nuclear power and be willing to compromise and make some sacrifices of your “backyards” to be part of the solution.
- Perhaps that will come when we come to terms with the unspoken costs of wind and solar power or the day our increasingly fragile grid breaks under the weight of too much wishful thinking and not enough reality.
Comment on a Rebuttal
In rebuttal, Nicole Hughes, executive director of Renewable Northwest, complained about Benton County PUD’s “hatred of wind” and “supporting a NIMBY stance on renewables.” She claimed no animus toward hydro and nuclear and contends that “through careful planning, impact studies and thoughtful local permitting processes, most impacts associated with wind energy can be mitigated.”
And finally, “We don’t have time to debate which non-emitting resource is the best for our region.”
Ms. Hughes makes no mention of natural gas as a viable future source of electricity, even to fill in for intermittent resources. She does not mention hydro as a fickle resource, itself depending on the water year. Nor does she mention that existing hydro is at risk, and new hydro is not in the cards.
The consumer is never mentioned as if rates and reliability did not matter. Higher rates? That’s conservation. Interrupted power? That’s conservation too.
Does this eco-lobbyist speak for the grassroots? Would she choose to live under the flicker of a wind turbine or adjacent to a large solar facility?
Nicole Hughes is a Godess of Green, whatever green is. No cost or burden is too high, too disruptive, to parishioners of the Church of Climate.