Developers want to build one of Washington's biggest wind farms about 10 miles southwest of Benton County PUD's headquarters. However, the utility hopes the Horse Heaven proposal stays on the drawing board, because it officially opposes further wind development in the Pacific Northwest to serve Washington load, a position its commissioners adopted July 14 after releasing the report Wind Power and Clean Energy Policy Perspectives.

The utility has instead endorsed transitioning from coal to natural gas to nuclear—particularly small modular reactors under development by Oregon-based NuScale Power—to meet the zero carbon emissions mandate set in the state's Clean Energy Transformation Act.

"We believe it is reasonable to suggest the most balanced and environmentally responsible actions you can take to 'clean up' the electricity sector is to produce as much low or non-emitting electricity as possible in the smallest area possible," Benton PUD's official position said. "This seems to be best accomplished with energy dense fuels like natural gas and uranium."

Given wind's low capacity factor relative to firm resources, the report said, hundreds of thousands of acres in Washington almost certainly would have to be covered with industrial wind turbines, along with power lines to connect them to the grid, to hit CETA's 2045 goal for 100 percent clean electricity.

The negative environmental effects of this "energy sprawl" could outweigh the benefits of wind, Benton said in its statement.

Wind's life-cycle economics and environmental impacts demand further consideration, with "greater recognition of issues like the global impacts of raw materials mining and the disposal of wind turbine blades which are currently destined for landfills," the utility said.

Every energy source "takes a toll on the environment," but "wind power is often given a pass due to its popularity with policy makers and many in the general public," it said.

Benton PUD laid out its position in six points.

First, wind generation is intermittent, and Benton PUD peaks in the summer, when it faces significant capacity deficits. Currently, it relies on market purchases to cover the difference. With coal resources scheduled for retirement, the utility is looking to secure a power purchase agreement with a dispatchable resource to cover its summer deficit until 2028, when its BPA contract expires.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council forecasts the region could have sizeable shortfalls by 2026, when loss of load probability is projected to hit 26 percent.

"The utility has to procure resources for reliability," GM Rick Dunn told Clearing Up.

"Are you willing to roll the dice" on wind during a bitter cold snap in winter? he said. "Not me."

Second, Washington's electric sector already has among the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in the country. In 2016, electricity consumed in the state produced 16.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the most recent data available from the state's Department of Ecology.

That accounted for 0.9 percent of the 1,796.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide the U.S. produced that year from electric generation, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Carbon dioxide emitted by electric generation accounted for 16.7 percent of Washington's carbon footprint in 2016, compared to the 44.6 percent contributed by transportation, according to Ecology's data.

"Further development of wind power in the [Pacific Northwest] will not result in consequential reductions in national or global GHG emissions attributable to Washington state utilities and will do very little to mitigate the increasing risk of [N]orthwest power grid blackouts," the utility said.

Third, given wind's intermittent generation, utilities will need to build firm resources to ensure reliability when wind is not generating. These resources, however, will rarely run, but utilities must still bear the cost.

"Further wind power development will unnecessarily contribute to increases in [N]orthwest utility retail electricity rates which could erode the economic development advantage low rates has given our region for many years," Benton said in its position statement.

The Council's price forecast for its 2021 Power Plan predicts lower energy costs in general by 2045 for the Northwest, with negative prices midday. That suggests utilities will be able to recoup less of the capital costs for new resources from surplus sales.

Investor-owned utilities could be less concerned about overbuilding resources, given that they are guaranteed a rate of return, Dunn said. Consumer-owned utilities "are not in that position."

Fourth, wind development's contribution to those changes in energy market prices will likewise reduce sales revenue for surplus hydropower generation, which would in turn put upward pressure on retail rates for BPA customers, including Benton PUD, the statement asserts.

Fifth, "Benton PUD believes the best long-term, sustainable and environmentally responsible strategy toward meeting the CETA goal of 100 percent clean electricity in Washington state by 2045 could be to transition coal power to natural gas and then natural gas to nuclear," the utility said.

 Toward that end, the utility supports Energy Northwest's collaboration with NuScale to advance small modular nuclear reactor technology.

Sixth, "large-scale investments in Pacific Northwest wind power projects will contribute to increases in the normally surplus annual energy supplies in the region, thereby eroding the hourly energy supply opportunities needed by small modular reactors to achieve economic feasibility," the PUD asserts.

Given those six points, "Benton PUD does not support further development of wind in the Pacific Northwest," the statement said. "Before Benton PUD customers and citizens throughout our region accept further sacrifice of the natural beauty and open spaces that are part of our way of life, we want them to know there are other options we should be asking our legislators and utility industry leaders to urgently and seriously consider."

Furthermore, CETA's "aggressive timelines and technology restrictions" contribute to the region's greater risk of blackouts and brownouts "that jeopardize the health, safety and wellbeing of Northwest electricity customers," the utility said.

Economics, as well as public policy and utility goals, are driving the acceleration in retirements of coal-fired power plants.

Wind power is an old resource, and relying on it is moving Washington backward, not forward, Dunn said. Benton PUD's statement "is about what makes sense and what is truly visionary energy leadership."

Some of wind's shortcomings could be mitigated if Washington was in an organized market, he said. "If we operated as [a regional transmission organization], you'd be rolling dice, but at least you'd increase your odds."

Benton's statement is premised on where the state's electric sector is now, not on a theoretical future, he said. "We don't procure energy as a region. We do it as Balkanized entities."

The PUD sent the statement to several other PUDs. Leaders at several of those utilities have told Dunn they support the plan, but are hesitant to publicly take a position, he said.

"It is rather rare that a PUD adopts an official position like this," Dunn said. "We're saying what a lot of people would like to say."

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.