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Pacific northwest waking up again

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A commitment to revive several wind projects left in the lurch following the bankruptcy of Kenetech Windpower is one of the fortunate by-products to have come out of the year long debate over electric utility restructuring in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The area is home to America's most heavily subsidised electricity system and the market uncertainties of deregulating this structure, coupled with Kenetech's demise, had stopped several wind proposals in their tracks.

But on December 5, a 20 member steering committee sponsored by the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC) put the finishing touches on a final draft of the Comprehensive Review of the Northwest Energy System, a reform plan for the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho. On December 12, a long list of recommendations was forwarded to the governors of these states, who are expected to put their political weight behind the plan.

The good news for wind is that the report urges all renewable projects previously in the pipeline to go forward. And despite last minute pleas by the region's numerous and small public utilities, each utility in the four states will spend about 3% of their revenues for social programmes, a category that includes renewables. It is estimated that $34 million will be collected annually over ten years to support new wind and other renewable projects. In addition, $1 million will be earmarked for renewable research and development and another $5 million for distributed generation systems, including small wind turbines.

Paying the difference

The Comprehensive Review document urges that funding for new projects be used to pay the difference between market prices, which are the lowest in the nation due to cheap hydro, and the cost of new state-of-the-art renewable projects. The report notes that utilities can use these subsidies "to provide incentives for green marketing programmes, acquire renewable resources, or have marketers bid to leverage the utility's share to yield the greatest value for customers." Utilities should be prepared to show how they will meet the renewable energy minimum standards by July 1997. If less than 90% of the region's utilities are able to demonstrate compliance plans by that date, the proposal urges that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal government power marketing agency that supplies 70% of the region's electricity, develop a back-up plan to go into effect July 1, 1999. This date is also when customers are expected to be allowed to choose their power supply company.

While the 3% contribution is lower than an original goal of 4.5%, is voluntary instead of mandatory, and small public utilities were granted special privileges to reduce financial impacts on individual utilities, the language included in the final restructuring blueprint was cause for at least a minor celebration by the Renewable Northwest Project (RNP). The organisation has been working to site new renewable plants in a region blessed with good wind as well as geothermal resources, but is cursed by citizens unfamiliar with any renewable source except the large hydroelectric power plants built in the 1930s and 1940s.

"It's a decent proposal that balances the political and economic benefits of restructuring with environmental benefits," says Rachel Shimshack, RNP's executive director. Wind might also be required to replace hydro, supplies of which could be reduced because of deaths of protected species of fish such as salmon, "or else the entire electric supply system will become dirtier," adds Shimshack.

Wind projects boosted

The biggest near term impact of the recommendation, which still needs to be adopted by state lawmakers and regulators, is the reiteration of financial support for 138 MW of new wind projects, most of which were in jeopardy. A 25 MW project to be developed by FloWind in the Columbia River Gorge in Washington has passed a number of permitting hurdles and power from it would be bought by a consortium of eight Washington state public utilities known as the Conservation and Renewable Energy Systems (CARES) and BPA. Meantime, two of the three projects proposed by now bankrupt Kenetech could proceed with new developers (see box).

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