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Nuclear Townhall
December 21, 2010

In 1980, once and future governor Jerry Brown decided California was going to give up coal and nuclear and become the first state to run on “alternate energy.”  By 2000 it didn’t have enough electricity to run its traffic lights.
That scenario now seems about to spread to neighboring states as Idaho suddenly finds itself inundated with wind and solar projects its major utility can’t handle. In a long, front-page story last Sunday, the Idaho Statesman celebrated this as the coming of the Age of Renewable Energy and chided the utility, Idaho Power, for not keeping up and dragging its feet. If Idaho really wants to see where all this is heading, however, it would be best to look at the California experience.
At the crux of this surge of renewables is PURPA, the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act of 1978, which required utilities to buy power from any small producer of electricity. PURPA came long before utility deregulation and was seen as “opening up the grid to alternate producers.”  Utilities are required to buy any electricity that anyone generates at a price that makes it profitable to the producer.
In California, the effect was to drive up the price of electricity, since utilities soon became overloaded with expensive alternate power – often being forced to substitute it for their own cheaper generation. When the state tried to deregulate in the late 1990s, the whole system fell apart and the California Electrical Shortage resulted. But this all occurred before the era of Big Wind. California’s alternate producers were mostly small co-generation plants or geothermal or methane from garbage dumps that produced only a handful of megawatts. The biggest wind farm in Altamont Pass produced 576 MW.
Today Idaho is experiencing a surge of wind development that will soon destabilize the grid. “As late as 2006, Idaho Power Co. had just 80 megawatts of wind power in its system,” says reporter Rocky Barker in The Statesman. “Today, the utility has 472 megawatts of wind generation expected to be online by the end of the year. Idaho Power officials expect to have 1,100 megawatts of wind energy soon. That’s nearly as much power as can be produced from its Hells Canyon dams, although wind can’t produce a consistent flow of power at that level.”

 It sure can’t. And although the political and newspaper amateurs don’t recognize it, trying to accommodate all this wind is going to play havoc with the system. “The change isn’t coming easy,” says the Statesman. “Idaho Power Co., Avista Utilities and PacifiCorp have filed a petition with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission . . to drastically reduce ­ down to 100 kilowatts ­ the amount the companies are required to purchase at the set rate. They argue that they have so many wind projects coming on line that they could end up having more power than they can use or sell at some times of the year.”
The law does actually favor smaller producers but wind developers have skirted it by building their windmills a mile apart so that each one qualifies for a special high rate reserved for small producers.
Where is all this going to lead?  It’s easy to predict. California only solved its electrical shortage by building 30,000 new megawatts of natural gas generators. Expensive and inefficient but fast-starting gas turbines are the only technology capable of compensating for wind’s unpredictability – even though, as Robert Bryce points out in Power Hungry, you end up burning more gas with turbines than if you skipped the windmills altogether and just built more efficient combined-cycle gas generators.  The Golden State now uses gas for 40 percent of its electrical generation, twice the national average. Thanks to PURPA and the craze for “alternate energy,” Idaho seems headed in the same direction. 

Read more about it the Idaho Statesman


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