Renewable energy in the north-west
Tilting at windmills
Teething troubles in the clean-energy sector
Jun 16th 2011 | SEATTLE | from the print edition
THE melting snows of spring and early summer are justly celebrated by Aaron Copland and Walt Whitman. But they are causing a lot of trouble in the Pacific north-west, as a federal power agency pushes private wind turbines off the grid in what critics call a case of favouritism towards electricity generated by federal dams.
The region’s wind power companies are enraged and are petitioning the regulators. Encouraged by politicians and their subsidies, they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the past six years on a 14-fold increase in generating capacity.But this year, as an unusually large snowmelt surges into the rivers of Oregon and Washington, the wind lobby is howling about government perfidy. “You can’t trust the guy who is running the grid,” says Robert Kahn, executive director of the Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition.
The guy in question is the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a venerable federal bureaucracy that markets power from 31 federal dams in the Columbia river basin. Thanks to monstrous chunks of concrete like Grand Coulee Dam, completed 70 years ago and still the largest hydroelectric facility in North America, the north-west gets more of its power from hydro than any other region of the United States.