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The Costs of Wind Energy for Washington State

Posted on the 10 March 2012 by Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

The exploitation of wind as an energy resource in Washington State has exploded over the last decade. With over 2,500 megawatts (MW) of current capacity, the state is now the sixth largest producer of wind power in the nation, and 4% of the energy produced in the in Washington was from wind (“U.S. Wind Energy Projects”). For many this is wonderful news because its means polluting fossil fuels have been replaced by clean renewable power, which is both environmentally sound and economically beneficial. However, for residents who live in close proximity to them, the erection of large industrial turbines can arouse vehement protest. Much of the opposition is to wind farms is found in the eastern side of Washington State where most turbine arrays are located. For those not directly impacted, the negative externalities of wind energy are ignored due to the overwhelming need for green fuel.

Anthropomorphic climate change is the most popular reason to advocate wind energy. It is hoped that free power from the air will mitigate global warming by offsetting the use carbon emitting resources. As of 2008 wind was contributing over 11,000 MW of power potential to the nation, and although this is only about 1% of the electricity used, it is argued that this already offsets CO2 emissions by 23 million tons (Inslee, Bracken 188). Projections of wind’s abatement muscle indicate it could ultimately offset 120 megatons of CO2 at a cost of $20 a ton (Holzman 304). Climate change is a concern in Washington State because, in a business as usual scenario, the cost is forecast to reach $1,250 per household, for a total of $3.8 billion a year, by 2020 (“An Overview of Potential Economic Costs”). In light of this frightening possibility, erecting giant wind turbines is considered a smart move for the state.

With the economy at the forefront of Americans’ concerns, alternative energy innovation has become an alluring path to higher employment through green jobs. The wind industry worldwide employed close to 400,000 people in 2008 (“Global Wind Power Surges”). The Department of Energy (DOE) has a goal of reaching 100,000 MW of wind generated energy by 2020, which they estimate will create 80,000 new green jobs (Inslee, Bracken 188). Attaining a goal like this does not seem out of sight, as it has been argued that the power supplied by the wind in the US could expand by 23 times the current electricity use (Xi, McElroy, Kiviluoma). In Washington, a 2003 analysis of the economic benefits of wind projects found that 66% more jobs are created for every 10 kilowatts of electricity generated by wind power rather than natural gas plants (“A Brief Analysis of the Economic Benefits”). Replacing carbon emitting fuel with a renewable domestic resource sounds like a good idea if more people can be employed doing so.

The promise of wind energy for Washington State is strong. These benefits can be hyped though, with news reports often overstating the amount of homes that will be powered by a new wind farm. Also, there are many drawbacks to wind farms that are often ignored. The environmental impacts on birds and bats are understated by developers, and the intermittent and unreliable nature of the wind is ignored. In the urgent rush for renewable fuels, the concerns and rights of affected residents has taken a back seat. The true costs of wind farms must be appreciated in light of these drawbacks. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the net benefits of wind energy to Washington State are not enough to justify the overruling of local land use decisions after when these costs are considered.

Washington State’s Energy Legacy

Until the early 1970s the only major source of energy for Washington State was hydroelectric power. Today over 60% of the state’s energy is still produced by the 31 dams under the supervision of the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA). Hydroelectric has expanded to its full potential and coal and natural gas fired plants have supplemented Washington’s electricity needs more recently (Bernstein 1). The state has been a pioneer in alternative energy. The Hanford ground breaking ceremony was attended by President Kennedy in 1963, where he waved a uranium tipped “atomic wand” in commemoration of the first nuclear power plant in the Northwest (Miller 131). The dangers and costs associated with potential meltdowns and the storage of spent radioactive fuel have made nuclear an unpopular choice for energy (Inslee, Bracken 216). Additional options are needed if one wants to avoid a future of coal, natural gas, or nuclear.

The use of renewable sources to support state energy needs has grown recently due to the implementation of supportive legislation. Two bills addressed the issue in 2005, one that offers tax benefits to users of solar and wind power, and another that institutes tax cuts to producers of renewable energy products in the state. In 2006, Washington voters concerned about global climate change approved ballot Initiative 937. With the passage of this law the state’s utilities are now required to supply 15% of their energy from renewable resources (Trumble) such as wind, solar, ethanol, and biomass fuels. In 2009 there are at least twenty different Green Power Programs offered by Washington State utilities that allow customers to voluntarily elect to obtain energy from renewable sources for a premium. For example, Puget Sound Energy will add power from a mix of wind, solar photovoltaic, and biogas for an additional 1.25 cents per kilowatt hour of energy delivered (“Can I Buy Green Power”). In 2006, 87% of the electricity supplied in these programs was from wind (“Green Power Programs” 2). Citizens support wind power because they believe its green, but that opinion might change if all the costs are contemplated.

In state by state ranking Washington is 24th in wind energy resource capacity (“U.S. Wind Energy Projects”). The Columbia River Gorge summertime sea breeze winds and Eastern Washington slope winds offer the best opportunity to capitalize on this natural resource. In the summer, the relatively cloudier western side of the Cascade Mountain Range heats up less than the eastern side, and the pressure difference between the two sides causes air to flow from west to east through the Columbia River Basin. Sustained winds at The Dalles have reached a reported 25 mph (Mass 120-121). Slope winds are caused by the heating or cooling of air at varying heights, which causes an upward flow of air that reverses to a downward flow at night. Sustained northwesterly winds of 15-25 mph can be measured around Ellensburg, Yakima, and Tri-Cities (Mass 125). This free wind resource is a tempting energy option.


Photo courtesy of New Energy Nexus.

Concentrations of current and planned wind farm sites are predictably located around the Columbia River Gorge and at the foothills of the mountains surrounding Eastern Washington. Current potential is based on the nameplate capacity of a turbine, the maximum power output under the most favorable conditions. For installed wind farms in the state potential is about 1605 MW from 1,054 turbines, as of 2008. New wind farms that are planned or under construction account for approximately 728 MW of expected capacity growth from 273 more turbines at five sites. The planned expansion at existing sites, by 123 new turbines, will also add a projected 276 MW of wind energy potential to Washington State’s renewable portfolio (“U.S. Wind Energy Projects”). The nameplate capacity specified by a wind turbines generator size is confusing because it presents the amount of power potential rather than energy, which is power supplied over time (Gipe 56). Nameplate capacity, which is virtually always the focus of press reports, illustrates an example of the hype surrounding wind farms.

By relying on nameplate capacity, news articles tend to overestimate the amount of homes that will be powered by a new wind farm under construction. A more realistic metric for estimating wind energy output is megawatt hours (MWh) supplied in a year, which can be calculated by multiplying the nameplate capacity by 8,760, the number of hours in a year (Gipe 56). Wind farms never operate at full capacity though, and medium size turbines will typically only catch 33% of the wind energy available under average wind speeds of 13.4 mph (Gipe 61). Using these rules of thumb, with the added assumption that an average home in the Pacific Northwest consumes about 13 MWh per year (Mechling 10-11), it can be concluded that realistically, 356,965 homes can potentially be powered by existing wind capacity as of 2009. That number grows to 580,490 homes when all planned projects go online (see Table 2). Press reports indicate that the Kittitas Valley Wind Project will power 30,000 (“Washington State Wind Farm”), but rule of thumb estimates put this number around 25,000. This demonstrates the overselling of wind energy’s potential.

Environmental Costs and Unreliability

A major selling point for wind energy is that it is environmentally friendly due to the lack of emissions. Bird and bat deaths caused by wind turbines are a concern though. In California’s Altamont Pass it is estimated that 10,000 birds were killed each year between 1999 and 2007, with 10% of those involving being protected species such as the golden eagles. National estimates suggest that 100,000 birds die from wind farms each year, or the equivalent of 3 to 11 per turbine (Cohn). The first known golden eagle death was reported in Washington State at the Goodnoe Hills Wind Farm earlier in 2009. Independent studies indicate that the Big Horn Wind Energy Project kills approximately 49 birds a year between its 133 turbines, even though the project developers originally projected only 3-4 deaths (Durbin). Bat deaths, which are thought to be three times as large, make this picture even worse (Cohn). The environmental benefits of wind energy are less than is what is typically promoted, because bird and bat deaths are environmental costs not factored into the calculation.

This problem has prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with Washington’s equivalent agency, to issue new guidelines on wind farms that require a broad review of the impact on raptors before new development begins. These new regulations induced consternation in the developer’s of Radar Ridge, the first wind project planned for Western Washington, because their desired location just happens to be the last significant habitat for the endangered marbled murrelet (Durbin). Energy policy can cause forceful federal-state disputes over regulatory decisions, and the EPA has expressed concern about the impacts of wind farms (Dye Macmanus 279). The costs associated with regulation and battles between government agencies are not taken into account.

Another significant drawback for wind energy is that it is intermittently produced due to the wind’s fickle nature. Seasonal, diurnal, and irregular air currents affect the breeze in different ways that make wind an inherently unpredictable and unreliable resource. Also, supply of wind power and the load demand for that energy often peak at different times (Xi, McElroy, Kiviluoma), and the wind is not always blowing within the range of speeds optimal for power production. For each wind farm an equivalent source, such as a coal or a natural gas fired plant, is required to back it up during down times (Lovelock 128). Even though the pollution from these plants is presumably cut down by the time that the turbines operate, a study has shown that CO2 emissions from a natural gas fired plants are offset by only 75-80% of what is theoretically expected due to the inefficiency of ramping power plants up and down in response to the changing winds (Katzenstein, Apt). This is another example of the benefits of wind power being overblown.

The Effect on Local Communities

Since local governments are just subdivisions of state governments, they have no intrinsic powers beyond those provisioned by state Constitutions (Macmanus 43). However, land use questions have historically been controlled by elites through local community authority for various economic reasons (Macmanus 457). Cape Wind, the first planned offshore wind farm for the US in the Nantucket Sound, was opposed by the wealthy and powerful interests in Martha’s Vineyard (Williams, Whitcomb xvi). The influence of these interests was demonstrated when Republican Governor Mitt Romney and Democratic Congressman William Delahunt joined in opposition to the plan for aesthetic reasons (Williams, Whitcomb 227). Washington State voters generally support wind energy, but how these giant turbines are perceived can be significantly affected by their proximity to one’s own home.

The arguments against wind turbines that come from local residents range from aesthetic concerns, such as turbine density and shadow flicker, to complaints about the detrimental effects that generator noise and vibration have on the ability to sleep at night. Turbine distributions that are too dense increase the impression of industrial blight (Gipe 280). Shadow flicker is a distracting phenomenon that can happen when the sun is in the right position on the horizon to cause an active turbine rotor to cast rapidly spinning shadows (Gipe 297). Residents who live too close to wind turbines have experienced the debilitating effects of intermittent periods of turbine noise and vibration, which can disrupt normal activities. Fear of these issues and the additional downstream effects on property values create opposition to the construction of new wind farms in local communities.

The rapid development of Washington State’s wind energy industry has not been without its own detractors, particularly in Kittitas County. In 2007, the County brought a lawsuit against Democrat Governor Christine Gregoire and the EFSEC, alleging that state government had overstepped its authority when it preempted the County on local land use decisions. The Commissioner’s originally denied the permit for the Kittitas Valley Wind Project when Horizon Energy approached them for the project, so the prospective developers approached Governor Gregoire, and received her permission after a project review and affirmative recommendation from the EFSEC (Woodward). The Washington State Supreme Court eventually ruled in support of the Governor, basing their unanimous decision on a 2001 law that gives the governor authority in cases of alternative energy development to overrule land use laws at the local level (Rodriquez). Gregoire’s informal powers as Governor, being from Washington State, are ranked 45th against those in other states (Dye, Macmanus 255). However, with a unified party government of Democrats in Washington State, an already good position from which to enact favored policies (Dye, Macmanus 161), the ability to locate energy sites by decree against community wishes increases her power. This centralization of power is another unanticipated cost of wind energy.

Despite the final ruling on the Kittitas Valley Wind Project, the residents of the County remain bitter and as of 2009 a new dispute had been brewing over another planned wind farm, the Desert Claim Wind Power Project. The EFSEC has for a second time recommended that the project go forward, against the wishes of the Kittitas County Council. Although this time, EFSEC member Ian Elliot indicated his disapproval of the legal process in place for settling local land use disputes, because its trial like procedures create barriers for regular citizens to bring their issues up in the deliberations. Elliot himself, as a resident and council representative of Kittitas Country, wanted to bring up a concern about the high turbine density of the project. He was prevented by legal requirements for expensive experts and studies before the admission of testimony (Johnston). Community dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement are more potential byproducts of wind energy that are missed.

The opposition to industrial or commercial development by the local residents who are directly inconvenienced by a project is nothing new. This type of resistance to growth is known as the NIMBY syndrome, after the phrase “not in my backyard”. NIMBYs are typically a minority of the general population, but they have the greatest stake in the outcome so tend to be the most vocal detractors. They have the potential to draw enough negative attention and sway a larger majority opinion (Dye, Macmanus 460). In the case of wind farms, NIMBYs ought to have the last say. This is because the true value from wind farms is not enough to validate the unwelcome costs that are suffered by local residents. The benefits of wind energy are real and development of this resource’s potential should be pursued, but not at the expense of communities who reject the presence of turbines in their neighborhoods.


It could be suggested that the consequences of global warming are so potentially horrible that all of the costs associated with wind energy are really just a premium on carbon free energy. I disagree with this premise because I continue to be skeptical that the benefits of wind will make any substantive difference in the future of the global climate. As a forecaster of financial and economic data in my current career, I have direct experience predicting the future of complex systems and I know the limitations. Scott Armstrong, the author of one of my favorite reference tomes, The Principles of Forecasting, contributed to a recent study that investigates the International Panel on Climate Control’s (IPCC) dire warming predictions. Using a formal auditing system developed for forecast practitioners and researchers, the study found that 72 out of 89 testable forecasting principles were violated in the preparation of the IPCC report (Green, Armstrong).

Then I read Australian geologist Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and Earth, and my cynicism was reinforced by a litany of contrarian facts. For example, Plimer debunks the famous “hockey stick” graph by showing that it failed to note the dramatic temperature swings of the Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age, which dwarf the current temperature rise (Plimer 89). My stance on climate change inevitably colors my view of wind energy, and it could be a reason to discount my presentation of the subject as biased. After all, I clearly focused more on the costs of wind energy as opposed to the benefits, as evidenced by the title of my essay.

Part of the problem with including global warming in an assessment of the value of wind energy, is that it invokes a certain religion to the discussion. If you are a believer in an impending climate catastrophe, then almost anything can be justified to avoid the hell and damnation that awaits. If policy considerations about wind farms are determined based on the need to avoid worst case climate scenarios at all costs, then there is no logical reason to stop at the overruling of community rights. Sacrificing individual rights to green policy can be even become defensible given the horrendous alternative of certain doom for all. I set out to show that wind farms are a less attractive energy source for Washington than is commonly believed, and a slight suspension of the most dramatic climate concerns might be needed in order to completely sign on to my view.

A more recent, and very curious, problem with wind energy in Washington State is oversupply. Last December the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that BPA unfairly suppressed wind energy in favor or hydroelectric energy when BPA dealt with the choice of source during oversupply. To the tune of 350 MW hours of wind curtailment. This month BPA released a proposal for how they plan to handle the ruling, and “balance multiple competing interests by equitably sharing oversupply costs and limiting total cost exposure.” According to the plan, BPA will need to work with the US Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers on hydroelectric management, because when water is diverted from power generation its spills and creates gas levels in the rivers which are unsafe for fish and surpass regulations. So BPA will pay wind farmers and other power stations to curtail energy when there is oversupply compared to demand (“BPA Releases”).

Given that the main stated benefit of wind energy over other sources of energy is the fact that it is carbonless, it is no more beneficial in this regard than hydroelectric. However, wind farms are detrimental to birds and bats, and during times of oversupply in Washington State their impact on the curtailment of hydroelectric is harmful to fish as well. The intermittent and unreliability of wind power and the negative effects on local communities are costs not shared by hydroelectric. And now Washington State citizens will be paying more for energy so that wind farms will hold back their problematic supply of energy to the grid, due to the problems this presents for the smooth working of our efficient hydroelectric sources of energy. Even if the worst case scenario for global warming is in fact going to happen the move to wind power in Washington State presents no net benefit over hydroelectric, but the costs of wind power to Washington State are heavy indeed. Washington State would be better off without wind energy.

Jared Roy Endicott



Click on table for a larger view.



Click on table for a larger view.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Mark, Christopher Pernin, Sam Loeb, and Mark Hanson. The Public Benefit of Energy Efficiency to the State of Washington. Santa Monica: RAND, 2002. Print.

Dye, Thomas R., and Susan A. Macmanus. Politics in State and Local Communities. Thirteenth Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.

Gipe, Paul. Wind Power, Revised Edition: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004. Print.

Inslee, Jay, and Bracken Hendricks. Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008. Print.

Lovelock, James. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. New York: Basic Books, 2009. Print.

Mass, Cliff. The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. Print.

Miller, Gary K. Energy Northwest: A History of the Washington Public Power System. United States: Xlibris Corporation, 2001. Print.

Plimer, Ian. Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science. Ballan, Victoria, Australia: Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd, 2009. Print.

Whitcomb, Robert, and Wendy Williams. Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Energy, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future. Philadelphia: Public Affairs, 2007. Print.

Celik, A. N., T. Munger, and P. Clarke. “An Investigation Into Micro Wind Energy Systems for Their Utilization in Urban Areas and Their Life Cycle Assessment.” IMechE . 221 (17 Jul. 2007): 1107-1117. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Cohn, Jeffrey P. “How Ecofriendly Are Wind Farms?” BioScience . 58.7 (Jul.-Aug. 2008): 576-578. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Holzman, David C. “Climate Change Abatement Strategies: Which Way is the Wind Blowing.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 117.7 (Jul. 2009): 296-304. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Lu, Xi, Michael B. McElroy, and Juha Kiviluoma. “Global Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity.” PNAS. 106.27 (7 Jul. 2009): 10933-10938. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Katzenstein, Warren, and Jay Apt. “Air Emissions Due To Wind and Solar Power.” Environmental Science & Technology. 43.2 (2009): 253-258. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Trumble, Paul D. “Washington States Initiative 937 and the Environment: the Emerging Impact of Grassroots Movements on National Policy.” Albany Law Review. 70 (2007): 1089-1091. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

“A Brief Analysis of the Economic Benefits of Wind Power in Washington State.” Energy Policy Division. WA State Office of Trade & Economic Development, 14 Jan. 2003. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.

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“Can I Buy Green Power in My State?”Green Power Network. US Department of Energy, 14 Nov. 2008. Web. 6 Sep. 2009.

Durbin, Kathie. “Washington Wind Turbines Claim First Known Eagle Victim.” , 18 May 2009. Web. 30 Oct. 2009.

Durbin, Kathie. “Wildlife Hinders Wind Farm Strategy.” , 1 Aug. 2009. Web. 25 Nov. 2009.

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“Woodward, Kurt. “Supreme Court Upholds Kittitas Wind Farm.” , 20 Nov. 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

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By Redp1800s
posted on 13 March at 02:36
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While there are many thought provoking concepts in your blog, there are other factors that should be noted.

One of the key components to having wind producing networks of electricity is where the transmission lines are located that could be adapted to store (insert) electricity into the grid. Many of the places you have noted on your map are supplied by BPA power which probably don't need a whole lot of alternative power added to them. They are probably fully subscribed by FERC approved hydropower. There exist many other locations within Washington State that have potential for placing wind turbines that also would add to the collective energy base for the region. Once again this depends on where transmission lines already exist and are not saturated by hydroelectric dams.

The fact that birds and bats may be affected will be thoroughly weighed when the certification for building the new power sources are given (or denied). The EPA and Washington State's Department of Ecology will review and consider the additional burden of truth that will need to be proven that certain species will not be dramatically affected should they be given authority to build wind generation towers.

There are people of Kittitas County who don't want any government to take away their rights to do whatever they want on their properties. They have made it quite clear that they are not going to submit to the State Land-Use Policies related to their county any laws that would preclude them from doing whatever they wish upon their property. They will use anything they can to keep their county as rural and antiquated to progress as they can. They will align with Indian Tribes, conservation groups and property rights organizations to get what they want. It may all be for naught . . but, that won't matter to them. If they hang the process up for a year or longer - they will see it as a win for them.

Many people from the Pacific Northwest wish to be innovators in the field of alternative power sources. Wind power is only one of the ways that could be tapped into that would save our environmental degradation. Ocean current/waves, solar transmission, steam producing turbines and tidal movement could all provide alternative power resources. The trick is in getting the power back to a location that could be tapped into the main transmission lines is the catch. Once we find sources for those forms of energy storage wind farming might be as you say, "oversupply" and heaven forbid we should ever have an oversupply of anything. Just enough is all we need.