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Wind Stakeholder Interview: Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Photo of Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones, Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Olympia, Washington.

Wind Stakeholder Interview: Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Date: 2/1/2002

Location: Olympia, WA

"It seems only natural for rural utilities to do everything they can do advance both farm-based renewable energy development and rural economic development in a cost-effective way. In my opinion, wind energy is the next great chapter in the rural electrification story." Aaron C. Jones, Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Olympia, Washington.

Wind is happening. It is gaining status worldwide as a viable commercial energy resource. The public likes wind, and other clean, renewable energy resources. It tends to be rural and adds a valuable component to rural economic development. For these and other reasons, wind energy is the right thing for rural electric co-ops and other utilities to support. Their members want to see this industry develop, especially if it can be done cost effectively by consumer-owned utilities that put public service ahead of profit.

Wind is a particularly good renewable energy resource because we have it in our own backyards and because investor-owned utilities (IOUs) like Florida Power and Light (FP&L) are developing it and making a profit. If FP&L and PacifiCorp can team up to develop cost-effective wind, consumer-owned utilities can do the same and at a lower cost. Then, they can pass the benefits along to consumers instead of investors.

Although there's plenty of wind resources for everyone, the best sites provide advantages over less productive sites. That's why we started the Last Mile Electric Co-op (LMEC)--to get the public off and running. The Last Mile Electric Co-op uses renewable, distributed generation to serve that "last mile" where power lines were never built. Some 2,000 families in Washington and thousands in other states are too remote for affordable, grid-connected service.

The picture for energy co-ops in the Northwest is troubling. Although the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has been a reliable, predictable supplier for most of the past 60-plus years, the forces of "allocation" and "tiered rates" are gaining strength. Service to smaller, more remote co-ops at postage stamp rates is very much in jeopardy. On the bright side, many of the rural co-ops are located in areas where the wind blows and the sun shines. Renewable energy holds a lot of promise, but it's still a stretch to say that it could compete economically during the short term. It will need financial help for the next 5-10 years as it develops and proves whether or not we can use a variety of renewables to meet future load growth. We know for sure that the hydro system is over allocated. The closure of direct service industries, like aluminum companies, would provide us a couple thousand megawatts that would carry us forward for a year or two, or until the economy picks back up. But from that point forward, we would struggle to maintain the status quo relative to receiving the level of service and the cost-based pricing we have received from BPA for so many years. Some co-ops feel it is time to look ahead and, if the worst case scenario happens, to be ready to meet our own load growth through a yet-to-be-determined mix of renewables and other sources. Some will argue that we can simply depend on the market to provide what we need at a competitive price. But recent history proves that depending on the market is as much, or more, of a risk than being proactive and looking out for ourselves.

The biggest barrier to wind energy development is money. The Renewable Energy Production Incentive funding is uncertain, making a commercial project unlikely until we have complete assurance that renewables will get the same financial support at the federal level that other fuels (coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, etc.) get. Public power won't be able to compete until they get the same treatment as IOUs. Tradable tax credits are the best solution.

It appears that a growing number of elected officials are understanding the value of energy independence, clean energy, and farm-based renewables.The Senate version of the farm bill provides hope that more adequate funding will be forthcoming. But to really get the ball rolling in the Northwest, we need to prove that wind and hydro work well together, that wind and the transmission system work well together, and that the technology is reliable. LMEC, with 19 participants (mostly rural co-ops and other consumer-owned utilities), is in a great position to help meet those objectives, but with recent wholesale power rate increases, it's not fair to expect rural co-ops and other nonprofit utilities to fund this effort on their own.

We are just beginning to figure out how wind and other renewable energy sources fit into the future of the Northwest. As technology opens new doors, as the political will to place great reliance on renewable energy grows, as utility leaders understand how much their ratepayers want to support the effort, the effort will grow and become more successful. It's not likely to happen quickly. But, if wind proves to be as dependable and affordable as many of us currently believe, it will have a great future in our region. BPA needs to work closer with its consumer-owned utility customers (so far it has worked almost exclusively with private companies) to explore ways to move this opportunity forward in a cost-effective manner.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011