On Aug. 5, the Chronicle printed a guest column by Jeff Fox headlined “Montana needs fair access to renewable energy markets.” Jeff is a wind advocate for Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that advertises itself as “a forceful advocate of renewable energy development.” In his guest column, Jeff compared the cost of the electricity generated at NorthWestern Energy’s new Spion Kop wind project to that produced at Colstrip 4. His conclusion – wind is “nearly $10 per megawatt-hour cheaper” than Colstrip 4. This comparison is misleading and is a classic “apples-to-oranges” comparison.
While NorthWestern Energy finds great value in wind projects like Spion Kop, the electricity generated from wind projects is not equivalent to Colstrip 4 generation. You may have already guessed as much, but it bears repeating that electricity from wind cannot be dispatched and is as variable as the wind used to generate it.
Unlike wind power, Colstrip 4, fueled by coal, can be called upon when needed (dispatchable) and can be counted on at time of our customers’ peak need. In NorthWestern’s experience, wind resources cannot be counted on to help meet our system’s peak demand.
To make an “apples-to-apples” comparison of wind generation to Colstrip 4 power, the quality of wind generation would have to be brought up to the quality of Colstrip 4 generation (in terms of dispatchability and peaking capability). Natural gas-fired generation is a good resource for this use; it is more dispatchable than coal-fired resources and provides capacity at time of peak system demand.
Adding the cost of a natural gas-fired generation (currently about $32 per megawatt-hour, which is only a portion of the full cost) to wind resource costs (currently in the range of $46 to $54 per megawatt-hour) brings the total cost of the wind/gas combination to $78 to $86 per megawatt-hour, which is more expensive than the $63 per megawatt-hour cost of Colstrip 4 power ($63 per megawatt-hour). On an “apples-to-apples” basis, wind is more expensive than Colstrip 4, not less, as was claimed in the Aug. 5 column
The wind industry is a strong viable component of NorthWestern’s energy portfolio. Montana has great wind resources but it is important that we deal with facts and real numbers. While wind energy has its role, it is not the cure-all for meeting our customers’ energy needs and certainly is not as low in cost as some advocates claim.
John Bushnell is an energy supply planner for NorthWestern Energy in Helena.