Power-generating capacity from wind jumped 27 percent last year and is expected to do the same this year.
But it is in the Northwest where wind power, an often capricious source of electricity, meshes most seamlessly with the existing electricity grid, which relies heavily on hydroelectric dams, power managers say. This meshing of power sources is done in a way that maximizes power reliability while minimizing the grid’s need for energy from fossil fuels, which release the greenhouses gases that cause global warming.
When the wind fails here or when big cities demand peak power, dams can step in almost instantly and steady the electricity load. Hydroelectric power plants ramp up faster and more efficiently than coal-fired or nuclear plants, and without the chronic uncertainties in cost that plague gas-fired plants. The Pacific Northwest gets more of its electricity from hydro — 67 percent — than any other region of the country. That’s mostly because the Columbia, by itself, embodies a third of the continent’s hydroelectric potential.
The era of dam building, though, is long gone, and existing dams cannot keep up with the new demand for power.
As a result, wind capacity in this region is exploding, from just 25 megawatts in 1998 to a projected 3,800 megawatts by 2009.