Gas Turbine Plants in the Northwest

By Brent J. Andrews

The Supply of Energy vs. The Demand

        Although the market is always changing, the trend has been that the demand for energy in the northwest outstrips the supply.  This has drastic effects on the economy.  Currently, energy prices are high and the job market is suffering.  And according to a Northwest Energy Coalition report, 

The Northwest Power Planning Council (NPCC) predicts that by 2015 the region's demand for new power supplies could reach 9000 average megawatts [annually], or enough energy to power eight cities the size of Seattle. But dire predictions of near-term power shortages and soaring electricity prices are what's fueling new proposals for natural gas-fired power plants and prompting action on proposed generators that have already cleared state or local siting procedures.1  

        Inevitably, as power shortages become long-term problems, some of these gas turbine plants will be constructed in the Northwest.  The extent to which this development occurs depends on gas prices and the range of places where it is cost-effective to develop natural gas power.  The Coalition's report continues, "The NPPC's conservative 1996 estimate shows that 2300 average megawatts (aMWs) of cost-effective energy conservation is available in the Northwest, at a cost of 5 cents or less per kilowatt hour (kWh) over the next 20 years. At current fuel prices, the cost of electricity generated by gas-fired plants is in the 4.5 to 5 cents per kWh range."1  This figure may be distorted, however, as gas prices continue to increase sporadically during times of shortage, sometimes spiking to four times their price the previous year.  The average annual price as traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange for natural gas over the last 10 years was $3.24 per mmBtu with a high price of $10.10 per mmBtu and a low price of $1.02 per mmBtu.  And recently, in 2000 and 2001, the market has been on a roller coaster ride.


[For current futures prices consult Energy Newsdata’s Western Price Survey or the New York Mercantile Exchange.]


Gas Turbine Plants vs. Other Power Generating Solutions

Natural Gas vs. Wind 

In recent years, power obtained from other sources has come to look like a more promising investment.  For instance, wind power averages approximately 3 to 4 cents/kWh. The cost of wind power has dropped by 80 percent in the last two decades and probably will continue to decline.  Yet, at the same time, understanding the production rates is crucial to the feasibility of these plants: “A typical gas-fired power plant runs about 90 percent of the time.  So a 100 megawatt gas plant produces about 90 average megawatts of power annually.  A typical wind turbine runs about 35 percent of the time.  So a 100 megawatt wind farm generates about 35 average megawatts annually.”1 This means that although a wind-turbine power-generation farm operates more efficiently, it may be a more worthy venture to go into building a gas plant at certain economies of scale.  And with the current supply shortage affecting the Northwest, consumers are exhausting all the energy available and demanding more, making economies of scale an important factor.  Natural gas thus becomes the smarter power generation choice.  


Nuclear, although the savior of the power crisis in the Northwest during 2000 and 2001, is becoming too expensive to operate.  And although it is true that “the existence of the 1000-plus average megawatt (aMW) nuclear Columbia River Generating Station (Columbia) saved the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the region more than $1 billion during the surge in power prices over the last year,”3 this isn’t compelling enough evidence to extend the plant's lifetime when comparing its savings to its true cost.  Furthermore, building new nuclear plants in the area looks unwise, since the cost of building and operating a new plant exceeds the capital costs of a gas-powered plant by as much as ten times.  These economic considerations are in addition to the endless environmental concerns that are cited when dealing with nuclear power.


       The hydroelectric situation is not much better.  All of the hydroelectric power in the state comes from the BPA, which currently is under pressure from the federal government to pump power south to California.  In addition, most of the dams in the Northwest are run-of-the-river dams, whose ability to produce power is dependent on the available supply of water.  “The Bonneville Power Administration since early December [2000] has been performing a daily balancing act between serving Northwest energy needs, sending desperately needed power to California, and holding back water for the critical spring migration of endangered Columbia and Snake River salmon.”10 This balance illustrates that the capacity for electrical generation on the river systems in the Northwest is already being used to its full extent.  Although new hydroelectric power stations may be proposed, they are not really a feasible solution due to the limited flow of these rivers and the efforts to conserve endangered salmon species.


How A Gas Plant Operates:  A Technical Illustration           

GE H Series Gas Turbine - Mounted on Railcar  General Electric's H System Turbine Being Assembled


       The gas-turbine engine has been around since it was implemented in the aviation industry many years ago.  “A gas turbine works by producing a high-temperature, high-pressure gas working fluid, through combustion, to induce shaft rotation by impingement of the gas upon a series of specially designed blades. The shaft rotation drives an electric generator and a compressor for the air used by the gas turbine."6  

        The turbine's evolution into the electricity industry has caused several changes in its design.  First, the focus has changed from power generation, or thrust, in the case of the aviation industry, to efficiency in the electricity generating industry.  Efficiency is mainly lost in two ways:  heat loss and aerodynamic inefficiencies.  "Many turbines also use a heat exchanger called a recuperator to impart turbine exhaust heat into the combustor’s air/fuel mixture."6 Furthermore, a combined cycle plant captures waste heat by generating steam.  A second steam turbine then generates additional electricity.  There is also one more noticeable change in the turbines: sheer size.  The pictures above show that these huge turbines are the size of a locomotive. 

[For more information contact Siemens-Westinghouse or GE]


& Technical Specifications of Gas-Fired Plants 

   Currently, several plants are in operation around the Northwest, and a couple are under construction.  And still politicians and industry leaders are crying for more.

   Clark River Road Generating Plant

      This generation facility, built in Vancouver in 1996, works coherently with the Bonneville Power Administration, although at least half of the Vancouver utility district’s power supply comes from the gas-fired plant.  “The plant uses a combined-cycle combustion turbine to create an average of 248 megawatts of electricity.”4  The plant burns fairly clean, using a catalytic reduction system, and is considered only a minor source of emissions by the state.  Water is recycled and reused to enhance nearby wetlands and to water lawns. Gas is purchased through “short-term contracts, as the wait for the market to ride out historic high prices continues. Transportation of the natural gas is being managed by Avista (formerly known as the Washington Water Power Company), the Spokane-based electric and gas utility.”4

   Additional Plants

      Combined-cycle power plants in operation in the Northwest include Beaver, March Point, Sumas Energy, Tenaska Washington I, Encogen, Coyote Springs, and Hermiston.  The projects supply about 1,460 average megawatts of energy, producing about 725 tons of CO2.

   Proposed Plants

      Several plants are expected to come online in the Northwest.  In Washington, these include the Satsop Combustion Turbine Project (650 MW), the Chehalis Generation Facility (520 MW), and the NW Regional Power Facility (838 MW).Other projects have been permitted in Washington but have not begun construction.  Additionally, several other projects are under review by the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.  Two of these, the Wallula Power Project (1.3 GW), and Starbuck (1.1 GW) may have local residents of Walla Walla concerned.
      In Idaho, permitted projects include the Garnet Energy Facility and a plant at Middleton. 

[For a more in-depth look at projects that are under review, see following table.]  


Environmental Implications

       Advanced catalysts can reduce NOx emissions in plants equipped with mature gas turbines by 90 percent and more. With the latest gas-turbine-technology, plants can reduce NOx levels down to 3 ppm.  Gas turbines are 60 percent (LHV) energy efficient.  The goal in the near future is to increase this number to 75 percent.  To obtain cycle efficiencies greater than 60 percent, based on lower heating value (LHV), both cycle innovations and gas turbine design improvements are required.  While these levels are in reach, the number of plants that are expected to come online in the next couple of years will increase the amount of methane burned and released into the atmosphere and will have an adverse affect on the environment and the Northwest.  It is predicted that, “Of the next 1000 power plants to be built in the United States, as many as 900 of them are likely to use natural gas turbines.”6 This means that more, not less, NOx and CO and CO2 emissions will be released into the atmosphere.  In Washington alone, almost one-fifth of a ton of additional  NOx, an additional 100 pounds of CO, and as many as 1230 tons of additional CO2, will be released each year with the implementation of the plants currently permitted for construction.



More Plants & Sustainability

       To accommodate the increase in natural-gas-fired power plants being built, the gas infrastructure will have to be strengthened.  Pipelines will have to be restructured and more natural gas taken out of the ground.  Though North America has an ample supply of natural gas, extracting it is expensive.  Increasing the number of gas-fired plants will also mean a greater amount of gas will have to be imported from nations that can extract it more easily.  Environmentalists concerned with the dangers surrounding the extraction and transportation of liquid natural gas might raise concerns about the increase in these activities.  Right now, the construction of gas-fired power plants can be accommodated more quickly than the long-term changes needed for sustainability, but this will soon change and should be anticipated.




       President Bush has been reluctant to hear Governor Gary Locke's screams for relief from energy pressures.  In March of 2000, Congress denied Locke's motion to put wholesale price caps on electricity.  “Locke told a congressional committee the price caps may be the only way to rein in a sharp increase in electricity prices that's costing the Northwest's economy $1.4 billion a month and could result in the loss of up to 43,000 jobs,”8 from the Northwest’s aluminum plants.  Locke’s plea, as dramatic as it was, made little impact on Congress.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee made it clear to the Governor that their primary concern was with rolling blackouts and brownouts, not with electricity prices.  Since then, Gov. Locke has been scrambling to acquire the extra power that the BPA has been distributing elsewhere in order to to keep that electricity in Washington State.
The BPA too is suffering and has come up with a plan to effectively buy all the Northwest aluminum plants off its system by 2006.  In the meantime, Locke is giving these industries tax breaks.  Many cities are also attempting to assist with the crisis; for example, the Tri-Cities shut down lights on its cable bridge.


Links To Groups Opposing These Plants

       Many groups are opposing the construction of these gas-fired plants and can easily be located on the Internet.  A small list is provided here:

            Northwest Environmental Advocates

            American Rivers

            Alaska Conservation Foundation

            Renewable Northwest Project

  What You Can Do

        Although you have already probably received something from your energy company or noticed a price hike, you can do several things.  The following tips are from Whitman College Professor of Chemistry Frank Dunnivant's Energy Alert webpage: “First, buy Energy Efficient Light Bulbs!  Compact Fluorescent bulbs screw into normal light sockets but use only a quarter of the electricity normal incandescent bulbs do. Turn off lights not in use.  Turn off PC monitors, printers and copiers at night.  Wear a sweatshirt or other warm clothing indoors when it is cold.  Wear fewer clothes indoors when it is hot so that you can give the air conditioner a rest.  Consider switching to ceiling and floor fans, they consume less energy than air conditioners.  Keep your thermostat below 68 degrees during the day and 55 at night or when you are away from home.  Keep the drapes closed at night to prevent heat loss.”9

[More examples at:]

       Also, as these issues continue to heat up, pay attention to the news, contact your representatives and senators, and remember that these gas plants, although they provide you with cheap power, are releasing thousands of tons of CO2 into the air each year.


Sources Cited











* Bracket text is inserted in quotations.


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