A utility-scale wind-solar-battery plant points the way toward energy transformation.
In eastern Oregon, somewhere between the Blue Mountains and the Columbia River, 120 giant wind turbines tower over wheat fields, churning out power. At the same time, on the ground, solar panels capture the energy of the sun, and massive batteries provide storage for any power in excess of the moment’s demand. As the first power facility in the continent to combine – at utility scale – the trifecta of wind power, solar power and battery storage, the project is at the forefront of a transition trend. It demonstrates how renewables, combined with favorable tax incentives and regional policy, point the way to profits.
The Swiss army knife of renewable power
The Wheatridge Renewable Power Facility in Lexington, Oregon, commissioned at the end of September, was developed by NextEra Energy (NYSE: NEE), a renewable energy giant built out of a century-old Florida utility. This is a large plant – with 300 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity, plus 50 MW solar and 30 MW battery capacity – enough to meet the energy needs of some 100,000 households.
This is the first large-scale plant in the country employing all things renewable. It’s also the future of electric power generation. A recent Lawrence Berkeley National Lab report that tracks power plant development counted nine large wind-solar-battery plants in the pipeline. At least two of those – in Oklahoma and Arizona – are NextEra projects.
This is the first large-scale plant in the country employing all things renewable. It’s also the future of electric power generation.
The NextEra Energy juggernaut
NextEra, which we have written about at length, is a juggernaut in the energy transition. The company, born out of utility company Florida Power and Light (FPL), has invested some $55 billion in renewable power. In the past 25 years, NextEra has jettisoned nearly all of the legacy coal-fired capacity that once dominated FPL’s portfolio and aggressively expanded into renewables through acquisitions and new projects across North America. It boasts the largest wind and solar generating capacity in the world.
“NextEra has been around doing utility-scale wind for a long time and more recently have gotten into utility-scale solar and storage, so they are probably as well positioned as any developer out there to bring all three of those things together,” says Mark Bolinger, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
The Wheatridge facility is a new model in the way that it addresses the problem of intermittency – the natural ups and downs of wind and sun – as well as the capacity limits of the transmission grid, says Bolinger.
“[A]dding wind to solar and then having the battery there as well can result in an overall plant output that looks much steadier than any one of those resources on their own would look,” he says.
When the sun goes down, the wind picks up
When the sun goes down at the end of the day, and solar generation tapers, the wind kicks up, sending turbines into action and generating more power. The same back-and-forth happens over the course of the year as well, so combining solar with wind can provide a more constant flow of energy.
The battery on-site adds another advantage. When both wind and sun are in full swing, they may generate more than the transmission lines can handle, prompting system operators to curtail their access temporarily. This excess power, rather than being wasted, can be stored and injected into the grid later when the curtailment event has passed, says Bolinger.
This formula allows a consistent flow of power, uses the connection to the grid around the clock and minimizes idle times. It gets renewables even closer to continuous power and eliminates the need to fall back on fossil fuels to fill gaps.
This formula allows a consistent flow of power, uses the connection to the grid around the clock and minimizes idle times.
This project also highlights NextEra’s creative approach to structuring deals in the renewable sector. According to Bolinger, power plants are either wholly owned by a utility or don’t own it and instead buy power through power purchase agreements.
Wheatridge is co-owned with the local utility Portland General Electric, a 130-year-old local power company that, under a 2021 Oregon law, must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2040. PGE owns one-third of the wind output; the rest – two-thirds of the wind and all of the battery and solar capacity – is owned by NextEra, which sells its output through PPAs.
NextEra has the deep pockets to develop the project and then cash in on a federal investment tax credit for the solar-and-battery combination. (Prior to the new Inflation Reduction Act, which provides tax credits for stand-alone batteries, only battery storage combined with solar received investment tax credits.) As Bolinger points out, securing land leases is one of the biggest challenges to developing a wind farm. But once that hurdle has been cleared, there’s nothing to prevent adding solar panels and large batteries and getting that much more out of the investment.
Meanwhile, PGE takes a big step toward transitioning its portfolio to renewables – Wheatridge replaces PGE’s last coal-fired plant, which it shut down in 2020 – the utility can generate profits through the portion of wind power it owns, and have access to a longer-term investment production tax credit.
The opportunity in the renewable power market keeps on growing, and there’s no end in sight – as state and federal policy, demand and profits continue to point in the same general direction. The trick, as NextEra demonstrates, is finding the sweet spot where all three align just so.
Featured photo: Wheatridge Renewable Power Facility