CIRI optimistic Fire Island wind farm will take off

POWER BY 2010: Many hurdles remain but officials are confident.

January 24, 2009 

Plans for a wind farm on Fire Island are moving ahead, with initial construction planned to begin in the summer of 2009.

VISUAL SIMULATION COURTESY OF CHUGACH ELECTRIC ASSOCIATION

Construction crews should be busy on Fire Island near the western tip of Anchorage this summer, and the state's first major wind farm could be up and running there late next year.

So say officials with Cook Inlet Region Inc., the Native corporation that plans to develop land it owns on the mostly barren isle into a wind-driven source of power for thousands of Railbelt households.

"We're moving forward with the project," CIRI spokesman Jim Jager said last week.

Significant hurdles still remain, including determining which electric companies will buy the power and approval of all permits, Jager said.

"Of course any of this can be thrown sideways by about a thousand different things. But our anticipation is that there aren't any show stoppers ... and there will be power coming off the island late next year -- in 2010."

The announcement came as the Army Corps of Engineers last week launched a month-long public review of the proposal filed by Wind Energy Alaska, a business owned by CIRI and enXco Inc., a U.S. company that develops and runs wind energy projects.

The plan calls for erecting 20 wind turbines, each capable of generating 1.5 megawatts of power. A three-mile-long cable would carry the electricity to Point Campbell on the mainland and into the existing power grid that runs from Homer to Fairbanks.

Earlier versions of the project -- first explored about 10 years ago by one of its potential customers, the Chugach Electric Association -- called for 33 wind turbines and up to 100 mw of power.

But the towering 3-mw wind turbines required to do so would be less efficient in Anchorage's cold temperatures and sometimes moderate winds than the smaller 1.5-mw turbines, Jager said. That trimmed the project down to a 50-mw wind farm.

And its developers decided to cut the proposal to 20 turbines and 30 megawatts to satisfy concerns raised last year by the Federal Aviation Administration, which maintains an aircraft navigation signal on the island.

WIND POWER IS COSTLY

The wind power will supply a small fraction of the overall electricity consumed along the Railbelt, where utilities primarily rely on power generated by gas, hydro and fuel oil. The American Wind Energy Association says 30 megawatts of wind power equals the annual electricity needs of about 9,000 households.

Last year the Alaska Legislature appropriated $25 million to construct the seabed transmission line to carry that power into the electricity grid. But before the cable can be laid, the developers will need to get at least a few of the utilities involved to sign power-purchase agreements.

Anchorage Municipal Light & Power, Homer Electric and Golden Valley in Fairbanks have each expressed interest in the power, and Chugach has said it's willing to transport it to the grid, Jager said.

Chugach is also a prospective buyer of Fire Island wind power, Chugach spokesman Phil Steyer said Friday. The company is studying how the fluctuating power from a wind farm can be integrated into the Railbelt grid without causing load problems.

The utilities are also waiting for Wind Energy Alaska to tell them exactly how much the electricity will cost per kilowatt, Steyer said.

That's a number that's partly dependent on construction bids that are just now forthcoming, Jager said.

In the short run, the wind power will probably be more expensive than electricity generated from natural gas, since its expense is all upfront in the cost of building the farm, he said. But in the long-run, wind power costs are stable, since its fuel source is free, whereas the cost of gas-fired electricity may well continue to climb.

"That makes wind more attractive, because while the price may be slightly higher now, you have rate certainty for the next 15 or 20 years," Jager said.

THREAT TO BIRDS?

The project will also have to satisfy concerns about its effect on the environment. Wind farms can kill birds. But the newer, larger turbines pose less of a threat, because the blades move more slowly, Jager said.

Audubon Alaska senior scientist John Schoen said his organization hasn't yet taken a position on the Fire Island wind farm.

"In general we support wind energy," Schoen said. "But we still need to do our homework. ... We might have questions about the siting."

Specifics on the precise placement of the turbines, as well as the make and model, haven't yet been decided, Jager said. But enXco engineers are presently favoring a 1.5-mw wind turbine manufactured by the General Electric Co. that they have in stock.

The G.E. turbine has a flexible tower height with a hub that can vary between 215 feet and 265 feet -- taller than a 20-story building -- and a three-blade rotor that would whirl around a circle 252 feet in diameter.

The Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, will focus its own attention on the effects the project might have on the marine environment, including both the seabed transmission line and the impact that barge traffic carrying workers and materials may have on the intertidal zone. The Corps is accepting public comments on the project through Feb. 19.

Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.

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