Energy

A small Fairbanks company wants to build Alaska’s biggest wind farms

A Fairbanks man and his Lower 48 business partner are advancing plans to build what could become Alaska’s biggest wind farms, one each outside Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Andrew McDonnell, formerly an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Matt Perkins, an engineer from Nevada, are taking steps to build wind farms that could be several times more powerful than the Eva Creek Wind Farm near Healy and the Fire Island Wind Project outside Anchorage.

Those wind farms, currently the largest in Alaska, were built in 2012, the last major developments of their kind in the state. But today’s turbines are much more efficient, and there is strong and growing interest to support new renewable energy projects in Alaska and nationally, Perkins and McDonnell said in an interview.

More wind power “will help our economy, stabilize energy costs and reduce the environmental impact of energy generation here, and allow us to participate in a broader energy transition to renewable energy,” McDonnell said.

Nearly two years ago, they launched Alaska Renewables, a private company. A subsidiary of the company, Shovel Creek Wind, has filed plans with the state seeking permission to lease land for 40 years about 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks near Murphy Dome.

The site is large enough to support up to 60 wind turbines producing 200 megawatts of power, McDonnell said. That is eight times more capacity than Eva Creek Wind, the largest project in Alaska.

An initial phase at Shovel Creek would likely consist of 15 to 30 turbines, McDonnell said. The site was burned in the Shovel Creek Fire in 2019, which will reduce the environmental impact of development there, he said.

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A different subsidiary of their company, Little Mount Susitna Wind, proposes building a wind farm more than 35 miles northwest of Anchorage, across Cook Inlet and north of Tyonek. That project could support up to 80 turbines, potentially cranking out up to 250 megawatts.

McDonnell said each project’s size will be determined by various factors under consideration. They include utility needs, engineering and wind constraints at the site, cultural assessments of the land, and public input once the state releases a draft review of the projects, perhaps late this year.

For the most part, the projects should not be noticeable from Anchorage or Fairbanks, he said.

Chris Rose with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project said the proposals, if they can be fully built, could fulfill over 20% of the current power demand from Homer to Fairbanks, along the Alaska Railbelt. Rose said that would dramatically reduce the need for fossil fuel power sources that provide much of the region’s electricity.

Projects of that size can help move Alaska quickly toward the renewable energy standard proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year, Rose said. Legislation introduced by the governor last session called for the Railbelt to use 80% sustainable power by 2040, significantly higher than today.

Other clean-energy efforts in the state include Alaska’s largest solar farm going up in Houston, state-led development of an electric vehicle charging network, and utilities from Homer to Fairbanks proposing $200 million in upgrades to support more renewable power.

The activity comes amid an infusion of federal funds into clean energy. Rose said the wind projects could benefit substantially from tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August.

Concern about future supplies of Cook Inlet natural gas, the primary source of power for most Alaskans, is also driving interest in renewables.

Chugach Electric Association is interested in adding wind power from the Anchorage project to its portfolio when it is available, said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman with the Anchorage-area utility. It will reduce the utility’s reliance on natural gas and reduce carbon emissions.

“We have initiated feasibility studies for this project located near Little Mount Susitna (about 7 miles west of Mount Susitna) that could connect to Chugach’s existing transmission lines on the west side of Cook Inlet,” Hasquet said. “A key condition of the project is that it will not result in higher electric rates.”

Purchases from the project will depend on completion of studies involving economics, interconnection and integration, and approval from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, Hasquet said.

At Golden Valley Electric Association in the Fairbanks area, wind provides about 5% of power. The utility is looking to add more renewable power as spelled out in a strategic generation plan that’s designed to offset carbon emissions and control costs, said Meadow Bailey, a spokeswoman with that utility. Diesel fuel and coal are the utility’s main sources of power.

Reducing Golden Valley’s carbon emissions can be a benefit to companies, such as some mining entities, Bailey said.

“We need to reduce our carbon footprint because our commercial customers want to reduce their carbon” dependence, Bailey said.

Wind Farm

McDonnell said he left his university job this summer after many years to focus on Alaska Renewables.

He met Perkins, who liked traveling to Alaska to participate in endurance races, not long before they formed the company. Perkins previously worked with General Electric and has helped launch clean energy startups in the Lower 48.

As an oceanographer, McDonnell said, he has studied the impacts of carbon emissions on water and land, helping spark his interest in renewable energy. He has served on a solar power committee at Golden Valley Electric, where he saw the public’s growing interest in renewables.

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He said sites for the projects were selected based on earlier studies of wind characteristics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and elsewhere, as well as terrain features and other data. Wind prospects at the sites are being studied under state land-use permits, he said.

Perkins said Alaska Renewables has received financial support from Alaska and Lower 48 investors. He declined to name them. He said clean energy projects are attracting investors because they provide a long-term, low-risk supply of sustainable energy.

“The investment communities of the world are desperate to make clean energy happen,” he said. “People realize it’s an investment in the future.”

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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