An Alaska Native corporation is looking at expanding its Fire Island Wind Project, adding perhaps a dozen turbines and tripling the power output from the island in Cook Inlet, 5 miles west of Anchorage.
Cook Inlet Region Inc., which owns most of Fire Island and is owned by Alaska Native shareholders from much of Southcentral Alaska, built the $65 million project a decade ago. The state also provided $25 million to extend a submarine transmission line connecting the project to the power grid along the Alaska road system.
With 11 big turbines, the project is the second-largest wind farm in Alaska. It steadily produces about 2% of the annual power generation at Chugach Electric Association, the state’s largest electric utility.
Fire Island Wind officials say the project has produced the power that was expected, overcoming doubts among some Alaskans about whether wind power could work on a barren island where materials must be barged and flown in.
But CIRI has been unable to expand the project, even though it has extended roads and prepared new sites for additional turbines. In 2015, power companies balked at buying more electricity from a proposed second phase, amid concerns about costs and the ability of utilities to accept more power.
Not long after that, CIRI set aside its expansion plans until a more favorable time, said Suzanne Settle, the company’s vice president of energy, land and resources.
That time could be now, she said. As the project has its 10-year anniversary, the company is again taking a close look at an expansion, she said.
It comes as Alaska utilities and the state are increasingly emphasizing the need for renewable power, amid uncertainty about the future supply of Cook Inlet natural gas, the fuel used to make most electricity in Southcentral Alaska.
And the Biden administration has made renewable energy a top priority, as impacts grow from climate change.
“This could be the moment” to add turbines, said Settle, who led the work on the original wind project.
One new factor is the extension of tax incentives for wind projects in the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress in August, she said. Also, legislation introduced last year by Gov. Mike Dunleavy could set renewable energy requirements for utilities if it’s passed, Settle said. The bill calls for a sharp expansion of renewable power in Alaska in the coming years.
“We are trying to be ready for that at CIRI, whether that’s the expansion of Fire Island, phase 2, or other projects,” she said. “We’re a very large landowner in Southcentral Alaska, so we’ve been looking at all of CIRI’s lands that are adjacent to the grid, and we’re looking at other sites where we might be able to build wind and solar, to develop it ourselves or to lease it to others who want to provide renewable energy.”
Settle spoke on Thursday during a tour of the project organized by CIRI. Today, turbine technology has advanced so much that CIRI could potentially triple the project’s power output, essentially meeting 6% of Chugach’s electric needs, by using perhaps just 11 or 12 turbines, about the same number installed a decade ago, she said.
And with many upfront expenses already completed, the new phase could potentially produce power at rates that are competitive to natural gas, she said.
Fire Island wind power from the first phase is currently about 50% more expensive than the cost of natural gas, said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman with Chugach Electric. The price was set in a 25-year contract that began in 2012.
But the Fire Island wind power represents a small amount on monthly residential bills, about 0.5% of the cost on average, Hasquet said. The extra cost is well below $1 on an average household’s bill.
Chugach Electric will evaluate proposals for any additional power from Fire Island wind, Hasquet said.
“Chugach would be interested in accepting more Fire Island wind energy if it doesn’t increase costs to our members,” Hasquet said.
Chugach Electric has prioritized adding renewable power to its portfolio, Hasquet said. The potential options include Little Mount Susitna Wind, a private project that is undergoing studies and seeking a state land lease in pursuit of building a wind farm about 35 miles northwest of Anchorage across Cook Inlet.
CIRI officials say that as gas costs rise, the cost of wind power will become more economical.
Chris Rose of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project asserted that natural gas prices will rise in the coming years, making wind power more favorable in comparison. He said the CIRI project provides stable, known costs over decades-long periods, an improvement over natural gas, while the project — rather than the utility — will bear the financial risks of an expansion.
During the Fire Island tour on Thursday, the wind barely blew. But Settle said it’s already been a good month for wind and power output.
Fire Island operations manager Christopher Jimenez said that the existing General Electric turbines get a lot of care from a three-person maintenance crew with General Electric that regularly visits the island. The crew was departing Thursday as reporters arrived.
The maintenance is typically similar to what a car needs, tasks like oil changes to keep turbines running properly, Jimenez said, as he entered a 260-foot tall tower through a door. Inside, it seemed like the interior of a rocket.
But the maintenance isn’t always routine, he said.
The blade tips can spin up to 200 miles an hour. At that speed, small windblown particles like ice or sand can chip the blades, he said.
On rare occasions, technicians have climbed a ladder inside the towers to access housing at the center of the blades. From there, they’ve rappelled down the blades about 130 feet to smooth out the chips and add epoxy.
Those efforts and the regular maintenance can protect the blades and turbines for decades into the future, well beyond their design life, he said.
And the towers, solidly affixed to their foundations, could potentially support new blades and turbines one day, as technology improves in the decades to come.
“They’ll be here forever,” Jimenez said, stepping out of the tower.