There are some new, very tall figures between the spruce trees, sand dunes and boggy ponds that cover Fire Island, just 3 miles west of Anchorage.
Fire Island Wind, a subsidiary of CIRI, has nearly finished erecting 11 wind turbines on the island, the endgame after more than a decade of talk over a wind farm.
The first 262-foot-tall turbine was erected last Friday, July 13. The rest of the turbines should be hoisted into place by Aug. 15. After that, it will take about six weeks to put them into commission and start creating wind energy for southcentral Alaska. The utility purchasing the power, Chugach Electric Association, is Alaska's largest electric power utility.
When the farm is up and running, it will be considered the largest independent power producer in the state, according to Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO. It's one of only a few producers in Alaska producing power separately from a power utility.
"It's gratifying," said Brown, standing on Fire Island next to a partially erected turbine on Wednesday. "We're very pleased. This has been a long time coming. It's a real source of pride for the company."
The biggest hiccup in the project's construction?
Running into a grizzly bear, which quickly disappeared. Other than that, construction surprises have been minimal, said Ron Versaw, project engineer for Tetra Tech, the construction company in charge of building the turbines.
It only takes about a day to erect a turbine, Versaw said. That said, it's taken months, if not years, to get to that point. Concrete pads, about 10 feet in depth and 30 feet in diameter, had to be built to support the turbines in the event of seismic activity. Roads large enough to transport big equipment to the string of turbines, which stretch from the island's southern tip to its midsection, had to be put in.
Just getting the parts and equipment -- including the tallest operating crane in Alaska -- to the remote location proved challenging. Fire Island has no dock, so barges had to offload the parts -- including multiple 100-ton sections of towers and dozens of 15,000-pound blades – onto the beach.
Many of those parts had already made long journeys. The fiberglass blades were fabricated in Brazil. The steel tower sections were built in China.
Debate began in 1990s
The debate over whether to build a wind farm on Fire Island has raged since the 1990s. In 2000, Chugach approached CIRI about developing a Fire Island wind project. CIRI owns 3,600 of Fire Island's 4,000 acres on the six-mile-long island.
Brown said the wind farm was a viable option for the land because it wouldn't involve having to put in any permanent infrastructure, such as a causeway or bridge. The wind farm is one of Alaska's largest, but not the biggest. Golden Valley Electric Association's Eva Creek project will be a larger, with 16 turbines generating 24.6 megawatts.
Former state representative and current Chugach board member Harry Crawford made a trip to the island Wednesday.
"Fire Island was the was quickest, easiest way we could build a wind farm," he said, "And here we are 12 years later."
CIRI said General Electric, the turbine manufacturer, won't allow them to disclose how much each turbine costs. However, the project's total cost is about $65 million, according to Ethan Schutt, senior vice president of land and energy development for CIRI. That can be broken down into thirds, he said – one third for equipment and logistics, another for construction and other island activities, and another third toward development fees. Of that, about $19 million will be returned to CIRI via tax credits available in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. CIRI said all of the federal dollars will go toward reducing the cost of power in the future.
Power for 4,000 households
The initial cost doesn't include the $25 million transmission line from Fire Island to the Chugach substation off of International Airport Road. That funding was provided through a state grant from the Alaska Energy Authority.
CIRI also replaced the VOR (VHF omnidirectional radio range, a short-range navigation aid for aircraft) that had been located on Fire Island with a radio beacon at Ted Stevens International Airport. That cost about $4 million.
The wind farm can produce 17.6 megawatts of power per hour, or 50,000 megawatt hours per year. According to CIRI, that's enough to power 4,000 southcentral Alaska households.
That's only 4 percent of Chugach's overall power load. Currently 10 percent of the utility's power comes from hydro power, like the Bradley Lake, Eklutna Lake and Cooper Lake hydroelectric plants. The rest comes from natural gas.
Phil Steyer, director of government and corporate communications for Chugach, said the utility has no current plans to develop wind power beyond the current project -- even though Fire Island could accommodate three times as many turbines.
"What do you do when the wind comes up? What do you do when there's less? Customer demand is going to remain what it is," Steyer said. "How do you fill in the gaps, and what is that going to cost you, and how does that affect your overall system? That's what we'll learn from incorporating this system."
One thing that will remain constant on the project is the price of the power. Chugach and CIRI entered into a purchase agreement which keeps the cost of power at a flat rate of $97 per megawatt hour for 25 years. While that's more expensive than the cost of power currently, the price won't change over time, unlike natural gas, which can fluctuate.
Chris Rose, executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, sees the project as a step forward in diversifying Alaska's renewable energy resources, a needed step given the uncertainty of future oil and gas prices.
"We're very vulnerable to any price increase in natural gas," he said. "Any hedge against that is important."
The wind farm could be up and running by late September. CIRI's contract with Chugach isn't set to start delivering power until Jan. 1, but any power produced before the deadline will be sold to Chugach.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com