Wind farm rises on Alaskan island

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News


Look hard to the west from mainland Anchorage. The horizon is changing fast. Tall towers are rising up on Fire Island as Cook Inlet Region Inc. builds its long-talked-about wind farm. By the end of September, it is expected to be producing electricity – the first megawatt-scale wind project in Southcentral Alaska.

From select vantage points at Kincaid Park, the Coastal Trail, the Hillside and even the overlook at the Glen Alps parking lot, the poles look like tiny toothpicks, small enough to mask with a thumb.

Up close, the wind turbines are giants. Towers of steel 262 feet tall at the hub. Blades of fiberglass and balsa wood 131 feet long. Foundations for each poured with 340 yards of concrete reinforced with massive rebar cages. Anchor bolts 11 feet long, 140 of them per tower.

In all, Cook Inlet Region Inc., or CIRI, is building 11 turbines at its Fire Island wind farm and has permits for up to 33. The long blades will rotate at 18 to 21 revolutions per minute. At the tips, they’ll be moving at 100 mph or faster.

It expects to start selling the power to Chugach Electric Association starting Sept. 30. With a capacity of just under 18 megawatts, the project is expected to generate just 4 percent of the power that Chugach sells to retail customers. But it’s a landmark for renewable energy advocates.

“This particular project is important because it’s the first wind project that’s going to serve the largest city in the state,” said Chris Rose, executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, an advocacy group. “Tons of people are going to see this as they fly over. They are going to start understanding that wind is a mature, commercial electric source rather than something that is on the drawing board for the future.”

Environmentalists and consumer advocates support it, too. The Alaska Public Interest Research Group Cook Inletkeeper and the Alaska Center for the Environment are among those that say it makes sense.

Chugach now relies mainly on natural gas, and should be able save one-half billion cubic feet of gas annually, enough to power about 4,000 homes, said Ethan Schutt, CIRI’s senior vice president for land and energy development.

But don’t expect cheaper power, at least at the start. Construction costs for the wind farm total about $65 million. Chugach agreed to buy the power at 9.7 cents per kilowatt hour, higher than the 6 cents per kilowatt hour Chugach pays on average, said Chugach Electric spokesman Phil Steyer.

“Initially Chugach expects that Fire Island will add a bit more than a dollar to the average residential monthly bill,” he said.

The price is locked in for 25 years. In time, if natural gas prices rise, it is expected to be a good deal for Chugach and its customers, CIRI says.

CIRI is ready to show off what’s on site. The company took planeloads of reporters, photographers and others to the island last week to check out the project. It was a picture-perfect-blue-sky day in a summer that’s mainly been gray and drizzly.

For a project that has roots stretching back to the 1990s, when Chugach Electric studied a number of potential wind farm sites, things suddenly are moving fast. CIRI officials say the Chugach studies identified Fire Island as the prime spot because of winds that are strong but not too strong, proximity to Anchorage, minimal environmental impact and lack of conflict with other land uses.

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