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Wind Power Making a Difference in Alaska

Wind farm construction is under way across state


“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

—Bob Dylan, 1962

Bob Dylan’s musical refrain for peace and social justice in the 1960s could well serve as an anthem for alternative energy in Alaska in 2012. Before the end of the year, energy generated by wind turbines will make significant new contributions to electrical grids in communities and villages across the state. The renewable energy generated provides, in part, an answer to issues regarding diesel fuel costs and potential natural gas supply shortages that have plagued power providers in recent years.

Uutility scale wind farm projects in Southcentral Alaska and the Interior will garner most of the attention this summer, but they are by no means the only places where wind is making a difference in energy production. In Kotzebue and on Kodiak Island, local utilities are adding new turbines to already existing wind farms.

In Southwest Alaska, the Yup’ik villages of Kwigillingok, Kongiganak and Tuntutuliak are recycling 15 refurbished wind turbines from the California desert as a hedge against the high cost of electricity generated by burning diesel fuel. The $10 million project is partially funded through the Alaska Renewable Energy Grant Fund established by the legislature in 2008. For the some 1,200 residents of the three villages, the addition of wind power will offer some welcome relief to energy costs that bear heavily on their largely subsistence way of life.

Fire Island Project Under Way

On Fire Island, three miles west of Anchorage, Cook Inlet Region Incorporated is developing the first phase of a wind farm that will have a generation capacity of 17.6 megawatts. Being developed through CIRI’s subsidiary, Fire Island Wind LLC, 11 General Electric XLE 1.6 MW turbines will supply more than 50,000 MW-hours of power to Chugach Electric Association annually, enough electricity to power about 6,000 homes. It is the first phase of what could be up to 33 turbines, depending on future wind power purchase agreements.

The cost of this phase of the project is estimated at $65 million plus the cost of new transmission infrastructure. The project is expected to qualify for more than $18 million in tax credits from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009. The State of Alaska also granted $25 million for submarine and mainland transmission infrastructure.

Fire Island Wind began preparing the site in 2010, including road work and turbine pad construction. Last year, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA) gave its stamp of approval to a purchase agreement between Fire Island Wind and Chugach Electric. In Anchorage, crews completed clearing land for a transmission line that will travel both above and below ground on its route to a Chugach Electric substation.

The pace of construction quickened earlier this year with the installation of submarine and shore-side transmission cable. By July, turbine components were riding the high tides on trips from the Port of Anchorage to Fire Island. Completion of this phase, commissioning and commercial operations are scheduled for September.

With a tower or hub height of 242 feet and each of the three blades measuring 131 feet, the GE wind turbines will offer a striking view to those with vantage points along Anchorage’s Cook Inlet shoreline or for airline passengers flying in and out of the city. That is a good thing, says Chris Rose, executive director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.

“Thousands of people will fly over Fire Island every year and see that wind is working in Alaska,” says Rose. “That will help REAP educate the public about the benefits of locally produced and predictably priced renewable energy.”

Workers give perspective to the size of the turbine foundation under construction at the Eva Creek Wind Project.

Photo courtesy of Golden Valley Electric Association


Eva Creek Under Construction

Golden Valley Electric Association is building the largest wind farm in the state at Ferry near Healy, accessible only by the Alaska Railroad or a footbridge. The $93 million Eva Creek Wind Project will have a 24 MW capacity from 12 German-built REPower Systems turbines.

While the electric cooperative has been studying wind potential in the area since 2003, it wasn’t until June of last year that the GVEA board unanimously approved the project. The wind farm is seen as a big step towards meeting GVEA’s Renewable Energy Pledge that targets 20 percent of system peak load from renewable energy by 2014. The utility cooperative anticipates the project will help “kick the oil habit” by displacing more than 76.6 million kilowatt-hours of oil with renewable energy annually.

The Eva Creek turbines began arriving at the Port of Anchorage in late May and were trucked to Healy where they were transferred to rail car for the trip to Ferry. Once on site, crews from Wisconsin based Michaels Wind Energy started the job of erecting the turbines. A very large crane, also imported from Wisconsin, was assembled on site. It will be the workhorse in assembling the turbines that measure 262 feet at the hub with a total structure height of 410 feet when incorporating the blade length of 148 feet. GVEA notes that the total turbine height is 105 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, adding some perspective to the size of the structure.

It is anticipated that the entire project, including substation construction and testing, will be complete by the middle of September with wind power coming on line by the middle of October. In offsetting the use of fossil fuels in the generation of electricity, the Eva Creek Wind Project will save GVEA ratepayers an estimated $13.6 million over the next 20 years, assuming oil prices of $90 per barrel.

PHOTO: Jason Selars/Courtesy of STG Incorporated

STG Incorporated installed two new EWT turbines manufactured in Holland at the Kotzebue Electric Association wind farm this spring, bringing the total number of turbines to 19 for this Northwest Alaska coastal community.


Kotzebue Wind Farm Grows

For the Kotzebue Electric Association, generating power from the wind is nothing new. They have been doing it since 1997 when KEA launched the first wind farm in Alaska with the installation of three AOC 15/50 wind turbines. Early this spring, two new Dutch manufactured EWT 900 turbines were added to the mix, bringing the number of turbines installed over the years to 19. The two new turbines will add 1.8 MWs of production to the 1.1 MW already produced by the wind farm located some four miles outside of the Chuckchi Sea coastal city, home to some 3,200 residents. The $11 million cost of the newest additions to the wind farm along with a 3.7 MW flow battery were covered in part by the Alaska Renewable Energy Grant Fund.

Wind conditions in Kotzebue are well suited for producing electricity. The average annual wind speed at KEA’s wind farm is 13.5 miles per hour and is stronger in the winter when electricity demands are higher. Other wind factors contributing to the success of the Kotzebue experience include the higher density of the cold air masses at sea level atmospheric pressure and the flat tundra setting that allows the wind to blow at full force.

The KEA wind farm experience has attracted attention over the years, particularly from other Arctic nations interested in learning about erecting wind turbines on the tundra. “We’ve had visitors from all over,” says Brad Reeves, KEA’s general manager. One particularly interesting visit occurred in 2003.

“We heard a delegation was coming from the Russian Far East, but were surprised when this unmarked, white 727 landed at our airport one afternoon,” Reeves says. The jet disgorged more than 70 visitors led by then Governor of Chuktoka Roman Abramovich, a flamboyant Russian billionaire.

“I had to round up just about every vehicle in town to truck them out to the wind farm,” Reeves recalls.

While notable, international visitors may provide a diversion from the day-to-day routine, it is the details of operating and innovating the wind farm that pays dividends for members of KEA. To capture higher levels of wind generation, KEA is working on installing a 500kW/3.7MWh flow battery. When completed, the battery project will increase wind farm capacity beyond KEA’s peak electrical demand, providing thermal energy for residential or commercial heating without burning fossil fuel.

Reducing expensive fossil fuel consumption is at the forefront of the wind power movement in Alaska. “Every gallon of diesel fuel that we replace with wind energy is economic gain for this community,” Reeves says.


Pillar Mountain Gains Power

The Kodiak Electric Association (KEA) is also upping its wind power production with the addition of three new units to its Pillar Mountain Wind Project, a wind farm that began operation 2009 with three General Electric 1.5 MW SLE wind turbines. The new GE turbines will double the wind farms output to 9MW. They are expected to begin commercial operation by the first week in September. In combination with the two hydroelectric turbine generators at Terror Lake with another slated to come on line soon, the Kodiak utility is making big strides towards fulfilling its vision of achieving 95 percent renewable energy production by the year 2020.

Currently, wind power accounts for just less than 10 percent of KEA’s production, hydro energy accounting for more than 76 percent of production, and diesel generation contributing just over 14 percent of total output. With the three-turbine configuration, KEA has been able to displace about 900,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually. The new wind turbines will double the output for the Pillar Mountain Wind Farm, saving even more money for KEA and its ratepayers.

Part of the wind farm expansion includes the installation of a battery back-up system that will in combination with Terror Lake provide grid stability when wind conditions are slack. Xtreme Power of Kyle, Texas, produces the Dynamic Power Resource battery system.

Building Hybrids

Another factor bringing wind energy to the forefront in Alaska is the development of wind-diesel hybrid systems. These applications marry diesel generation with wind turbines through sophisticated control systems that optimize power output. There are more than 20 applications installed across the state, including the Kotzebue wind farm, the villages using the recycled turbines in Southwest Alaska, and in Kodiak where the hybrid system blends hydro, wind and diesel. The hybrid technology is making Alaska a world leader in the development of wind-diesel systems.

REAP, along with the University of Alaska’s Alaska Center for Energy & Power and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has helped host two International wind-diesel conferences since 2008, attracting participants from around the world. “As Alaska continues to optimize its own wind-diesel systems with the addition of energy storage and more advanced controls, the state is in a position to begin exporting its know-how to an energy hungry world,” Rose says.

With the technological know-how and funding sources emerging, some answers to escalating energy prices and uncertain supplies may, indeed, “be blowin’ in the wind.”

Gene Storm, a writer living in Anchorage, has covered Alaska business 41 years.

This article first appeared in the August 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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