ANCHORAGE, Alaska—On Fire Island, things are starting to happen fast now with respect to wind energy.
11 wind turbines -- a project that's been in the planning stages for the better part of a decade -- are now in various stages of completion. And one of those turbines even has its rotor attached -- making for an impressive-looking structure -- standing almost 400 feet tall.
As of Wednesday afternoon, preparations were underway to put the second rotor on the second tower on the south end of the island. Unfortunately, slight damage to the blades of the rotor -- which had just been delivered by manufacturer General Electric this week -- delayed that installation today. But the damage was minor, requiring a quick patch-up and setback is expected to last a day or 2 at most.
And once the assembly process on the island starts picking up momentum, things are expected come to completion quickly. All 11 rotors should be in place by mid-August.
There wil be a month of additional preparations before the grid will start acceptomg South Central Alaska's first wind energy to be produced in the "megawatt" range.
It's not Alaska's biggest wind project. A 24 million watt wind farm is planned elsewhere in the state. But it's definitely a sign that renewable wind is advancing big-time in the "Last Frontier."
Fire Island will provide wholesale electricity to Chugach electric at 9.7 cents per kilowatt hour for the next 25 years.
That's actually slightly more expensive than conventional electricity in our state -- produced by burning natural gas. But over time, it's expected to save Alaskans money. The price of wind energy -- from those 11 turbines -- will not go up until the year 2037!
17 megawatts is only 4% of the region's electrical usage. But the truth is that the new windfarm will contribute even less than that. Because wind turbines only produce, on average, about a third of their rated capacity, the system will pump about 5 million watts into the grid -- one percent of total demand.
Nevertheless, that's still enough to keep 4,000 homes electrified for the next 25 years. If the experiment proves successful, Fire Island's wind generation can be expanded 3-fold.
Engineers say the best thing about Fire Island is that it provides electricity when it's needed most in South Central Alaska. Peak winds occur during winter -- when demand is highest.
The wind farm is expected to displace about 500 million cubic feet of natural gas each year, and that's good because Cook Inlet supplies of natural gas are tight right now.
One of the benefits of the nearly 400 foot-tall-wind structures is that large towers are actually considered less harmful to birds than small towers. Even though the tips of the 260-foot-blades travel at 100 miles an hour when operating at full capacity, their RPM rate is relatively slow... Less than 20 revolutions per minute. That means birds can avoid them more successfully than is the case with high-rpm blades.
The wind turbines are not the biggest in the world. Turbines 3 times as powerful have been constructed for offshore wind. But Fire Island couldn't install anything bigger. It's in the flight path of planes going to and from Ted Stevens International Airport. Approach rules require structures no taller than 600 feet 3 miles out from the runway.
Wind-generation is expected to grow more important in Alaska. It's already competitive in communities that must import diesel fuel to get through th winter and where the cost of electricity can run as high as a dollar per kilowatt hour -- 7 times higher than consumers pay in Anchorage.