By ALEX GIMARC
(This is the third in a series on Chugach Electric Association’s new dalliance with renewable energy. The second column discussed solar energy in the Railbelt.)
Today, we will take a short look at wind energy in the Railbelt, keeping Chugach’s proposed 122-megawatt wind farm west of Mount Susitna in mind.
The US Energy Information Administration describes wind energy generation in Alaska as providing around 7% of Alaska’s renewable generation from 60 megawatt of utility-scale generation located mostly in the Railbelt and along the southern and western coasts. Wind-diesel hybrid systems are increasingly popular in rural communities off the main grid.
The largest wind farm in the state is Eva Creek, 24.6 megawatt installed near Healy, operated by Golden Valley Electric Association. It went into service in Oct 2012. Rationale by GVEA for the project was to help GVEA meet its Renewable Energy Pledge. More on those sorts of pledges in my next piece.
Here in Anchorage, Chugach Electric Association entered into a power sales agreement with Cook Inlet Regional, Inc. to purchase electricity from CIRI’s 17.6 MW wind farm on Fire Island. Chugach maintains a Fire Island Wind web page. CIRI’s Fire Island Wind, LLC subsidiary also maintains a web page with details on the project.
Costs are most important, as electricity from Fire Island is on average 1.7 times the cost (9.7¢/kWh for wind compared to 5.5 – 6.0¢/kWh for everything else). It produces perhaps 3% of Chugach’s retail load, meaning its current impact on our electric bills is small. However, when you increase that percentage, by definition, monthly electric bills will increase. The more wind generators, the larger the increase in monthly bills. Note that this is all before we have any discussion about the impact of intermittent generation on the stability of the grid.
Like solar, wind is also intermittent, though a better overall performer. In 2022, Fire Island produced on average 35% of its rated capacity. Turns out that Fire Island is a good place to install a wind farm. There was a proposed Phase II that would have installed another 11-22 turbines that ended up being not sufficiently economic to pursue.
Gathering information for this post was an interesting journey. Julie Haskett at Chugach was most helpful, as was Matt Perkins at Alaska Renewables. CIRI, the owner / operator of Fire Island Wind was unresponsive to the point that published e-mail addresses bounced internally.
There are several outstanding questions that someone needs to address:
1. No data on failures of Fire Island turbines over the last decade.
2. Actual operational time for wind turbines tend to be shorter than planned operational time (20 – 30 years) or operational lifetime loans are based upon (20 years). No actual data on these lifetimes either.
3. How will these be retired? What happens to the blades and turbines? Texas Monthly ran an August 2023 piece on a wind turbine graveyard in Sweetwater, Texas as an appropriately hair-raising cautionary tale.
4. One commenter in my first article noted that the proposed site of CEA’s new large wind farm is uncomfortably close to a pair of state game refuges with avian migration routes and nesting areas. There are aviation restrictions near these refuges. What impact will the proposed large wind farm have on bird populations? Better yet, what impact has Fire Island had over the last decade?
5. Final question is what happens when the $16.79/MWh federal subsidy for wind changes?
Like we discussed last month, if we choose to plop down a wind farm of the size necessary for utility-level generation requirements, we will consume massive amounts of land in the MatSu. How much? That is a highly variable number, ranging from 20 – 50 km2 for a proposed 122-megawatt wind farm.
Once again, we are back to local opposition to the proposed West Susitna Access Road. If you build something this big, you are going to need access to it.
We are back to many of the same conclusions we drew last month about solar:
While wind performance is better than solar, it is still highly variable. The more variability you introduce into the grid, the more instability you also introduce. Once again, wind does not come with any sort of storage. How much instability can we stand?
Wind farms use a lot of land. We are looking at tens of square kilometers necessary for Chugach’s proposed wind farm.
CIRI has been remarkably tight lipped when asked about data on their installation. Advocates and CEA were most helpful. My experience is when someone is not answering questions, this means they are hiding something, lying by omission to the public.
Finally, wind has known negative impact on bird populations. There is no interest at any governmental level or from the Usual Suspects in Big Green in what those impacts may be. It must be nice to advocate an energy generation technique that does not trigger any environmental scrutiny.
Yes, we can do Big Wind, but at what cost? Cost to the environment? Cost to bird populations? Increased electric costs to rate payers? Costs of increasing grid instability including blackouts (rolling and otherwise)? At what point does the cost-benefit analysis tell us to do something else?
We will never answer that question unless you actually do one, with all the costs publicly addressed in an open and comprehensive manner.
Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He was a small business owner and Information Technology professional.