Wind farm rises on Alaskan island

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.

Chugach approached CIRI, the major landowner on Fire Island, to work with it on the project in 2000. Eventually, CIRI decided to take on the effort itself. It secured major environmental permits in 2009. Late last year, regulators approved a contract for CIRI subsidiary Fire Island Wind LLC to sell power to Chugach Electric for 25 years.

The first tower and turbine components were sent over by barge July 1. On July 13, the first turbine – tower, blades, and generator – was erected. At the other 10 turbine sites, all major components are in place and a number of tower sections are up.

The prime contractor is a New York company, Tetra Tech, which has built dozens of wind farms around the country and in Canada. Last week, close to 100 workers were on Fire Island, the majority of them Alaskans hired by Tetra Tech, CIRI spokesman Jim Jager said.

Scott McManus is Tetra Tech’s director of business development, based in Gloversville, N.Y. The logistics have been the biggest issue, he said.

Equipment must be barged over. The components must be precisely staged at each turbine site. Five cranes, including one that is among the biggest in Alaska at 660 tons, are on the job. Workers come over daily by boat or small plane.

“It’s very challenging because of the remoteness of it. Logistically, it comes back to barging everything and getting these huge components onto the island,” McManus said.

The turbines are GE’s most popular model, each with a capacity of producing 1.6 megawatts of power. The blades are made in Brazil, the units that contain the generator come from Southern California, the connecting hubs from the Florida Panhandle and the towers are made in China, according to CIRI. A submarine transmission cable to carry the power from Fire Island to the mainland was produced in Norway.

“Like many large projects and pieces of capital equipment – including your personal automobile – equipment for this project is sourced from around the globe,” CIRI President Margie Brown wrote in the company’s May newsletter.

The state awarded a $25 million grant to help pay for the power line, which CIRI will turn over to Chugach once it’s complete. CIRI expects to recover $17 million in a federal stimulus grant that it says will be used to lower the costs to Chugach.

CIRI owns 3,600 of Fire Island’s 4,000 acres. The rest belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard. Six miles long and four miles wide, the island is hillier than it appears from Anchorage, though the highest point is less than 300 feet. Bluffs overlook muddy beaches, like on the Anchorage side. It’s heavily wooded with spruce, birch, cottonwood, alder and plenty of devil’s club and cow parsnip.

A few grizzlies have appeared near the work site. So have moose.

An FAA navigational system that directs planes to the Stevens International Airport had been located on the island but had to be moved because of the wind farm. CIRI says it spent $4 million to upgrade and move the facility.

Some Cook Inlet setnetters have fish camps on the island. Fishing shacks along the shore can be spotted from the air. There used to be a military installation there.

The land that makes up Fire Island likely was deposited mainly from prehistoric glacial melt, according to a 1981 U.S. Department of Interior geological survey.

In the early days of wind farms, bird strikes were a problem, but much of that has been addressed through their design and placement, Jager said. One infamous wind farm in California was in a low spot through mountains where flocks of birds migrated.