Leaders in a blustery Western Alaska city have stopped studying wind energy as a power source.
The problem? Too much of it.
Unalaska, a city of 4,300, seems tailor-made for the alternative energy. It’s situated in the Aleutian Islands, called the Birthplace of Winds. Powerful tempests brew there when frigid Siberian air collides with much warmer air above Pacific waters, producing major storms striking the West Coast, meteorologists say.
Overall, Alaska has some of the best wind-power potential in the nation, said Peter Crimp with the Alaska Energy Authority. With rural power costs soaring because of high fuel prices, interest in wind power has jumped dramatically statewide.
Seven Alaska communities are now spinning energy from the wind, compared to three five years ago, Crimp said. More than 40 are looking into it.
But providing wind power in the place where much of that wind originates is challenged by the Aleutians’ violent, ever-shifting gusts, Crimp said.
In November, Chris Hladick, Unalaska city manager, put the brakes on a three-year effort to study wind power. The decision included returning a $300,000 federal grant, Hladick said.
The lone council member opposing the decision, former public utility director Dick Peck, said the city made a mistake. The economic and environmental benefits of wind power deserve more study, he said.
Hladick said the city must focus on building a $23 million diesel-fueled power house to provide reliable energy. The current World War II-era plant is too small and the city buys the extra power it needs from a fish processor.
For now, getting that additional power from wind is too uncertain, Hladick said.
A chief reason are wind gusts, he said, citing a study by a Vermont consultant hired by the city.
The proposed turbine’s 80-foot blades are designed to stop spinning in 60 mph winds – so they don’t break – a speed that’s frequently topped on the island.
Jim Miller owns Alaska Weather Operation Service, which runs the weather station in Unalaska. His equipment stops measuring winds at 115 mph. The wind has often topped that number, he said.
In 1988, winds destroyed an 8-foot-tall wind turbine Miller installed on a 1,600-foot peak near Unalaska. Shifting gusts tore off the blades down to the hub, he said. The base that remained was pocked by flying rocks.
In the same storm, a huge boat dragging anchor off Unalaska recorded wind velocities of about 170 mph.
That’s possible, said John Papineau, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Anchorage. The strongest official gust recorded in Alaska was 159 mph on Attu Island in the western Aleutians in 1950, he said.
Big blows are part of life on the island, said longtime resident Abi Woodbridge. As she spoke, the wind gusted at more than 80 mph outside her hillside home, she said.
“It’s really howling out there,” she said.
About five years ago, gusts at the airport exceeding 130 mph pushed the top of a 30-foot-wide glass wall about four inches inward, said Bill Dunkelberger, head of facility maintenance for the city.
Buildings built for the city must withstand sustained winds of 150 mph, Dunkelberger said. His hilltop home has a great view of the city, he said, but thick blue cables running over the roof secure it to the foundation so it won’t blow away, he said.
Gusts are only part of the problem, Hladick said. Like other islands in the volcano-peppered Aleutians, steep mountains dominate Unalaska’s terrain, a landscape that leads to sudden shifts in wind direction and speed.
Those wind shears could shred windmill blades if the machinery that adjusts them can’t keep up, he said.
Another problem: Most of the flat spots suitable for the 165-foot tower, including the parking lot of the largest grocery store, are next to the ocean.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t like those sites, Hladick said. Officials there worry that the Steller’s eider, a sea duck protected by the Endangered Species Act, would be shredded by blade tips that spin at 90 mph.
Peck, former head of the city’s public utility department with a lengthy resume running energy companies, challenged many of Hladick’s points. There are plenty of spots where wind power won’t work in Unalaska, he said, but some spots are ideal.
A private consultant, Peck said he is evaluating wind data at a gently sloping valley for Westward Seafoods Inc., a fish processor that supplies its own power and wants a cheaper option.
Wind flows dependably across one spot there, he said. In November, a single massive turbine there could have powered one-third of the town, he said.
Using new federal incentives designed to encourage alternative energy, it’s possible to build turbines that are only slightly more expensive than the fuel plant, he said. The wind power would reduce the need for a power plant, and savings would come in the long run because providing wind energy is far cheaper than paying for diesel.
“There’s no charge for wind,” he said.
Brad Reeve, Kotzebue Electric Association chief executive, said that when the wind is right in Kotzebue, the Northwest Alaska city of 3,120 gets close to half of its power from a wind farm.
But the wind blows predictably from the east, and there are no trees, hills or other barriers to stir up the wind. From what he’s heard about Unalaska, he understands why turbulence and gusts could be a problem.
“I know that just from some of the wind speeds and (other challenges) I’ve heard down there I could see how that could be a concern,” he said.
By Alex deMarban
Anchorage Daily News
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Unalaska wind power’s potential pitfalls
“¢ gusts: Proposed turbine’s blades designed to stop spinning in 60 mph wind; winds of 170 mph have been reported in the area.
“¢ shear: Mountainous terrain causes sudden shifts in wind speed and direction; this could result in damage to turbine blades.
“¢ wildlife impact: Location near shore could cause accidental deaths of protected Steller’s eider sea ducks.
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