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Sonoma County considers harnessing the wind  

Wind-powered turbines up to 300 feet tall could sprout in Sonoma County, including near Highway 101 at Cotati, as power companies and local governments take advantage of the stiff winds that rush over the region’s ridges and hills.

Both the county of Sonoma and the Sonoma County Water Agency, which own promising wind power sites, are considering installation of turbines that would help ease reliance on carbon-generating power plants.

“The potential is here for small-scale generation,” said John Haig, Sonoma County General Services energy and sustainability manager. “We are looking at it.”

The water agency’s tank site along Sierra Avenue west of Cotati near Highway 101 is a potential location for two or three turbines, enabling the agency that pumps water to 600,000 customers in Sonoma and northern Marin counties to get all of its electricity from renewable sources. At 300 feet – the length of a football field – the towers and their giant propellers would be visible for many miles.

“We’re definitely interested in it,” said Cordel Stillman, the agency’s deputy chief engineer. Wind power facilities cost one-third to one-half as much to build as do solar power installations, he said, while coal and natural gas generating costs are rising.

In about five years, Stillman said, “wind power will be the cheapest power on the block.”

The state and federal governments say the nation has just begun to tap the wind’s potential, while wind power developers are spending billions of dollars on new projects. Utility companies, including PG&E, are counting on them to meet clean-power mandates.

California, the nation’s No. 2-ranked wind-power state with about 12,500 wind turbines and a generating capacity of nearly 2,500 megawatts, could more than double its output, an industry group says.

A megawatt is a million watts and commonly is defined as enough energy to power 1,000 homes in California.

The state, home to the nation’s first large wind farms, could get 6,770 megawatts from the wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade and advocacy group.

The U.S. Energy Department said this month that wind power, which produces 1 percent of America’s electricity, could – with technological advances – produce 20 percent by the year 2030.

That would be the equivalent of taking 140 million cars off the road, “a critical part of the solution to global warming,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the wind energy group.

Wind power developers are on a roll, building about $3 billion worth of new facilities – enough to serve 400,000 homes – in the first quarter of 2008, the group said.

There are no major wind power facilities in Sonoma County, but Iberdrola Renewables, a multinational energy company, is contemplating a wind power farm at The Geysers, where steam power has been generated since the 1960s.

“We are continuing to study the wind resource in the Geysers area,” said Jan Johnson, an Iberdrola spokeswoman.

The Geysers is the county’s most promising wind power area, Stillman said, because it is remote, windy and served by power transmission lines, the latter a key factor in making wind power economical.

Experts say Sonoma County is unlikely to accommodate a large-scale wind farm such as the one at Altamont Pass in Alameda County, one of the nation’s largest wind power locations.

But the county is dotted with “microclimates where it might make a lot of sense to put a wind turbine,” said Alexandra von Meier, associate professor of energy management and design at Sonoma State University.

Wind power can be produced for as little as 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it “very competitive” with other sources and cheaper than other renewables, including solar and wave power, von Meier said.

But to pay off, a site needs consistent wind and it takes a year’s worth of measurements to determine if a given location is promising, she said.

Haig said the county has no estimate of local wind power capacity, nor any immediate plans to erect turbines. But radio transmission sites located on the coast and on mountaintops around the county are possible wind power sources, he said.

The county’s initial goal would be to produce electricity for its own consumption, rather than feeding it into the state grid, Haig said. “That may change in the future,” he said.

The water agency, as the largest single power user in Sonoma County, gets 75 percent of its power from three renewable sources: a methane-burning power plant at the county’s central landfill, a hydro power installation at Warm Springs Dam and three solar power arrays.

A few large wind turbines could give the water agency the rest of the 12-megawatt capacity it needs, Stillman said, enabling it to meet a goal of “carbon-free” water by 2015.

A survey of the state’s wind power resources shows the most potent winds blow off the California coast. But Stillman said he wouldn’t consider the coast because of the inevitable objections to large offshore wind generators and the technical obstacles to anchoring them in deep water.

Instead, the agency is “very optimistic” about building two or three 1-megawatt wind turbines, each 300 to 350 feet tall, on water tank sites at higher elevations around the county, including the site west of Cotati, Stillman said.

PG&E also is counting on wind power to help meet a state mandate to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. The utility, which provides electricity to 5.1 million customers, now gets 12 percent from renewables, including 1.8 percent from wind, spokeswoman Jennifer Zerwer said.

The rest of PG&E’s power comes primarily from natural gas (47 percent), nuclear (23 percent) and large hydro power (13 percent).

PG&E agreed last year to buy 150 megawatts of power from a 75-turbine wind farm under construction near Rio Vista in Solano County. More wind power could come from future projects in the wind-blown Tehachapi Mountains in conjunction with a new Central Valley transmission line.

“We’re looking in that direction,” Zerwer said.

The California Energy Commission backs wind power as a means for reducing the carbon footprint of the state’s power industry.

Wind turbines are clean and quick to build, agency spokeswoman Amy Morgan said. The thorniest issue is the toll of birds killed by the giant, rotating blades, a loss the industry and environmentalists are attempting to balance against the need to address global warming.

By Guy Kovner

The Press Democrat

27 May 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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