Joint venture partners Cook Inlet Region Inc. and California-based wind energy company enXco Inc. say they could begin preliminary site work this summer in preparation for a wind energy project on Fire Island.
Preliminary engineering and wetlands mapping to prepare for permit applications will be underway this summer, and some work could begin on improvements to roads and construction of a barge landing site, said Jim Jager, a spokesman for CIRI, which owns the land on Fire Island.
Fire Island is in Cook Inlet, just off the shore of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Phase one of the project involves 24 wind towers that could generate a total of up to 50 megawatts.
The project could later be expanded to 100 megawatts, which could generate enough power to supply 35,000 average-sized homes.
Jager said the project looks economically viable now that Gov. Sarah Palin approved a 2008 legislative appropriation for $25 million to pay for a three-mile submarine cable connection that would bring power from the wind turbines ashore. Current plans are for the project to generate power by 2009, but that could slip to 2010, Jager said.
While the state investment would pay for some support infrastructure, the bulk of the project, estimated at $125 million to $150 million, would come from CIRI and enXco. The two companies in 2007 formed Wind Energy Alaska LLC, a 50-50 joint venture.
Electricity from the project would flow into the Southcentral-Interior Alaska regional power grid, reducing the amount of natural gas needed for power generation.
Jager said the project is contingent on negotiation of a power sales agreement with electric utilities in the region. The two companies hope to have the agreements and applications for approvals made with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska later this year or early next year.
Anchorage’s city-owned Municipal Light and Power has supported the Fire Island project, as has Chugach Electric Association, but Chugach also has concerns about the final cost of power.
Chugach initially approached CIRI about a Fire Island wind project after surveying 22 prospective wind sites in the region.
CIRI and enXco will need to get the power sales agreement with the utilities before the Alaska Energy Authority can disperse the $25 million for the submarine cable, Jager said.
One other issue that will need a solution is the possible interference with a backup navigation facility for general aviation aircraft. The facility is located on the island. The partners have been working with the Federal Aviation Agency and the issue is close to resolution, Jager said.
CIRI and enXco hope to complete a number of wind projects in the Southcentral region under the Wind Energy Alaska joint venture, and they see Fire Island as an “anchor” project that will help the others, because with one wind project in place the costs of providing maintenance and other support for other projects will be reduced.
Fire Island would also be a tremendous symbol for the potential of wind projects in Alaska, Jager said. The towers and turbines would not be all that visible from Anchorage but they would be clearly seen by many passengers on aircraft landing at Anchorage’s airport.
“It would be a tremendous public relations asset. It will change people’s mindset about alternative and renewable energy because they will see an actual project,” he said.
CIRI’s partner, enXco, is the nation’s largest generator of wind energy. The company owns and manages projects with about 4,000 turbines in wind projects in the U.S.
EnXco is a subsidiary of the European-based EDF group. Another subsidiary, EDF Energies Nouvelles, specializes in renewable power generation and primarily wind power, and has projects in five countries including the U.S.
Jager said there are big advantages in partnering with a major player in the U.S. wind power industry, including the company’s market influence with vendors and suppliers to get equipment delivered on time and at reasonable prices.
This is important because there is now high demand for wind power equipment and long lead-times in getting delivery, Jager said.
Fire Island isn’t a total answer for meeting the expected energy needs for Southcentral Alaska. It will help, but other renewable power projects are being studied, like a hydroelectric project on the Susitna River. Another hydro project and a geothermal project near Mount Spurr could be part of a longer-term solution, Jager said.
Still, the Legislature and the governor have established state support for basic infrastructure, mainly the power transmission lines needed to connect projects to the regional power grid.
Many sources of renewable energy are located in remote areas. If the cost of building transmission lines is included in the cost of power many projects will be uneconomic.
Alaska has a long history of using revenues from oil production to help build renewable power facilities and improvements for power distribution. In the 1980s the state invested heavily in hydro projects in several Southeast communities as well as near Valdez, Kodiak and Homer, which now supply low-cost electricity.
The state also funded a transmission line up the Railbelt corridor so that surplus electricity from Southcentral Alaska could be supplied to Fairbanks and other Interior communities. State funds are now being used to build a new electric intertie in Southeast Alaska so that surplus hydropower from Lake Tyee, near Petersburg and Wrangell, can be supplied to Ketchikan.
By Tim Bradner