Plans are in the works for a potential large-scale expansion of the National Wind Technology Center, the nation’s premier wind energy research facility known for its towering, white windmills on the southern periphery of Boulder County.
According to a U.S. Department of Energy letter obtained by the Daily Camera on Wednesday, federal officials envision nearly quadrupling the number of wind turbines from the 16 that currently exist at the center, installing up to 30 meteorological towers and constructing more than 60,000 square feet of laboratory and conference space.
But first an environmental assessment must be conducted on the 305-acre National Renewable Energy Laboratory facility northwest of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Public input on that process will be accepted beginning Thursday and will run through the end of November.
Florence Bocquet, managing director at the University of Colorado’s Center for Research and Education in Wind, called the expansion idea at the wind center “huge.”
Many wind energy companies are hoping to get turbine blades and gear boxes tested and certified at the facility, she said, and providing more opportunities for that to happen would be critical to the growth of the industry.
“The capabilities they have out there are amazing,” Bocquet said Wednesday. “They have the best testing facility in North America.”
Sandy Butterfield, chief technology officer at Boulder Wind Power and a former engineer at NREL, said despite the bumps in the road the wind energy industry has experienced in the last few months, the National Wind Technology Center is where the brightest scientists in the sector reside and where the most innovative advancements are made in the industry.
“I think (the DOE) realizes the center is a valuable resource for the wind industry and that the wind industry is not going to die,” he said.
The government’s ambitious plan at the wind center was unveiled as the wind energy industry faces a series of serious challenges, ranging from overseas competitors to uncertainty over whether Congress will maintain a production tax credit for the industry by year’s end.
Late Wednesday, Vestas Wind Systems said it will close its research and development office in Louisville, resulting in 60 layoffs. The announcement came on the heels of 500 job cuts at other Vestas facilities in the state this year.
The expansion proposal also comes less than a week before the conclusion of a heated presidential contest that has featured no shortage of debate over the role of renewable energy in the country’s future.
George Douglas, a spokesman for NREL in Golden, dismissed any political motivation to the timing of the start of the environmental assessment process.
“It is entirely coincidental,” he said.
Douglas said the plans for the wind center wouldn’t be implemented any time soon and represent more of a long-term vision that may or may not pan out, depending on funding and other factors. He said the government is being proactive and clearing procedural hurdles far in advance of any work being done at the site.
“When and if money becomes available, then we’ll have all the things in a row that we need to get going,” he said.
Lori Gray, the DOE’s National Environmental Policy Act compliance officer, was more blunt Wednesday.
“There is no proposed date or budget for any expansion at this time,” she said. “No decisions will be made about budgets until we complete the (environmental assessment) process.”
That alone, she said, could take up to a year.
Up to 60 turbines possible
But the proposal as outlined in the Department of Energy’s letter is detailed about what the federal government wishes to do at its wind center.
Up to 10 large-scale turbines (rated between one megawatt and seven megawatts), up to 10 mid-scale turbines (rated between 100 kilowatts and one megawatt) and up to 40 small wind turbines (rated between 300 watts and 100 kilowatts) could one day dot the landscape at the southeast corner of Colo. 128 and Colo. 93.
Plans also call for a 40,000-square-foot wind turbine component research and testing facility, a 25,000-square-foot conference and learning center and a 40,000-square-foot warehouse to support indoor staging of test projects.
Gray said the potential visual impact of dozens of additional wind turbines at the facility will be part of the environmental assessment. Five thousand nearby households were notified of the assessment process this week.
“Visual quality and aesthetics is one of the resource areas that will be analyzed,” she said. “Any time you’re proposing vertical structures, that is something that will be analyzed.”
Superior Town Manager Matt Magley said he became aware of the DOE proposal on Tuesday and will bring it to the attention of the Board of Trustees. He said he is concerned about the visual impact that up to 60 windmills just southwest of town could have, but wants to know more about how they will be situated before raising any objections.
Douglas, with NREL, said residents in the vicinity don’t need to worry about endless rows of turbines stretching toward the Flatirons as they drive down Colo. 128.
“There will not be a wind farm there,” he said. “It’s a place where turbines and components for turbines can be tested.”
Domestic industry needs boost
Butterfield, who worked at the National Wind Technology Center for 24 years, said most of the smaller turbines being proposed likely would sit below the horizon and be largely out of sight. And the tall ones?
“You see two or three turbines out there right now,” he said. “Are they objectionable?”
Butterfield said the U.S. wind energy industry could use whatever boost it might be able to get from the expertise that exists at the wind center. And he credits the DOE for its forward-thinking proposal, which he said is the agency’s way of “planning for what they see as the inevitable future.”
The domestic industry, he said, dominated the turbine and wind equipment sector as recently as the 1980s. But since then, it has seen many of its innovations and design concepts migrate overseas, where they are turned into more cheaply priced finished products.
“We get the Chinese government supporting the industry and they’re doing very well. We get the European countries doing the same and they’re surviving very well,” Butterfield said. “What the hell is the United States doing?”
He said the production tax credit that is currently hung up in Congress would help level the playing field between wind energy development and the development of conventional energy sources such as oil, coal and natural gas.
“You don’t see Deere, you don’t see Caterpillar, you don’t see United Technologies going into wind. Why not?” he asked. “Because you have this fickle support for the wind industry in this country.”
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