1.29.2005

Something in the Wind

The Herald Journal - 3.21.04

UINTA COUNTY, WYO. -- Rick Lynn spends his days on the open plains just east of Evanston, Wyo. He pulls a black baseball cap low on his leathery face and covers a bright pair of eyes with sunglasses. He looks across acres of barren, snow-covered ground. The stoic, clean-shaven Lynn wears a simple uniform during the winter, just a hooded black Carhartt jacket, blue jeans and boots caked with mud. After he parks a filthy white Ford outside the garage he calls an office, he drives a snowmobile to keep up with what he tends.

Ten years ago the description of Lynn may have been a perfect fit for a rancher on this land, which totals nearly 28,000 acres. But in 2004, the open space that begins just three or four miles north of I-80 isn't home to sheep or cattle. In fact, the commodity that Lynn uses his sophisticated electrical skills to harness would probably disturb a grazing flock.

However, the wind that almost constantly blows across these high plains is an ideal source of renewable energy.

Lynn is the plant leader at the Wyoming Wind Project, the 80-turbine facility on the otherwise desolate stretch of land in the southeastern part of the state that began producing power in January. It's the same renewable energy project that two Cache Valley municipalities have both recently signed contracts to purchase, and part of a trend that is gaining popularity and accessibility across the country as a source of electricity.

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Last Friday was a clear and cold day at the Wyoming Wind Project. Sunshine twinkled on the thick layer of snow that still covered most of the 45 square miles the project leases. The crusty snow was shoveled only where absolutely necessary -- a skinny dirt road that leads from I-80 to Lynn's office in a brand-new commercial-sized garage. Everywhere else, it was deep enough to force Lynn onto either a snowmobile or Sno-cat to visit each turbine and tower.

From the base of one 220-foot tall white tower, a group of men gazed skyward, dwarfed by the gleaming white structure. Three 30-foot blades rotated around a turbine high in the sky, and gently flexed at slight changes in the wind pattern far above their heads.

It was windy that afternoon, with gusts up to 20 miles per hour. While the wind chilled the tour group, it wasn't enough to dampen the spirits of Lynn and visiting officials from the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and PPM Energy. Because they knew the 80-turbine facility was getting exactly what it needed.

"These are the latest and greatest," said Barrett Stambler, the director of renewable business development for PPM Energy in Portland, Ore., which markets power from the project, as he watched a meter inside the tower that monitors current electricity output ratchet up toward 1,300 kilowatts.

Stambler was pleased to watch the turbine production monitor as it neared its capacity of 1,800 kilowatts. The fluctuating 12 to 20 mph wind speed was plenty for the turbines. Each requires a wind speed of about 15 miles per hour to start, and operate independently of each other based on the wind at each specific site. Wind of about 45 miles per hour are enough to get the Danish-built turbines to produce at peak capacity, which provides 144 total megawatts of electricity from the entire facility -- enough to provide electricity for 43,000 customers.

The turbines harness wind through rotors, the long fiberglass blades atop the tower. When the wind turns the blades, machinery inside each turbine spins a series of shafts, which connects to a generator that turns out electricity. The electricity goes through a substation on the facility grounds, and transmission lines that send power to 20 Utah municipalities that subscribe to the Wyoming Wind Project.

Although the entire facility produces at capacity only one-third of the time -- a variance typical to wind farms, that prevents any municipality from receiving electricity solely from wind -- the gusts are strong and predictable enough to make the barren plains a very productive investment.

"It's one of the best wind areas of the West," said Marshall Empey, UAMPS Planning Manager.

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According to the U.S. Department of Energy, commercial wind energy systems now exist in 26 states. The emerging industry now has a total capacity of generating over 4,600 megawatts of electricity nationwide, including 1,700 megawatts added since 2001 alone.

With growth numbers like that, it's not just environmental reasons that have ushered the expansion of wind power -- it's also become cheaper. The cost of producing electricity from wind now costs between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt, according to the department of energy, a decrease from the 1980s price of nearly 80 cents per kilowatt, valued in current dollars.

The contract that UAMPS has marketed to Utah customers locks in a fixed rate for a 25-year period, and allows cities to pay for wind electricity only when the windmill turbines are producing power. Empey acknowledged that dips in fossil fuel prices could lead cities away from buying wind power if cheaper gas and oil is available. However, he also said the renewable resource is nearly always the best choice to supplement electricity needs during peak usage times -- when system use is at its highest -- and at a price that is constant. That's important for municipalities that often are left to look for power during peak times, when prices for more traditional sources tend to spike.

"The economics will dictate (use)," said Empey. "Why burn gas or oil if you're buying this on a per unit basis?"

A recent study shows that peak power needs are an increasing strain on Utah's power systems. The Utah Foundation, a research organization in Salt Lake City, released a report earlier in March that said peak demand is growing at a significantly higher rate than average demand. In fact, the foundation reported that since 1991, the gap between peak demand and average load demand has grown by approximately 200 megawatts.

Most of that demand comes during hot summer weather, said Janice Houston of the Utah Foundation, when commercial air conditioners that use a large amount of electricity tax the power grid, typically during the hours from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. A time that, fortunately for Wyoming Wind Project customers, is the same time that studies show the winds outside Evanston are the most consistent, and available for purchase at the fixed cost.

"In summer, the wind shape is right across our peak in the afternoon," said Empey, citing another advantage of the wind deal.

Empey said coal and hydroelectric power costs per kilowatt are currently close to 1 cent, which is still much lower than wind energy. When combined with a reliability factor at coal-fired and hydroelectric plants that is far greater than wind farms can provide, those two sources will remain the main providers of energy in the foreseeable future.

However, natural gas prices are currently between 4 and 5 cents per kilowatt, and susceptible to variables that could drive up costs in the future. Natural gas is generally as reliable as coal or hydro. Even though the federal Energy Information Administration has projected the retail price of electricity to decline by 2025 because of technology and decreasing fuel prices, UAMPS officials said wind power could still outpace the more traditional sources of power in the decades ahead, and possibly sooner.

"In three or four years this could be below market (price)," said Empey. "As the price of gas goes up, we'll always take the wind."

The economics don't just benefit UAMPS customers, either.

The $143 million project -- coal plants typically cost two to three times that much to build, depending on size -- broke ground in Uinta County less than a year ago. Local jobs were added when construction crews were hired from the community, which boomed when oil drilling was prevalent in the 1980s but has steadily emptied as oil wells dried. Capital investment costs were taxed, and income taxes are paid to the host county, even though the ownership is based in a Florida energy conglomerate and a Portland, Ore. company.

"It's huge for these rural communities. The economic benefit and tax base is great," said Stambler. "Imagine any other type of power plant, start to finish in less than six months."

The financial benefits will also continue as the technology catches on across the West. Millions of dollars in federal grant money is available to develop wind energy in rural areas, to make unusable, barren land across plains with high winds productive.

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The faith in wind as an energy source, in addition to the economic benefits through the long-term UAMPS contract, has influenced two local power systems that are UAMPS members. Both Hyrum and Logan bought into the facility this winter, at 1 megawatt and 3 megawatts, respectively, and each cited the cost as a factor when they added wind energy to power portfolios.

"Wind power is a very, very important part of our portfolio, and a very good thing to have," said Hyrum City Mayor Gordon Olson.

Hyrum's wind energy is in addition to 1 megawatt of power they have invested in at a gas-fired plant in Payson. The two sources compliment each other, said Olson, as the wind power has an output that is still somewhat unpredictable.

Logan City Power and Light officials and the Power Advisory Board were enthusiastic about the project in January, when the city agreed to purchase a share that equals approximately 2 percent of the amount of power needed for residents annually.

The agreed-upon cost, about $48 per megawatt hour, is about $6 higher than the city's budget for power per megawatt hour this year. However, city officials said the price would be competitive in the long run, and in addition cited the need to include a renewable energy source in the city's power portfolio. Power department officials have also said that interest in "green" power is a goal as the renewable resource movement expands, and citizens have already expressed interest in the technology.

"We're on the forefront," said Jack Peterson of the Power Advisory Board. "We can step up to the plate and start getting involved in these things."

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