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Anchorage wind farm struggles to get utility commitments, putting project's future in question

Posted: April 24, 2011 - 8:05pm

ANCHORAGE — An Alaska Native regional corporation trying to build a wind farm on Anchorage’s Fire Island has yet to get the city’s major power utilities to sign on, leaving prospects for the project in question.

Natural gas fields supplying Anchorage have declined, but Cook Inlet Regional Inc. remains without a deal to sell power from the proposed Fire Island Wind Farm.

CIRI officials told the Anchorage Daily News that Chugach Electric Association is seriously negotiating for a wind contract. But the head of city-owned Municipal Light and Power, Jim Posey, says it can get a better deal elsewhere, even if that means importing liquefied natural gas.

Municipal Light and Power has made an offer to CIRI, but the Native corporation’s executives said it’s so low as to be unworkable.

Chugach, a cooperative, is the biggest power utility in the state. It serves about 80,000 homes and businesses from south Anchorage to Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, Whittier and Tyonek. Chugach also sells power to Homer Electric, Matanuska Electric Association and Golden Valley Electric Association in the Fairbanks area.

ML&P has 30,000 customers. The utility answers to the Anchorage Assembly, where a majority of members is promoting a wind power deal for ML&P to lessen the city’s dependence on natural gas.

The biggest obstacle for the Fire Island wind farm is “the will to do the project,” said a federal expert who studied it.

Brian Hirsch, senior project leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said a review last year concluded that the most significant hurdles are “institutional and contractual, not technical.”

Projects elsewhere in the United States have faced similar technical and cost issues and worked out fine, Hirsch said. A wind power system on Oahu in Hawaii, he said, shares similarities with what’s being considered for the Railbelt —integration of wind power, which fluctuates with the weather.

ML&P wants CIRI to guarantee a certain amount of power in advance, regardless of how strong the winds are. If the wind output falls short, ML&P wants CIRI to find an alternative energy source to make up the shortfall.

“That doesn’t work with wind. ... That single item makes it unworkable,” said CIRI Senior Vice President Ethan Schutt.

CIRI proposes to install 33 turbines on the island three miles off Anchorage’s coast. The project would produce 2 percent of the Railbelt’s total energy requirements, CIRI documents say.

Chugach and ML&P are the only major utilities that might buy Fire Island power at the start, and both are needed to make the project happen, according to CIRI. The company also has approached Golden Valley Electric Association as a buyer, but the cooperative is pursuing its own wind project.

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