The news that Terra-Gen Power has secured $115 million in wind power funding is an important development: After bumps on the road to better transmission lines, America’s largest wind power project is finally moving forward, even as the economy stays cool.
The project is the Alta Wind Energy Center, located in California’s windy Tehachapi-Mojave region, about 100 miles north of urban Los Angeles.
The wind farm is expected to eventually comprise 750 turbines spread over 50 square miles – triple the size of any existing U.S. wind project and out-performing the world’s current largest wind farm. Eventually it will feed 3,000 MW of clean power into California’s power grid.
But first things first: The millions raised by Terra-Gen, the New York-based renewable energy developer, will be used to purchase the facility’s first 100 turbines. The GE-made windmills will be deployed at phase one of the project, the 150-MW Alta Wind I site.
Currently, the largest wind farm in the world is Florida Power & Light’s Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Taylor and Nolan County, Texas. The project was completed in 2006, with 421 wind turbines and a capacity of 735 MW.
The Alta Wind Energy Center facility was announced with great fanfare the same year that Horse Hollow opened. Back then, Alta Wind was heralded as "cutting edge," a new model for future large-scale deployment of wind nationwide. And it’s no wonder. When fully developed, the facility was going to increase utility-scale wind power capacity in the U.S. by 14 percent, and in California by 65 percent.
"The Alta Wind Energy Center is a big step toward achieving a new model for future large-scale developments necessary to meet the California Renewable Portfolio Standard [RPS] requirement of 20 percent of retail energy sales by 2010 from renewable sources," the company said.
The plan was to be phased in 100 MW at a time, over a period of five or more years beginning in 2007. That ambitious start date came and went, due to transmission constraints.
To their credit, the developers crossed a major hurdle early on. In December 2006, Alta Windpower Development LLC signed a 1,550 MW, 20-year contract to sell its wind to Southern California Edison. The deal became the largest wind energy contract ever signed by a U.S. utility, and with it, Alta Wind removed an overlooked barrier to the successful development of wind energy. It secured a reliable market in which to sell its power.
But the project’s completion was contingent upon overcoming an even bigger challenge for renewable energy: the construction of a transmission line that would carry the electricity generated at the wind farm straight to the state’s power grid.
The Transmission Challenge
The road to get there was long and laced with regulatory red tape. But in 2008, Southern California Edison officially began the construction of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, a $1.8 billion, high-voltage transmission system capable of delivering 4,500 MW of clean power. Phases 1 through 3, out of 11, are expected to be completed in 2010.
Transmission remains the main hurdle to wind expansion in America. When the American Wind Energy Association graded the nation’s wind power development earlier this month, it gave the country a B overall but a C- for transmission, saying,
The U.S. showed “very little progress on reforming policies for planning, paying for and permitting transmission."
Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens also blamed the lack of long-distance grid capacity between rural Texas and energy-hungry urban centers when he recently postponed his much-acclaimed 4,000-MW Pampa wind project.
The Tehachapi plan is a notable exception to the lull in long-distance transmission activity in America. In fact, it’s the first major transmission project in California being built specifically to access renewable generators in a remote, wind-rich resource area.
The perks should be plenty for the state, which is chasing a new and highly ambitious RPS that will require utilities to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. The Alta Wind Center will supply the annual electrical energy needs of 375,000 to 500,000 American households and will create more than 500 construction jobs and 300 long-term wind related jobs. Equivalent generation from dirty coal plants would require 2.3 million tons of coal each year.
The whole of Tehachapi-Mojave Wind Resource Area already has 5,000 turbines up and running, in total churning out enough power to serve a half a million people.
Despite all the good that it has achieved, California, once the leader in new wind growth, has been seriously lagging. In 2008, which was an explosive, record-breaking year for wind expansion in America, California fell far behind. Iowa passed the Golden State to become the No. 2 in wind power, behind Texas.
While both Texas and Iowa experienced levels of growth of 100-plus percent, California’s capacity increased by just 7 percent.
When the Alta Wind Energy Center comes on stream, it should help the state recapture its wind leadership, if the sector can retain its resilience in 2009, that is.
A new report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and released by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that the global credit crisis has officially taken its toll on the wind industry, and while surviving and even thriving in some cases, its developers are not entirely out of the woods:
"With the global financial crisis constraining the supply of available capital for project finance, most expect a slower pace of development in 2009, despite policy changes enacted in early 2009 intended to push the industry back towards aggressive expansion."