As first wind farm goes up in state, others likely to follow
The Dry Lake Wind Project, Arizona's first wind farm, is scheduled to begin sending electricity to Salt River Project customers late this year.
Thirty big wind machines rising off a little-used highway between Holbrook and Heber are a curiosity for now in a state that lags its neighbors in alternative energy. But that soon will change.
The 412-foot turbines, Arizona’s first, will begin sending energy to Salt River Project customers later this year, and many more turbines are on the way.
Utilities are rushing to develop alternative energy because of state requirements mandating more renewable sources and because of federal taxes being proposed on activities tied to fossil-fuel burning and global-warming pollution.
Developments such as the Dry Lake Wind Project are attractive to utilities because, if there is room for the energy on existing power lines, the turbines are quick to build, use no water and generate electricity more cheaply than solar-power plants.
“We are going after wind because it reduces emissions,” SRP Energy Manager Charlie Duckworth said.
Of the 19 states west of Texas, only Arizona and Nevada still lack operating wind farms to help meet growing energy demands.
SRP already buys wind power from turbines in New Mexico.
At Dry Lake, every time the wind tops about 7 mph, the turbines will spin and send energy to the power grid.
The turbines hit their maximum efficiency at a sustained breeze of about 26 mph. Brakes keep them from spinning when storm winds top 55 mph.
The 30 turbines will have a maximum capacity of 63 megawatts when conditions are right. In a steady wind, each massive turbine can generate enough electricity to power about 500 homes. When the wind hits them all at once, they’ll generate enough power for more than 15,000 homes.
More on the way
Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company with U.S. headquarters in Oregon, is building the $100 million Dry Lake project. The company has plans for 209 more turbines at the Navajo County site in subsequent phases.
If all are built, the turbines will stretch about 15 miles across the northern Arizona plains.
Dry Lake is not the only wind-power project planned for Arizona.
With Arizona utilities striving to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind turbines and solar panels by 2025 to meet state requirements, wind farms have also been proposed from Flagstaff to Bisbee.
Arizona Public Service Co., the other big utility in the state, announced last week that it plans to pursue an in-state wind farm.
The Navajo Nation, which stretches across parts of several counties in three states, has been trying to develop a wind farm north of Flagstaff in Coconino County.
Wind is classified based on the average speed and consistency, and most of Arizona’s windy land is classified as moderate.
any locations would require new power lines to deliver the energy to the power grid, so it’s unlikely every windy hilltop and valley in the state will see turbines.
A rancher’s initiative
Navajo County and Iberdrola officials give rancher Bill Elkins credit for researching the area’s wind potential and attracting the first wind farm to Arizona.
About six years ago, Elkins started working with Northern Arizona University to build towers on his ranch to gauge wind speeds. He studied the power-line capacity in the area to determine whether wind power could transmit to the power grid.
His research proved to Iberdrola that a wind farm on the site was feasible.
The Dry Lake turbines are being built in three curvy rows of 10 each, crossing land owned by Elkins, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the state.
Landowners lease their land to wind-farm operators. A typical agreement pays the owner $3,000 to $5,000 annually, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Elkins declined to say what his family expects to earn.
The BLM will earn $36,966 in leases this year for the 10 Dry Lake turbines on its land and should get $87,255 a year after that, officials said last year when they approved the project.
The state, which has a different deal with Dry Lake tied to the amount of energy generated by the nine turbines on its land, could earn $4 million during the 50-year agreement.
“It’s worked out real well,” Elkins said. “There’s test towers on all the ranches surrounding us now as other companies are trying to move in.”
Now that Elkins has successfully attracted turbines to his ranch and President Barack Obama’s policies are strongly supporting the development of alternative energy, many more turbines are expected to rise over the landscape.
“We’re very happy with what has happened in the economic-stimulus package,” said Jan Johnson, an Iberdrola spokeswoman.
The package allows developers who start building wind-power plants before 2011 to receive Treasury Department grants worth 30 percent of the cost.
“It will be a huge impetus for 2009 and 2010 projects,” Johnson said.
Not only does Iberdrola plan to expand the Dry Lake project, but Navajo County has been busy approving new testing stations that will guide developers to the gustiest swaths of the county, Assistant County Manager Dusty Parsons said.
“We’ve been waiting to see this happen,” Parsons said.
With an unemployment rate reaching into the double digits, Navajo County is embracing the Dry Lake project.
Most of the 200 construction workers are living, shopping and eating in Holbrook. Once the plant is finished, about 10 operators will hold permanent jobs at the plant.
“Even that helps,” said Rod Ross, government-relations administrator for Navajo County. “The county is going through hard times just like everybody else. And we have a pretty good supply of wind up here.” Few Holbrook residents seem bothered by the turbines on the horizon.
Rusty Long, pointing to the coal-burning Cholla Power Plant nearby, noted, “They’re just a little shorter than those stacks on that power plant.”