February 1, 1998

Blowin’ in the wind: Energy source draws business, consumer interest

Wind in Colorado and Wyoming can be relentless and nerve-wracking.

It’s also environmentally friendly and a money-maker for those who harness its energy and turn it into electricity that allows us to make our morning coffee, run our computers, and even open the garage door as we arrive home at night.

Until the 1990s, however, using wind energy instead of fossil fuels was a costly proposition. When California built its wind farms in the 1980s, the resulting electricity cost 50 cents per kilowatt hour.

The cost has dropped tenfold, said Marc Roper, renewable energy coordinator for the Colorado Governor’s Office of Energy Conservation. Wind energy now can be generated for an additional two to three cents per kilowatt hour over conventional fossil fuels.

Now that wind is an affordable resource, private and public utilities are jumping on the renewable energy bandwagon — a move endorsed by Colorado’s governor — and consumers are supporting the move by signing on for small voluntary rate increases as a way of supporting wind power.

Public Service Co. of Colorado customers, for example, can purchase a 100-kilowatt hour block of wind energy for an additional $2.50 per month, with a one-year commitment required from residential users and a three-year commitment from commercial users.

Buying one 100-kilowatt hour block of PSC’s Windsource each month for a year has the same environmental benefits as not driving a car 2,400 miles or planting a half acre of trees, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PSC’s Windsource lists Coors Brewing Co., IBM Corp., U S West and CF&I Steel in Pueblo among its “champions,” companies that have agreed to each purchase 15 percent of the energy generated by a wind turbine.

A drawback with wind, however, is that there are times, even in Wyoming, when there is no wind. This makes choosing the right site critical.

“Our biggest challenge is to get the turbines built,´ said Steve VanderMeer, director of marketing and energy services for Fort Collins Light & Power. The city utility had hoped to be online by November, but is now looking toward a spring start-up date.

The city’s two 600-kilowatt turbines are being built just outside of Medicine Bow, Wyo., about an hour’s drive north of Laramie. The turbines, VanderMeer said, will produce enough electricity for about 700 residential customers.

“Our hope is to prove wind technology is a viable source of energy,” he said. “We’ll be taking the next two or three years to see how well they work, how well we priced them. If interest is retained and grows, we can then add additional turbines.”

VanderMeer said that Fort Collins chose the Medicine Bow site because winds consistently blow between 12 and 30 mph. Winds of 40 mph or higher actually work against the turbine, he said.

“One of the biggest hits against wind turbines in some locations is they can have a negative impact on birds,” he said. “It’s a not a huge problem, but nobody likes to see a Golden Eagle dead at the base of a turbine.”

VanderMeer said the avian mortality rate for the Wyoming site, which had been home to wind turbines some years ago, was 24 birds, all of which were perching birds. “All of the deaths were attributable to guy wires from a nearby meteorological site.”

Nonetheless, new turbines are designed with bird safety in mind. Plus, turbine rotor speeds have been decreased considerably, to about 25 revolutions per minute.

Public Service Co. had the same primary considerations in mind when choosing to build its Ponnequin Wind Facility along the Colorado-Wyoming state line in Weld County, between Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 85.

Andy Sulkko, product manager for the wind farm, said the site is a level four. Level five sites — the ideal — are found in Wyoming and South Dakota, he added.

PSC also wanted a low-population site that had few trees, birds or prey that would draw birds into the area. The company conducted a 12-month environmental impact study of potential sites and worked with environmental and governmental organizations, such as the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Biological Survey and the Audubon Society, to ensure that the Weld County site met environmental and technical requirements.

That the 400-acre site sits next to existing electrical lines is an added bonus. The turbines take up about 13 acres each, and PSC plans to install 13 turbines, each generating 1,500 megawatt hours of electricity per year.

The 10 megawatt wind facility is estimated to cost $10 million. The first 4.5 megawatts (1 megawatt serves about 1,000 homes) will be up and running this month, Sulkko said. The remainder will be in operation later this year.

“Based on customer response, we will go up from there,” Sulkko said. “Our customers have been very interested in wind-generated electricity. While we haven’t grossly exceeded expectations, we’re ahead of where we thought we’d be.”

Wind in Colorado and Wyoming can be relentless and nerve-wracking.

It’s also environmentally friendly and a money-maker for those who harness its energy and turn it into electricity that allows us to make our morning coffee, run our computers, and even open the garage door as we arrive home at night.

Until the 1990s, however, using wind energy instead of fossil fuels was a costly proposition. When California built its wind farms in the 1980s, the resulting electricity cost 50 cents per kilowatt hour.

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