Wednesday, 26 September 2012 10:50
September 26, 2012
One of the big draws of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is that they can be added in small amounts as economics demand - a turbine here or a new array there.
But the completion of a new wind farm in Oregon this past weekend shows that wind power is just as capable of making major contributions to the country's generation capacity, according to The New York Times.
Wind power on a large scale
Caithness Energy's Shephards Flat project, which went online Saturday, September 22, is located in northern central Oregon, just along the border with Washington, about halfway between Portland and Walla Walla.
The project includes 338 turbines dotting the landscape across more than 32,000 acres. At their peak, these turbines can generate as much as 909 megawatts of clean electricity.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, this amounts to roughly one-quarter of the capacity of the country's largest coal plant - the W. A. Parish coal plant in Thompsons, Texas - and ranks fifth in Oregon behind only the state's massive hydroelectric plants.
Admittedly, the wind farm will rarely - if ever - match its peak capacity, but most fossil fuel power plants do not actually operate at full capacity either. Meanwhile, each of the turbines could realistically power as many as 2,500 homes on windy days.
The new project, definitively one of the three largest in the world, could actually make a claim to be the largest wind farm in the U.S. Only the sprawling Alta Wind Energy Center in southern California beats out its generating potential, though there is some disagreement as to whether that project should actually be treated as several different wind farms.
Subsidies, stability at issue
Some people within Oregon's energy industry have raised concerns about the new wind farm, noting that the state has already struggled at times to incorporate its existing wind capacity.
In 2010, the EIA reports that Oregon drew 55.4 percent of its electricity from hydroelectricity, the second-highest proportion in the country behind only Washington. Other renewables, meanwhile, accounted for 8.6 percent of generation.
But the Times notes that in 2010, Oregon and Washington were forced to give away electricity as storms in the region flooded reservoirs, forcing hydroelectric plants to operate at full capacity even as wind turbines were churning out record amounts of energy.
Still, the biggest concern for many people has actually been the high cost of subsidies for the project, according to GreenTech Media. The developers managed to secure almost $1.24 billion in subsidies from several different programs, including a $500 million federal grant and renewable energy generation premiums worth $220 million.
In addition, the entire project is backed by the federal government with a $1.3 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. A memo to President Barack Obama two years ago noted that these subsidies left investors with "little skin in the game."
Strong outlook, continued support
Despite these worries though, the latest assessments of the project suggest that it has strong chances of seeing good returns and ultimately paying back its loan. Some believe the project would likely have gone forward even without the loan guarantee.
Still, local officials have called the project a successful example of clean energy subsidies and a good use of the country's engineering resource.
"This project has created jobs during a very tough time for rural areas of Oregon, and has added to the tax base as counties are struggling to provide basic services," U.S. Representative Greg Walden said in a statement. "Moreover, the wind energy produced at Caithness Shepherds Flat will be part of an 'all of the above' energy strategy that this country so desperately needs."
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