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BIRDS LANDING, SOLANO COUNTY
New windmills near delta fuel state's global warming fight
- David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006
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California's latest source of clean energy started spinning slowly in the wind above the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta last spring.
One hundred white windmills, their blades stretching 122 feet, line the hilltops west of Rio Vista. Installed over the last year, they can generate up to 150 megawatts of electricity, enough to light 112,500 homes.
The Shiloh Wind Power Plant, which was unveiled to reporters and utility executives Wednesday, represents a new generation of technology for wind power. Each of its turbines can generate the same amount of electricity as 15 older windmills, some of which still dot the same grassy hills.
Shiloh also embodies California's mounting efforts to curb global warming.
It is one of the first wind farms to begin operations since California began ordering the state's utilities to use more renewable energy in 2002. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. buys half of Shiloh's electricity. The rest goes to Palo Alto's municipal utility and the Modesto Irrigation District.
"It's exactly the type of project that's going to be helping California meet its global warming pollution-reduction goals," said Audrey Chang, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is what clean energy looks like."
The project also demonstrates some of wind power's limitations.
It is spread across 6,800 acres, vastly more than a traditional power plant would require. At roughly $220 million, it also cost more to build than a plant burning natural gas or coal.
But as Shiloh's developers note, its fuel is free, avoiding the wild swings in price that have afflicted natural gas. The turbines pump no carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide into the air. And the land still belongs to property owners who will continue using it to grow hay and graze sheep.
"Over the years with wind power, I think it's gotten to the point where you can have your cake and eat it too," said Barrett Stambler, vice president of PPM Energy. Based in Portland, Ore., the company owns, or has under construction, wind-power projects capable of producing 2,000 megawatts of electricity.
Shiloh's towers overlook the Sacramento River as it flows west from Rio Vista and widens into Suisun Bay. PPM chose the spot because of the strong westerly winds that typically blow in from the bay. For Wednesday's unveiling, however, only a faint breeze moved a few windmills.
Their size dwarfs earlier windmills, some of which have occupied the hills since the late 1980s. Most of the new towers stand 262 feet tall, with three long blades that turn to face the wind. They spin 11 to 20 times per minute, slower than older models. Supporters hope the reduction in speed will make the blades easier for birds to avoid, since the number of birds killed by existing wind farms has become a sore point among many environmentalists.
The towers are designed to last 20 to 30 years. PPM started pursuing the project three years ago, with construction taking about 8 months. The farm started generating power this spring.
Wind farms, of course, aren't new to the Bay Area, as anyone driving through the Altamont Pass can attest. Ty Daul, PPM's regional managing director for the western United States, said the region may have room for more -- if residents and local governments permit them. He estimates the region could get 500 to 1,000 megawatts more. A midsize, natural-gas power plant generates about 500 megawatts.
Daul said the company would like to build more in Bay Area, but any sites would need thorough study to make sure the winds were strong and consistent enough to warrant construction.
"We would want a good year of on-site data before we'd build," he said.
E-mail David R. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©2006 San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, November 16, 2006
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