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An Alaska energy resource unlocked -- Wind not oil

Development of a 50 MW wind project on an island off Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, is set to move ahead aggressively after surmounting two major hurdles last month. It now has money for getting the wind power to market, following the approval of a state budget containing a $25 million allocation to the Alaska Energy Authority for the sole purpose of constructing a transmission line to connect the island to the mainland electric grid five kilometres away. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken the project off its "Notice of Presumed Hazard" list. The FAA can block construction of wind projects on this list due to radar and other aviation-related concerns.

"Suddenly we find ourselves being the dog that was chasing the truck. Well, we've caught the truck and now we've got to figure out what to do with it," says Jim Jager of Cook Inlet Region Inc, a native Alaska corporation which has joined with long time wind developer Enxco to build the project, known as Fire Island after its location. "Basically we are setting ourselves up to move aggressively to get this developed and potentially we could be generating power in 2009. That's what we're shooting for."

While many steps and challenges remain, Jager says this is the green light the developers have been waiting for. Next up will be another updated analysis of what the project will cost, prior to securing a power purchase agreement (PPA). There is already a short list of potential PPAs and Jager expects a contract inked this fall.

Long and brutal

Construction of the transmission line is likely to be undertaken by the project developers as soon as possible, who will recoup the cost from the $25 million grant. Speed and efficiency is paramount for an Alaskan development, says Jager, because the window for construction is so short. Winters are long and brutal and the tidal flows around the island top more than ten metres between low and high tide and are loaded with ice during parts of the year.

The transmission line is considered a public infrastructure improvement with a wide variety of potential regional benefits. The Anchorage city authority is considering a location for a new natural gas power plant and the transmission line opens up the option of the project being based on Fire Island.

Roughly 35 more permits have to be secured before construction can start. Some will be easy to achieve, but others, such as wetlands area permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers, could take more time. It is unlikely, however, that development of the wind project will be challenged from an environmental or aesthetic perspective because the area is already so strongly industrialised with the Anchorage airport nearby, believes Jager.

"We're talking about an island that is underneath the flight zone for one of the world's busiest cargo airports -- it's not like developing in a pristine area. From a public relations perspective, the project site is perfectly located, says Jager, with a mind to air traffic. "Everybody flies right over the top of it when they are coming into or leaving Anchorage."

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