ELLENSBURG, Wash. – A rhythmic wooshing sound hums overhead at Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility. To the west, Mt. Rainier sets the backdrop for the 149 wind turbines that are part of the Pacific Northwest’s growing renewable energy market.
Facility tour guide Andrea Nesbitt says the 1.8-megawatt and 2-megawatt turbines can power 70,000 homes each year. Puget Sound Energy provides power to 12,000 customers in Kittitas County, Wash., where Wild Horse is located. On average, a single turbine powers 470 homes per year.
Winds constantly sweep through the facility, situated just outside Ellensburg, Wash., which had the highest annual average wind speed—9.5 mph—in the state from 1998 to 2006, according to data from the Western Regional Climate Center.
On this day, the wind was blowing at about 30 mph. Nesbitt says the facility has clocked wind speeds up to 117 mph – the highest its instruments can go. (According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a hurricane starts to clock in at 74 mph.)
The wind can be tricky for people who gear up with helmets to take the wind farm tour. Tour-goers must strap on their helmets tightly so the protective gear doesn’t get blown off as they lean back to watch the giant turbine blades spin, 351 feet above them.
The blades are so huge, transporting just one of them requires an 18-wheeler. Each blade, built in a set of three, weighs about seven tons. That’s about the size of an adult elephant.
Wild Horse also has 2,723 solar panels on display. With nearly 300 days of sunshine every year, the solar array can generate 500 kilowatts. That’s one-fourth the amount one wind turbine can generate. Nesbitt says the solar power panels are pretty costly; each panel is about $1,000.
Turbines on the other hand cost between $2.9 million to $3 million, Nesbitt says. That’s an investment of about $446 million for Wild Horse, which carries a 12-year payoff plan, Nesbitt says.
(Source: American Wind Energy Association)
Wild Horse began generating power in December 2006, expanding its facilities in 2009, making it part of a national trend. Wind power is the fastest-growing renewable energy source, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nationally, wind power generation increased 33.5 percent from 2008 to 2009, and the Pacific Northwest is pushing that figure higher.
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