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Siemens Tapped for Federal Government's Largest Ever Wind Farm

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Data & Technology

If a sustainability-related contract could drip with irony, this one's a regular Niagara Falls: Siemens Government Technologies will construct the largest wind project ever undertaken by the federal government, and electricity from the wind turbines will account for more than 60 percent of the electricity needs of the Pantex nuclear facility. If "Pantex" and "nuclear facility" don't ring a bell, well, we had to look it up, too. It's a high security installation near Amarillo, Texas, run by an agency of the Department of Energy called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which conducts a set of interlocking missions related to nuclear weapons security and emergency response.

Why a nuclear facility needs help from wind power

In a word, money. Unencumbered by the safety issues and water resource issues that have been bedeviling the nuclear power industry, wind energy is rapidly proving to be an economical choice in wind-rich states like Texas.

The wind farm will be built with no up-front cost to NNSA, under the kind of power purchase agreement that is becoming commonplace in the solar industry, and it will provide the Pantex Plant with an average of $2.9 million annually in savings over the life of its 20-year contract.

The wind farm, which is actually located on about 1,500 acres of federal property just east of the Pantex Plant, will be composed of five 2.3 megawatt turbines and will generate about 45 million kWh of electricity annually.

As an important side benefit, the wind farm will also serve as a research site for NNSA's education partner, Texas Tech University, which was recently selected as the site of the Department of Energy's new wind turbine test facility, the Scaled Wind Farm Technology.

Wind farms and federal installations

The federal government has been notoriously cautious about siting wind farms on or near government installations, primarily due to concerns over interference with radar and communications equipment.

However, those concerns are beginning to fade as new technological solutions arise, one example being a holographic radar system developed by the company Aveillant, which can distinguish between wind turbine blades and other objects.

Siemens and the wind tax credit

Given the aforementioned cautious approach by the federal government, the new Siemens wind farm is a real breakthrough. It took about three years and overcoming "numerous hurdles" to win approval for the project, which will begin construction in December 2013 with completion expected in the spring of 2014.

If those dates raise a red flag, you're probably thinking of the production tax credit for wind power. Last year, Republicans in Congress balked at extending the longstanding tax credit, leading wind companies like Siemens to scale back plans for expansion and lay off employees.

However, earlier this month the tax credit was finally granted a one-year extension by Congress after hard-fought lobbying by the wind industry, aided by military veterans affiliated with the energy security organization The Truman Project, along with bi-partisan cooperation that included several key Republican legislators and governors from wind-producing states.

Part of what the wind industry fought for was a new definition of the projects covered by the one-year extension. In previous iterations, the tax credit only covered projects that were completed within the specified time frame. However, modern large-scale wind farms typically take 18 months to two years to develop, putting all but small, modestly sized projects outside of a one-year time frame. In order to make the extension meaningful for modern wind development, the industry fought for and won a definition that covers any wind farm that begins construction this year, regardless of when it will be completed.

Another innovative notch in the Siemens belt

The rather daring nature of the Pantex wind farm is right in line with several other recent cutting edge projects undertaken by Siemens, as exemplified by its new showcase building in London called the Crystal.

Another recent example is an "eHighway" that updates the old electric trolley model to provided an electrified lane for trucks that would otherwise run on diesel fuel. When equipped with a rooftop pantograph, trucks could switch seamlessly to electric power whenever an electrified lane is available, then switch back to diesel as needed.

Last year, Siemens also launched a partnership with Volvo to develop electric vehicle technologies.

[Image: Wind turbine courtesy of Siemens]

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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