Largest federal wind farm, to be built in Texas, could save the government millions

Posted Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Deep in the Texas Panhandle — in the heart of seemingly endless farmland — a new government venture is about to sprout.

In just days, workers will break ground on the largest federally owned wind farm in the country, geared to reduce dollars spent on energy by the millions at nearby Pantex, the nation’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility.

“We want to be good stewards … and take advantage of the excellent wind resource we have,” said John Herrera, project manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration production office at Pantex

On secluded land about 17 miles northeast of Amarillo, workers are responding to the call that President Barack Obama made in June for government to develop homegrown energy and take steps to reduce carbon pollution.

They’ll break ground Tuesday on land across the road from Pantex, which houses thousands of the most dangerous weapons ever made, on a renewable-energy project that is expected to have five 2.3 megawatt wind turbines up and running by next summer.

As demand for energy continues to rise, Pantex joins a growing list of companies turning to alternative energy sources, such as using wind turbines to generate electrical power. Last year alone, wind energy topped the sources of new U.S. electricity generation capacity, according to a recent Energy Department report.

Some Pantex critics appear to be on board with the wind farm project.

“I want them to close down the nuclear weapons facility as soon as they finish dismantling all the weapons,” said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, a longtime critic of nuclear proliferation. “But while they are operating, I want them to use environmentally clean energy. They are doing the wrong thing, but I want them to use the right energy to do it.”

Energy savings

Earlier this year, the NNSA — a U.S. Department of Energy agency that oversees nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation and naval reactor programs — awarded a contract to Siemens Government Technologies to build and run the Pantex wind farm on about 1,500 acres.

The government doesn’t put any taxpayer dollars out upfront to pay for the wind farm, Herrera said.

Officials say payment for this facility is structured under an energy savings performance contract, which means Siemens fronts the money to pay for the system and receives $50.5 million over the next 18 years to pay for the cost of building and operating the farm as well as the financing.

“This is such an important project,” said Barbara Humpton, head of business development for Siemens. “The idea of advancing renewable energy through these kinds of contracts is really going to help fulfill the nation’s needs for sustainability.”

The farm is expected to generate around 47 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, enough electricity to power nearly 3,500 homes. And it should reduce CO2 emissions by more than 35,000 metric tons each year, which would equal removing more than 7,200 cars from the road each year or planting more than 850,000 trees, officials say.

The energy generated will lead to around $2.8 million in energy savings, which will pay for more than 60 percent of Pantex’s annual electricity needs, Humpton said.

“These energy savings performance contracts are a very straightforward value proposition,” Humpton said. “Everything that gets done will be paid out of the savings the customers will experience.

“It’s the savings that allow the construction of the facility.”

The idea to create this wind farm came up years ago, but officials were able to move forward with it after Obama earlier this summer called for agencies nationwide to come up with ways to carbon pollution.

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to act on behalf of future generations,” Obama said in a June statement. “As a nation of innovators, we can and will meet this challenge in a way that advances our economy, our environment and public health all at the same time.”

Pantex

Pantex — shorthand for Panhandle of Texas — opened in 1942 with workers loading and packing artillery shells and building bombs for the Army during World War II. After the war, the facility closed, and the land was used for several years by Texas Technological College in Lubbock, now Texas Tech University, for cattle feeding.

By 1951, the facility reopened, this time as a place to handle nuclear weapons, high explosives and non-nuclear component assembly operations. Workers assembled thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The brand-new nuclear weapon was finished in 1991, but workers have dismantled thousands of weapons retired by the military since then.

The facility now has three main goals: ensuring the safety of the stockpile of nuclear weapons, nonproliferation (which includes dismantling weapons, storing plutonium pits and extending the life of some weapons), and safeguarding and securing the weapons and the plant where they now are stored.

Pantex operates its facilities on about 2,000 of the 18,000 acres owned by the government.

In addition to saving money and repaying the costs of creating and operating the farm, this project will offer opportunities to researchers at Texas Tech University.

“Environmental stewardship is the banner that is leading the way,” Herrera said. “We are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the energy footprint in general, and water savings is a big” issue as well.

“We have the wind resource here. We have the property,” he said. “We have everything we need in place to move forward with it.”

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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