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Tuesday, Jul 27 2010 06:08 PM

Nation's largest wind project grows Kern's clean energy industry

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    With a steady wind turning the blades of wind turbines east of Tehachapi, Jim Pagano, CEO of Terra-Gen Power, addresses a group gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Alta Wind Energy Center. The center will be the largest wind power project in the world, generating up to 1,550 megawatts of wind energy.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    One of the new towers, center, for the wind turbines of the new Alta Wind Energy Center east of Tehachapi can be seen among older wind turbines. The center will be able to generate up to 1,550 megawatts of wind energy when completed.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The nation's largest wind project broke ground in the Mojave Desert Tuesday. Before it's completed over the next decade, the Alta Wind Energy Center is expected to generate up to 1,500 megawatts of clean, renewable energy.

That's enough to power 275,000 homes, and projections are that it will inject $1.2 billion into the local economy, creating 1,000 to 1,500 temporary and permanent jobs.

The project west of Mojave and south-southeast of Tehachapi has been years in the making, stymied along the way by financial trouble, ownership changes, bureaucracy and land owners worried about noise and safety. Most of the 600 wind turbines planned for the project are to be placed on leased, privately owned land.

But dignitaries who gathered for speeches, thank-yous and congratulations Tuesday preferred to focus on the future.

"Wind energy has been part of this county for about 30 years, yet it's been slow and trickling along," said Kern County Supervisor Don Maben.

Now, at last, there is real progress, and the county couldn't be more thrilled, he said, adding that he now has a cure for his painful "oil well envy."

"This is the only district in the county that doesn't have an oil well, but mine is the only district in the county that has this," Maben said, gesturing at wind turbines towering behind him.

Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, called Alta Wind a "world class, internationally significant wind project."

Assemblymembers Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, and Connie Conway, R-Tulare, pledged to do whatever they could in the Legislature to clear red tape as the project progresses.

Tuesday's ground breaking was for the first of at least five wind farms being developed by New York-based Terra-Gen Power, LLC. The privately held company's primary investors are Global Infrastructure Partners and ArcLight Capital Partners.

The project is to be built in phases west of Highway 14 and south of Highway 58 adjacent to existing wind projects, and will include 386-foot-tall turbines as much as 25 times more powerful than older generation turbines nearby, said Terra-Gen chief executive officer Jim Pagano.

The first five wind farms have landed $1.6 billion in financing, helped by Terra-Gen's 2006 agreement with Southern California Edison to buy 1,500-megawatts of power over 25 years.

Investor-owned utilities are mandated by state law to obtain 33 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The outlook is less certain for wind farms beyond the first five as state and federal funding dwindles.

But the project has significant momentum, Billy Gamboa said in a telephone interview. He's a renewable energy analyst with the California Center for Sustainable Energy.

"It will be by far the largest project in the country once it's done, just dwarfing everything else," he said. "In California, alone, it's at least five times bigger than anything like it, and it's already overcome some of the biggest hurdles."

Prospects for Alta Wind and other wind farms in the area got a significant boost from the ongoing construction of the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, a new high-voltage transmission line that will deliver power to energy users from wind farms, solar panels and other sources.

The line is tangible proof of both public and private support for growing Kern County's clean energy industry, supporters said at Tuesday's groundbreaking.

Michael Picker, senior advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, applauded local leaders for shepherding the region's growing green economy.

"Kern County is a traditional energy producing county, yet you are leading the way in clean energy," he said. "I admire your courage in making this leap into the future."

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