Western Wind Energy functions much like a traditional mining company. But instead of buying land rich with coal, Western Wind buys land where the wind is always blowing. “Our strategy is that we go in, tie up a property, and spend two years on studies,” says Mike Boyd, Western Wind’s executive vice president. “From there we try to find a buyer.” And just as oil companies or miners might hire a geologist to tell them where to drill, wind companies hire meteorologists to determine the windiest places on our planet. One of those places, it turns out, is Kingman, Arizona.
After meteorological research identified Kingman as a prime location, Western Wind bought 1,110 acres and began development of a 10-megawatt wind farm. Other factors working in the property’s favor were its buildable topography, agreeable zoning regulations, and nearby transmission lines to deliver power once the farm was operational. Western Wind erected test towers nearly 200 feet high and spent two years gathering data on wind currents to ensure the project would be viable. “Western Wind bought the property with the full intention with building a wind project, with the hope of [then] negotiating a reasonable price with the power company to buy that power,” Boyd explains.
Over the course of the development, favorable changes within the solar market impacted the project. As the cost of solar panels dropped, Western Wind committed to the idea of making Kingman wind farm the first fully integrated wind-and-solar-generation facility in the country. By combining the functions on one site and sharing the same substation, Western Wind can maximize its investment and boost the amount of power the plant produces.
“Wind is an intermittent resource, meaning it’s available only when the wind is blowing,” Boyd says. “Solar is only available when the sun is shining.” But with both resources available (Kingman sees 350 days of sun per year), the odds for reliable production were far greater. Research found that solar activity was best from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., while wind energy could be best captured from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Western Wind found a buyer for its 10 megawatts of wind energy and five kilowatts of solar energy in Unisource, a progressive energy company that was also motivated to work with Western Wind to meet an Arizona mandate that a portion of its energy generation come from renewable sources.
“We are basically pioneers in the experiment,” Boyd says. “It’s the first of its kind as a combined wind-and-solar-power project and something the power company was interested in supporting.” Kingman went online in October 2011 with a ribbon cutting in December. At full capacity, Kingman can power 3,500 homes.
Now Western Wind is exploring the integrated concept on a larger scale at Windstar, its 120-megawatt generating facility in Tehachapi, California. That project came online just months after Kingman, in December 2011.
“We have a unique niche,” Boyd says. “We are a small, soon-to-be mid-sized wind developer. We do a good job of finding windy land in areas that can be zoned. It took us 10 years to become an overnight success. [Now], we’re flying high.”