Visiting LA Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm

Field trip; we meet at 111 North Hope Street, check in, and board the bus. Joe Ramallo, a director of Public affairs, welcome us. He, like LADWP and utility personnel, is proud of the utility, excited about its path and its history, from printing its own currency to its key power generation role in Hoover Dam. All aboard, we’re excited to see the Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Fred Barker, LADWP’s unofficial historian, is in his element telling the DWP story as we head north leaving the city while progressing through a history of Los Angeles and its lifeblood for development, the 100-year old LA Aqueduct. Fred is good morning material: He stands at the front of the bus, mike in hand, regaling us with stories of William Mulholland and Fred Eaton. He’s even in touch with their descendants.

This is DWP country. As we near Mojave, to the left we see the wind development at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains and on up their slopes. There’s much more here than the last time I passed by. In the foreground is a solar farm owned by EDF, the French utility.

We LADWP’s Mojave service center, a major maintenance facility for the 233-mile aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. We parallel DWP’s two transmission lines, the high voltage direct current line (HVDC) coursing its way 850 miles north to the Columbia Gorge separating Oregon and Washington. For many years, Los Angeles sent excess power north in winter for heating, and received power for cooling in summer.

The bus slows, and we turn off the 395 at Jawbone, where the two pipelines of the aqueduct sag through a valley… dropping over 1,200 feet, through the dry valley and river wash, then steeply up the other side, and spilling water at an altitude just 26 feet below where it started. We pass the aqueducts and up the valley. LADWP chose to build, own, and operate a wind farm here, within miles of familiar territory, an interesting synergy between water and power.

Pine Tree’s site is 8,000 acres of rugged terrain. The tour bus grinds its way up the steep and winding, narrow road that services the turbines and solar facilities. Fortunately it’s paved, a rare amenity in this business. LADWP’s Randy Howard told us that we’d instantly know why the wind farm is here. He was right. We stepped off the bus and instantly knew. A cold, fall, determined wind indeed. Looking up, blades spinning, clouds passing, and through my camera lens, I quickly feel dizzy. Head down, I regain my bearings. On the next ridge over is the Pacific Crest Trail.

This site was one of many developed for wind by General Electric. It has an impressive 32% average capacity factor. LADWP bought GE’s project, and then signed a 50-year lease with the family that has ranched the land for generations. LADWP found that its biggest construction challenges were building 34 miles of roads, not the turbines or the 31 miles of underground cable to feed a collector station. (The turbine towers are anchored with below-ground tethers splayed like tent stakes, thus eliminating deep footers for the turbines, some a football-field tall.) Bears were prevalent during construction, and concerns about golden eagle deaths have been studied.

Mark Sedlacek, LADWP’s Director of Environment, explains that avian mortality rates – of all birds – are about 7 – 8/MW/year, the wind industry norm. He’s optimistic that mitigation measures have reduced rodent populations that attract birds. There hasn’t been an eagle death in a year.

Bracing against the wind, and cold, we’re overlooking a “solar patch,” formally known as the Pine Tree Solar Project, a 8.5 MW, 34-acre solar field tucked into the ridgeline topography. It was built in 2012 – 2013 by LADWP employees and nicely follows the contours of the land. We step inside the base of the turbine and into the tower. A ladder ascends into the dark. These are GE turbines, 1.5 MW each. The first 80 were built and went online four years ago, then 10 more were added using stimulus money.  The largest city-owned wind farm in the country, there’s a total of 135 MW of wind capacity on line… with the potential to double it, capacity embedded in LADWP’s Integrated Resource Plan. Each of these turbines cost about $2 million, their blades from Brazil, their hubs from Germany, and towers from Korea.

So what about costs asks the group? Howard explains that “all in” costs of wind and solar have dramatically declined in the past few years. (“All in” is everything: land purchase/lease, equipment, interconnection, maintenance, wildlife preservation, monitoring, operation, etc.) Pine Tree wind costs about 13 cents/kWh, though this is higher end with extensive staff and infrastructure, both of which will be amortized over greater amounts of wind and solar capacity. Put in perspective, the output of a gas turbine might be in the 4 cent range; coal as little as 2.5 – 4 cents/kWh. Utility-scale solar can be bought for about 10 cents.

LADWP is on the move with renewables, with 20% on board now (of which 13% is wind) and well on the way to 33% by 2020. Near the Jawbone, we pass the site where LADWP is building “an industrial park” for five solar developers, each of which will be entitled to build 50 MW. In an interesting twist, each winner will also have to develop distributed solar in LA. The City of Los Angeles is creating a new job classification: Wind Farm Technician. A new transmission line will now connect the Tehachapi region’s abundant renewables – some 2.5 GW installed now and with the potential to double that – to the Castaic pumped storage plant. For years, this plant has used coal to power its operations. In the future, this will be replaced with renewable power creating a carbon-free, 1,250 MW storage system to “firm up” inherently intermittent renewables and secure their financial future.