The only facility in America used to build and disassemble nuclear weapons broke ground on Tuesday to build a 11.5 megawatt wind farm. When completed in July 2014, it will be the largest wind farm owned by the federal government, and it won’t cost taxpayers a cent.
Each year, the energy produced by the farm will reduce carbon emissions by at least 35,000 metric tons each year. The electric utility in the area, Xcel Energy, supplies about half its portfolio with coal, 40 percent natural gas, and 10 percent wind, according to a recent press release announcing higher electricity rates.
The farm will also save the federal government $2.8 million in electricity costs each year and cover the cost of building the wind farm by the end of an 18-year performance-based contract. The contract was awarded to Siemens Government Technologies, which is handling all upfront costs of financing, building, and maintaining the turbines. Siemens will then receive $50.5 million over the rest of the contract to cover their costs.
The farm will spread across 1,500 acres of the 18,000 acre nuclear weapons plant 18 miles northeast of Amarillo. John Herrera is the project manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration production office at Pantex, and he told Climate Progress that there is room for more wind turbines once the first five are built: “We’re using a small percentage of the available property, we hope to continue our future stewardship of that greenfield.”
The facility, called Pantex (dubbed for the Panhandle of Texas), is surrounded by hundreds of miles of farmland, and has been producing and dismantling bombs and artillery since World War II. When the facility reopened after the war in 1951, there was still so much secrecy about its purpose that locals referred to it as “the soap factory” because it was operated by Proctor & Gamble. In the 60s, the facility started building and maintaining nuclear weapons. A similar plant in Iowa closed in 1975, making Pantex the only such nuclear weapons facility in the country.
The last brand-new nuke was constructed at Pantex in 1991, and since then, the facility has focused on safely maintaining and dismantling existing weapons. Workers have retired thousands of bombs since then.
Critics of nuclear weapons welcomed the news that the plant would be shifting to renewable energy. Texas State Rep. Lon Burnam opposes nuclear proliferation, and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that while he wanted the plant to close, “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.”
The secrecy surrounding the plant in its early years has largely dissipated, and now that the facility will host five turbines with rotors reaching nearly 450 feet up into the Texas wind, it will be easy to see Pantex’s latest project. When constructed, the five turbines will be the largest wind farm owned by the federal government – there are four smaller turbines at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, and two turbines at the Cape Cod Air Force Station.
Pantex is not alone in switching to wind power. In 2012, wind beat natural gas to become the biggest source of new electricity capacity in 2012, and the U.S. snuck ahead of China to become the biggest wind power market in the world that year. Prices for new wind turbines also hit 8-year lows.
The idea of installing a wind farm at Pantex began in 2007, and 5 years later, shovels are breaking ground. In 2011, President Obama challenged federal agencies to pursue $2 billion in energy performance-based contracts within two years. President Obama asked federal agencies this summer to find ways to cut carbon emissions and switch to renewable energy.
Herrera, the project manager, said that the weapons facility’s decision to pursue wind power was based on more than just costs and executive directives: “Environmental stewardship is the banner that is leading the way. We are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”