Antarctica goes green with launch of wind farm

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A small part of Antarctica turned green Saturday as the ice-covered continent’s biggest wind farm, which can generate enough electricity to power 500 homes, was formally switched on.

The joint New Zealand-U.S. project’s three huge turbines will provide 11 percent of the power needed to run the two nations’ science bases on Antarctica’s Ross Sea coast, cutting greenhouse gas output, lowering fossil fuel use and reducing the risk of fuel spilling in the continent’s pristine environment, officials said.

The $11 million wind farm is located on Crater Hill, halfway between the United States’ McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base.

While the turbines have been operating well since December, the formal turn-on ceremony took place Saturday, with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully and U.S. Ambassador David Huebner officiating by video link with the site from New Zealand’s northern city of Auckland.

Noting the two countries share a commitment to increasing the world’s use of renewable energy resources, McCully said it was “fitting we have worked so hard together to get this wind farm up and running in Antarctica, one of the world’s most pristine and fragile environments.”

The farm has a power output of about one megawatt and could cut annual diesel use at the bases by 120,000 gallons (460,000 liters) and reduce annual carbon dioxide output by 1,370 tons, said Alan Seay, spokesman for New Zealand’s Meridian Energy, which installed the turbines.

Site work began in November 2008, when large precast concrete foundations were lowered into the ground and water was poured in to freeze them in place. The harsh conditions prevented construction workers from using traditional methods to build the steel reinforced concrete bases, Seay said.

Each of the towers is designed to withstand wind gusts of up to 128 miles (205 kilometers) per hour.

“We’re confident of the technology,” said Trevor Hughes, the Antarctic unit head at New Zealand’s foreign ministry. “The Antarctic is a pretty extreme environment … so we’ll see how they (the turbines) go at meeting the challenges the Antarctic can throw at them.”