Onsite wind power on a megawatt-scale is pretty rare – the giant turbines almost always are part of vast, rural arrays. But Walmart is taking on one of the big boys in Northern California, and if the turbine works out as hoped, it could lead to more such projects for the retail king.

The company this week showed off what it said was a 1-megawatt GE wind turbine at a distribution center near the city of Red Bluff. Walmart said the turbine should be spinning and producing 15 to 20 percent of the facility’s power sometimes this fall.

walmart red bluff california wind turbine onsite wind power
image via Walmart

Walmart has been making a lot of noise with its extensive solar program in California; it recently announced its 100th installation. And it actually has dabbled in wind before – although at a much smaller scale.

In 2010, the company put some small wind turbines atop light poles at two locations, including a Sam’s Club in Palmdale, Calif. Those are nothing compared to the Red Bluff project, however. The 17 units at Palmdale were forecast to produce 76,000-kilowatt-hours of power a year; the single turbine in Red Bluff is expected to produce 30 times that amount – 2.2 gigawatt-hours of electricity.

The first element to making wind a meaningful power contributor is the size of the turbine – of course – but the height of the turbine is vitally important, too. At stores like the Palmdale Sam’s Club and Walmart’s thousands of other locations, getting even a 10-kilowatt turbine up to the 100-plus-feet height necessary to find good wind just isn’t viable.

But the Walmart distribution center is in an agricultural area south of Red Bluff — within sight of busy Interstate 5 but with little in the way of nearby homes or businesses that might be impacted by the turbine – making it a good spot for the 265-foot-tall structure.

“We found the perfect environment for an installation with the Red Bluff project – good wind conditions and open land that we own,” Greg Pool, senior manager of renewable energy and emissions at Walmart, said in a statement. “As a result, we expect to reduce our energy costs from the day we flip the on switch. Should the technology at Red Bluff prove successful, Walmart will evaluate the potential for large-scale turbine installations at other distribution center sites in the United States.”

Walmart won’t actually own the turbine – Foundation Windpower will. Just like many solar companies, Foundation Windpower finances, builds and maintains its power generating systems for customers. With federal and state subsidies often helping, the company is then able to sell the power to the customer at a price below utility rates.

walmart wind power california
image via Walmart

Foundation has three other onsite wind power projects in place in California, and a handful more under construction. One of the functioning turbines is a 1.5-MW model at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fairfield. It was commissioned in November last year and is expected to produce 3.5 GWh of power annually.

The single largest onsite wind  project in the United States, according to the American Wind Energy Association, is the two-turbine, 3.3-MW installation at haircare-products manufacturer Zotos’ plant in Geneva, N.Y. Not far behind is the project unfolding at SC Johnson’s Waxdale plant in Wisconsin. Before the end of the year, two 1.5-MW turbines there are expected to be producing 8 GWh a year of power, about 15 percent of the energy used at the plant, according to the company.

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