ON THIS DAY: October 24, 2001, Somerset Wind Farm opens above PA Turnpike

SOMERSET, Pa. — Drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike couldn’t help but notice when six massive windmills popped up on a ridge in Somerset. Each of the six 1.5 megawatt turbines was contracted by Exelon to provide 20 years of clean, green electricity when they were first made operational on Oct. 24, 2001.

Construction on the Somerset Wind Power Project started in June of 2001. The ridgeline’s elevation for the site ranged from 2,400 to 2,600 feet above sea level. It was not the first wind farm in Somerset -- that was the Green Mountain Wind Energy Center -- but the location just a half-mile from the turnpike made the Somerset project highly visible to travelers. Each turbine is 213 feet tall.

The yearly output of 25,000 megawatt-hours generated by the GE turbines at the Somerset Wind Farm was estimated to be enough to supply about 3,400 homes annually.

A similar but slightly larger wind farm with 10 turbines was built in parallel at Mill Run in Fayette County. The Mill Run Wind Power Project generated an additional 15 megawatts, bringing the combined output of both sites to 24 megawatts.

On the day of the Somerset Wind Farm’s dedication, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University, Philadelphia Suburban Water, Carnegie Mellon University and Giant Eagle Inc. all announced their commitment to purchase 75% of the combined 24-megawatts that both wind farms produced. It was the largest U.S. retail purchase of wind energy at that time.

The dedication was a featured part of Gov. Mark Schweiker’s proclaimed “Wind Energy Week.

Wind energy ramped up aggressively in the early 2000s, helped in part by the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act passed by the state legislature in 2004. It required power companies to produce an increasing amount of energy from renewable sources, like solar, wind and biofuels, with a target of 18% by 2021.

An unforeseen side effect of the requirements was that solar technology became significantly cheaper than the turbines first erected in the early 2000s. The wind power industry boom instead mostly moved to Great Plains states and coastal areas, where policies and conditions were more favorable.

As a result, operators of Pennsylvania’s first wind farm, the Green Mountain Wind Energy Center, couldn’t justify the operating costs of the older turbines. In 2016, they were dismantled and replaced with battery storage.

Other sites were improved with new turbines and additional projects were approved that pushed the total count of turbines in Somerset County to nearly 200, including 68 at the Twin Ridges Wind Farm alone, which opened in 2013.

The future of wind power in Pennsylvania has continued to struggle in the face of cheaper solar panel prices and public opposition to large wind farms. Some of the best potential locations have also been excluded by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which issued a moratorium on wind development on game lands in 2018, despite the presence of more than 2,000 active oil and gas wells on state game lands.

Despite these headwinds, as of mid-2020 the state has 26 utility scale wind farms.