McLean County site spent years on drawing board
By Chris Wetterich
Published Sunday, August 20, 2006
ELLSWORTH – Building a wind farm is not as simple as putting up some windmills and waiting for the wind to blow.
The wind farm under construction in McLean County, about 15 miles east of Bloomington, has involved almost five years of planning, permitting, negotiating with local governments and landowners and improving roads and other infrastructure.
The Twin Groves Wind Farm, owned by Horizon Energy of Houston, Texas, will be spread over 50 square miles of land between the tiny towns of Ellsworth and Arrowsmith.
City Water, Light and Power has had talks with Horizon about providing the city-owned utility with 120 megawatts of wind capacity – the amount of wind energy required to be purchased by CWLP in its deal with the Sierra Club.
Horizon needed a lot of land because it wants to erect about 120 turbines during phase one and another 120 during phase two. The warranties for each turbine require them to be 1,020 feet apart.
“The turbine manufacturer offers a warranty on the turbines, and if you space them too close together the wake can cause a lot of turbulence on the stress of the machine downwind and that will jeopardize the warranty,” project manager Bill Whitlock said.
Horizon, a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs in New York, won’t own the land. It has a 30-year lease with 60 different landowners for the project’s first phase. Eventually the company, whose only business is renewable wind energy, will have agreements with more than 200 landowners, Whitlock said.
Farmland that must be cleared away includes the creation roads leading up to the spots where the wind turbines will stand, plus the land around the turbine. The project will take about 200 acres of farmland out of production across the 50-acre site. The rest will continue to be used to grow corn and soybeans.
“All told, most of the people who live out in this area one way or another have been affected by the wind farm and have willingly cooperated,” Whitlock said.
The leases can be lucrative. One worker who said he had worked on wind farms in Texas said one landowner there – with much more acreage than typical in Illinois – reaped about $500,000 per year in lease payments.
Some farmland has to be cleared to increase the turn radius on two-lane township and county roads. The roads must be widened so that large trucks that bring in the wind turbine pieces in can fit.
“There’s nothing forcing them to do anything,” Whitlock said of the landowners. “We had to work with each of them individually. Four to five years is typical. Smaller projects can be done much more quickly.”
Although there is one active lawsuit attempting to stop the project, Horizon says it has tried to accommodate landowners. In one case where a turning radius needed to be widened, a landowner did not want her roadside trees taken down. Horizon found a way to put the radius elsewhere.
The space where the wind turbine will be erected has to be as wide as the diameter of the rotor blade. The rotor must be laid down flat before a crane hoists it up.
The company tested the wind in the area to make sure it would blow enough to make the farm economically viable.
“It’s one of, if not the best, wind sites in Illinois,” Whitlock said.
Then it spent 41/2 years negotiating land use agreements to put up the turbines, easements to erect transmission lines, getting landowners’ permission to bury underground power lines and getting permission from the state, local and federal governments.
Construction began in late June. The wind farm’s first phase is expected to be complete by year-end. Phase two should be done sometime in 2007.
The project will also benefit the area’s infrastructure in the long term. To widen the roads for the trucks, Horizon sheared off the top layer of the road and replaced it with gravel.
“Once the project is complete, we’ll come back and completely resurface all of the roads,” Whitlock said. “At the end of the day, these townships end up with not patched and repaired roads, but brand-new roads. It’s not typical. It’s not cheap. It’s in the millions of dollars.”
Even with the road modifications, the roads will not be good enough to sustain the cranes necessary to hoist the turbines onto their foundations. The cranes will have to be brought through the fields, Whitlock said.
Horizon is about a month away from erecting its first wind turbine. While developing a wind farm takes four or five years, building it takes less than a year. Currently, the company is burying the necessary power lines, building the necessary paths to the future wind turbine locations and pouring the foundations for each turbine.
Each turbine contains a tower, nacelle, blades and hub, which weigh about 250,000 pounds. In McLean County, workers have found they need three different types of foundations that can hold from 1,500 to 4,000 pounds per square feet. The foundation used depends on the stability of the ground underneath, said Alvin Cargill, who’s in charge of maintaining quality control from Horizon’s contractors.
Each foundation is about seven feet deep and is composed of a steel rebar cage that is filled in with concrete. A circle of bolts sticks out of the top of the hill-shaped foundation where the wind turbine is essentially plugged into the ground.
The turbines are connected mostly underground to a pad-mounted transformer that will be connected to a substation for the entire project, which is connected to Commonwealth Edison transmission lines.
The generator for each turbine sits atop the tower inside the nacelle, which is behind the rotor.
The electricity produced runs down the interior of the tower to the transformer. When it reaches the project substation, the power is stepped up to 345,000 volts before it goes on the grid.
The power generated will likely be bought by utilities outside of Bloomington but actually used in McLean County. Those utilities, which could include CWLP, would receive credit for buying wind power while still using electricity generated by other means such as coal.
The power cannot be transmitted to far-flung places such as Springfield because electricity degrades in strength the farther it is transmitted.
Even though Bloomington is mostly served by Ameren, ComEd has a load center that puts electricity into the area.
Horizon plans two more wind farms, one in Logan and Tazewell counties called Railsplitter and a larger project in Livingston County called Blackstone. Both are scheduled for construction in 2008 or 2009.
“There’s a half a dozen different developers out there with maybe 20 different, sizable projects” in Illinois, Whitlock said. “It will be very cutthroat.”
Chris Wetterich can be reached at 788-1523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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