CAMPO INDIAN RESERVATION ““ In a van-size capsule atop a massive wind turbine, 19-year-old Daniel Tsosie is getting a sky-high education in electromechanical technology.
He’s also helping his tribe, the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians.
Tsosie, who last worked at a sand plant on this remote East County reservation, is training to be an operations and maintenance technician for Kumeyaay Wind, the nation’s first large-scale commercial wind-energy plant on Indian land.
The 50-megawatt plant, consisting of 25 of the largest and most high-tech turbines on the market, began feeding electricity into the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. power grid just over a year ago, on Dec. 23, 2005.
“I’ve been wanting to get into mechanical and electrical” work, Tsosie said on a recent blustery morning before climbing a 218-foot ladder to work on one of the turbines. “I’ve started to learn about this stuff and I’m starting to like it, because it has to do with the tribe.”
Tsosie is one of six crew members working for a subcontractor of the turbines’ manufacturer, Spain-based Gamesa Wind. The company flew him to Pennsylvania last month for six weeks of training at its new U.S. manufacturing plant.
“I got to work on the blades a little bit,” he said. “I had no idea how they get made.”
The Campo band doesn’t own or run the wind farm. The tribe makes money leasing land and getting a share of sales royalties from the Australia-based owner-operator, Babcock & Brown.
A regional manager for the company, Neal Emmerton, said the plant produced 120 million kilowatt-hours of electricity for SDG&E in its first year. That was about 31 percent of potential maximum output, slightly less than had been expected.
Emmerton said the plant had some startup problems interfacing with the utility’s transmission system, as well as technical problems with various turbine components.
“In the first year, we generally have some little glitches that show up,” he said. “We are in the process of resolving them.”
Each of the 25 turbines is capable of generating up to 2 megawatts of electricity at any given time. One megawatt is enough to power about 650 homes, SDG&E officials say.
Tribal leaders say they are happy with the plant’s first year. They’re negotiating with Babcock & Brown to add 13 more turbines, possibly by 2008.
The huge towers, spread along a Tecate Divide ridgeline 60 miles east of San Diego, are a striking sight for motorists on Interstate 8.
Taller than 20-story buildings, up close they’re even more imposing. Their three blades, each as long as half a football field, spin at up to 18 revolutions per minute, making a loud whoosh-whoosh-whoosh like a jet plane passing high overhead every few seconds.
Electronic controls keep the turbines facing the wind and adjust the angle of the blades for optimum generating power. To avoid damage, the turbines don’t spin in winds exceeding 55 mph.
Each turbine sits atop a circular steel tower. Workers enter the base through an oval hatch to make the long climb up an interior ladder. Inside, it’s an echo chamber, sounds bouncing off the cylindrical walls.
At the site’s operations center, controllers can monitor hundreds of charts and diagrams displayed on computer screens, including gearbox temperatures and the exact output each turbine is producing at that moment or over time. The turbines can be operated remotely from anywhere in the world, project manager Rob Titus said.
SDG&E spokesman Ed Van Herik said the Kumeyaay Wind plant was helping the utility meet its state-mandated goal of acquiring 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010.
Van Herik said that although the plant was meeting only a fraction of the region’s demand ““ SDG&E customers used about 19.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year ““ it’s providing clean, new energy to the East County backcountry.
An average house uses about 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, Van Herik said. Using the operator’s figure of 120 million kilowatt-hours (which SDG&E wouldn’t confirm), that would mean the Campo plant produced enough electricity over the past year to power 20,000 homes.
One of the main concerns about wind farms is their potential to kill birds and bats. Biological consultants retained by Babcock & Brown have been inspecting the site at least once a week since the plant went into operation, looking for bird and bat carcasses near the turbines. Additional studies will calculate how quickly ““ and how many ““ carcasses are carried off, so that researchers can determine the total number of birds and bats killed by the huge blades.
As of this month, a total of nine birds and three bats were found, including one red-tailed hawk and a type of bat that could be an uncommon species, said Richard Curry, a partner in the firm heading the studies.
He said a detailed report would be issued in February, but it appeared that few flying animals were being killed by the giant turbines, whose long blades spin more slowly than smaller turbines.
“There’s probably more birds killed by automobile or truck traffic going through the highway on the reservation,” Curry said.
Still, bird lovers want to check the mortality study.
“If that’s an accurate number (of kills), I think everybody would be jubilant,” said Phil Pryde, board member of the San Diego Audubon Society. “But I’m sure somebody who knows more than I do is going to raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Are you sure that’s all that’s been killed in a year?’ “
Campo tribal Councilman Michael Connolly said the tribe was pleased with the plant because it’s producing energy with minimal environmental consequences and diversifying the tribe’s revenue beyond its Golden Acorn Casino.
“We think it’s a good addition to our economic base,” he said. “And it’s providing some opportunities for jobs and training.”
The hope is that other tribal members will follow Tsosie’s lead and become wind-energy technicians. For now, the young trainee is getting plenty of new experience.
His supervisor, Tim Hansen, said Tsosie has been up in the turbines a lot, working side by side with journeymen technicians troubleshooting and repairing electrical equipment.
“We’re trying to get him up there as much as possible on different jobs, so he can learn all the different aspects of it,” Hansen said.
By Chet Barfield
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
(619) 542-4572; email@example.com