When Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a landmark “green energy” bill 10 days ago, the crews here on Buffalo Ridge, their eyebrows glazed with ice, were being battered by some of the wildest winds in the Midwest.
Their work on the prairie erecting a sprawling forest of wind turbines, each soaring 26 stories, is one of the simpler feats needed to make Pawlenty’s vision for the state’s energy future come true: drawing 25 percent of Minnesota’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
Reaching that benchmark would cement the state’s position as a national leader in wind power. But getting there will be anything but a breeze.
Raising money, negotiating land rights, gaining permits and doing the construction can take years. And before wind parks are built, investors must know that transmission lines will deliver the power to buyers.
Transmission line operators, meanwhile, must learn how to accept a volatile source of power without destabilizing the electrical grid.
“It’s not impossible,” said Dale Osborn, transmission technical director for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO), which orchestrates distribution of power among 15 states and one Canadian province. “But there are going to be challenges that are very formidable, and they have to be resolved.”
Only three states – California, Texas and Iowa – produce more wind-generated electricity than Minnesota. The stroke of Pawlenty’s pen will lend more momentum to what already was a rush of investment on wind and other green power projects.
To reach a U.S. goal of 20 percent of electricity coming from wind power, nationwide investment will have to total $30 billion a year this decade and next, by the estimate of the Wind Energy Association.
Consider the harsh realities
The latest project in southwest Minnesota is owned by EnXco, based in North Palm Springs, Calif. A visit to the $300-million wind park under construction shows some of the cold realities Minnesota faces in its energy future.
“Climbing a ladder [260 feet] to tighten bolts, that’s hard work. It’s physical torture,” said Warren Grieves, director of the construction project. Grieves, 64, has scaled those hundreds of rungs himself several times, and he starts every day with leg-stamina exercises, in case today’s the day he has to make another climb.
Spanning a stretch of farm fields 7 miles long and 7 miles wide, the wind park will add 200 megawatts of wind-power capacity by year’s end.
To reach that goal, crews will have to pour 25 trucks of concrete, lift a tower that weighs 125,000 pounds, a turbine that weighs as much as the tower; a hub, 38,000 pounds, and a rotor, 79,000 pounds.
Then repeat the whole process, 137 times.
Over the next 18 years, crews working for a host of companies will brave the elements to deliver 25 times that additional power, maybe more.
Just negotiating with farmers to plant wind turbines in their fields of corn, soybean and alfalfa can take years. About 160 people had to sign deals before EnXco could break ground on its latest project.
Simply coordinating the delivery of parts also is a tough task, as suppliers strain to keep up with new demand. Some of the rotor blades on the turbines going up in southwest Minnesota were shipped from Brazil.
Sitting in his warm St. Paul office, 250 miles from the wind-swept construction site, Osborn is one of a small army of engineers who soon will have to juggle the distribution of energy from the new wind park and scores of others springing up across the Midwest.
About 1,000 megawatts of wind power are produced in Minnesota today, enough energy for about 400,000 homes.
Asked to size up the task of adding up to 6,000 megawatts of wind-powered electricity to the Minnesota grid over the next 18 years, Osborn makes it clear that heavy lifting is ahead.
“It probably takes seven years or more to build a line that will carry that power,” he said. “Currently, a lot of areas don’t have any capacity left.”
The volatile, unpredictable nature of wind is another problem. A recent study showed that in the summer, when winds tend to blow slower than in the other three seasons, 86 percent of the potential electrical capacity of wind turbines will be idle.
“Wind is like having a car that’s out of fuel when you need it the most,” Osborn said.
Engineers will have to figure out ways to integrate wind power into the electrical grid without counting on it to meet peak demand in summer.
“You’ve got to get to market somehow, don’t you?” said Jim Alders, Xcel Energy manager of regulatory projects. He noted that the last major transmission projects in Minnesota date from the 1970s.
Permit process a challenge
Mark Ahlstrom, chief executive of St. Paul-based WindLogics, said untangling electrical power bottlenecks will overshadow the challenge of building wind parks.
“We can build a wind plant in two years,” he said. “It can take seven years or more to get a transmission line permitted and built, even in the best of cases.”
The control center, which operates around the clock, not only monitors EnXco’s Minnesota operations, but 23 other power parks, scattered from California to New Jersey.
Windmills can operate at 30 degrees below zero, but ice can rob their rotors of efficiency. No matter when a turbine fails, it must be fixed immediately. “When the machines got to be over $1 million, it doesn’t pay to let them be down at night,” said Randy Grayson, EnXco’s area operations manager.
Maintenance crews work at all hours in all weather, sometimes to the chagrin of their families. The workers have a nickname for a wind turbine: “We call it, ‘The other woman,’ ” Grayson said.
Will EnXco’s power find its way into the grid?
Xcel’s short-term solution to the transmission issue is a $300 million project, already underway, to add high-power lines around southwest Minnesota.
Longer-term, the utility plans to spend $700 million stringing 600 miles of transmission lines across various parts of the state.
Finishing the job will take the rest of this decade and most of the next, because the sprawling wind park in Fenton township likely will have to be duplicated two dozen more times.
“We don’t have all the answers now,” Alders said.
By Mike Meyers
3 March 2007
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