Wind-energy experts say incidents such as the splintering of two blades and cracks in five others produced at Gamesa’s Cambria Township factory are rare.
The American Wind Energy Association views the problem as a fluke, an anomaly that turned up in a time-proven industry involving a highly respected company.
“We haven’t heard of anything like this before. There have been thousands of blades installed, and this is a first,” said Christine Real-de-Azua, spokeswoman for the wind energy national trade association, based in Washington, D.C.
“Offhand, this doesn’t seem like a big issue. We haven’t heard of any other problems.”
Gamesa officials as late as Friday continued to search for a cause of the Fiberglas skin cracking on the blades, which were installed during the past several months on turbines at Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm in Portage and Washington townships.
With the troublesome blades now being removed from the towers and two already back at the Ebensburg-area plant, Gamesa officials said they will continue the investigation until the mystery is solved.
“We’re still analyzing all of the information recorded,” plant manager Alberto Gros said Friday. “We’re going back to the original material we used, the transportation.”
The problem will have no impact on employment levels at the Ebensburg-area plant, Gros said.
Investigators, including two from Spain, are looking at the manufacturing process, shipping and installation of the 143-foot-long blades on the towers, he said. Attention will be paid to all aspects of the weather, including two extreme cold spells when some of the blades were installed.
“Lightning can be a problem,” Gros told officials from Portage and Washington townships last week. “We’re trying to get as much information as we can.”
The defect is showing as cracks on the Fiberglas membrane stretched over the harder Fiberglas and plastic blade form.
“We know they are not well bonded on the edge,” Gros said.
“We’re looking at that area.”
In addition, a team of experts is at the wind farm going over blades still on the towers.
The plant has turned out 360 blades so far, a number of which were shipped to wind farms in Texas and Illinois. Gros said skin cracking has not occurred in those areas.
Five defective blades at the Portage and Washington township farm were spotted by Gamesa workers after they were in place on the towers, while the side of a sixth splintered and fell to the ground. A larger outside percentage of the skin on a seventh blade came off and also fell, officials said.
“Piece by piece, they just peel apart,” said Gros, who has been with the company for 10 years.
Gros and Ellen Lutz, Gamesa’s development director, met with officials at township meetings called to act on ordinances clearing the way for construction of North Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm, the second phase of what will be the state’s largest wind farm.
The first phase of 40 turbines is nearly complete, but they have not been activated.
The second phase will involve 35 turbines, 13 of which are in Portage and Washington townships, with the remainder in Blair County.
Meanwhile, the 275 employees at the plant continue to produce blades and a new round of hiring is wrapping up, Gros said.
“We’re more busy than usual (because of the investigation), but we’re working the same pace as ever,” he said. “We’re very busy.”
Pending the outcome of the investigation, there are no plans to change the manufacturing process. The company has added more inspectors to look closely at edge bonding on the blades and other areas.
Washington Township Supervisor Ray Guzic said he was contacted by a resident living on the mountain area east of Lilly who watched as the coating on one of the blades came off.
“We have concerns why this is happening, but they’re going to step up and find out what is wrong,” Guzic said.
“They’re moving real fast. They’re concerned.”
Gamesa officials said they will keep the townships informed and will let supervisors know the outcome of the investigation.
Maintaining a balanced perspective is important, Gamesa officials urged in light of the 33,000 blades the company has produced at various facilities.
Real-de-Azua of the national organization agreed.
“This is a technology that is proven,” she said. “There are a lot in Europe, a lot in the U.S., and while the projects in the U.S. are recent, it has been around a long time.”
Frank Masiano, representing a number of renewable energy sources, said the problem may be limited to quality control issues related to opening the new plant.
“They certainly have the ability to determine the problems and address them,” he said.
“Experience tells you a lot.”
By Kathy Mellott
24 March 2007
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