An Australian company that wants to buy a Cambria County wind farm might walk away if it’s not determined what caused seven turbine blades to crack and large pieces of two blades to fly off.
The problems at the Allegheny Ridge wind farm are a serious concern, said Neal Emmerton, regional asset manager for Sydney-based Babcock & Brown. Gamesa, the Spanish firm that developed the facility, has been paid, but the deal won’t be final until the blade issues are resolved, he said.
Gamesa also hopes to build a similar wind farm in northern Dauphin County.
Babcock & Brown, one of the leading operators of wind farms in the world, is confident Gamesa will resolve the problem at the $300 million farm, spokesman Hunter Armistead said. Ultimately, Gamesa must deliver a working wind farm.
“We are supporting Gamesa in getting this done right,” he said. “Shutting down was the right thing to do.”
Gamesa manufactured the composite turbine blades at its $50 million plant in Ebensburg, Cambria County, that opened last summer and employs about 264 people. The plant was a showpiece for the alternative energy program of the Rendell administration, which gave Gamesa $9.3 million in state assistance to defray the cost of building the plant.
Allegheny Ridge Phase I and II, if completed, will be the largest wind farm in Pennsylvania, producing 150 megawatts of electricity for sale to FirstEnergy Corp. from 75 turbines. Gamesa installed its flagship G87 turbines at the facility.
Armistead said Babcock & Brown had hoped to have Phase I in full operation by March, with Phase II following late in the year.
The blade cracking was first disclosed by Gamesa to township officials around March 21, according to newspaper reports.
The largest piece of fiberglass sheathing to fly off a blade was 143 feet long, according to Alberto Gros, manager of the Gamesa plant in Ebensburg. A full blade weighs 6.3 tons. The large piece, made of quarter-inch thick fiberglass, weighed far less than that, but it still required a crane to lift, he said.
All of the pieces landed within a 300-foot safety zone around the turbines. No houses are close to the safety zone. Its pretty high up on the mountain, Gros said.
Emmerton, who has a representative at the wind farm, said the blades were turning at the time they cracked. Allegheny Ridge was in its startup phase and was not producing electricity for the grid.
All of the approximately 360 blades that were produced at the Ebensburg plant since it opened last summer are being checked for cracking, Emmerton and Gros said. Some have gone to wind farms in Texas, others to Illinois. All turbines with the blades have been shut down until they can be inspected.
Gamesa issued a safety directive specifying that no worker is to come within 100 feet of an uninspected turbine, Emmerton and Gros said.
Turbines blades are built much like old airplane wings, which had fabric stretched over an interior frame, Emmerton said. In the case of turbine blades, a quarter-inch fiberglass sheath is glued to the spar, or interior frame made of a glass and carbon fiber composite material.
If the glue was the wrong temperature or it cured too fast, it wouldn’t get good adhesion, said Emmerton, who also runs a wind farm for Babcock & Brown in California.
Gamesa has brought in technical people from Spain, China and Poland to examine the damaged blades, which have been removed from the Allegheny Ridge wind farm and taken to the Ebensburg plant.
“It could be easy enough to fix,” Emmerton said. “We just don’t know how serious [the damage] is. We have to take precautions because people are involved.”
Gros said his investigation focuses on the glue used in the blades, which he said was manufactured by a European multinational firm with plants in the U.S. that he declined to name. Another possibility being looked at is whether the Valentine’s Day ice storm and another storm about three weeks earlier aggravated existing faults in the blades.
Babcock & Brown, which bills itself as an asset-origination and financing firm, acquired Allegheny Ridge and four other Gamesa wind farms in partnership with GE Financial Services. Armistead said GE Financial Services is a passive partner, which invests for the federal tax credits on wind energy.
He said GE paid roughly $160 million of the $300 million cost of the transaction, and Babcock & Brown paid the remainder.
By David DeKok
Of The Patriot-News
5 April 2007
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