PIGEON – People driving by Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Lakers likely have noticed one of the blades on the turbine closest to the highway has fallen off recently. Those noticing this also may have a feeling of déjà vu – hasn’t this happened before?
Laker Superintendent Bob Smith said yes, this is the same turbine that lost a blade in the summer of 2009 during a thunderstorm. However, this time, the blade loss didn’t have anything to do with weather. It had everything to do with age.
“The current replacement blades were more than 20 years old, which means they are beyond their normal operational expectancy,” Smith said. “The problem is there currently is no manufacturer for these blades, and there likely won’t be, since they haven’t been in production for a number of years.”
Smith said when the blade fell off the turbine in 2009, the district ordered a used set of blades from California.
“We had to wait for a turbine to be decommissioned, so parts would be available,” he said. “The blades were harder to get because they are apparently the least durable and (they had to) match in size and weight (to the former blades). I believe that it took six to seven months to get a replacement.”
Smith said this time, though, the district only needs to purchase one blade, instead of an entire set. This is because the replacement blades already were weighed before mounted the first time on the Laker turbine.
“I expect it to cost $3,000 to $4,000, with shipping,” he said.
He said the district’s insurance will not cover the cost of the blade because weather was not the cause of the most recent blade loss.
Smith said the district is exploring the possibility of finding a local manufacturer to make the blade. If this is not possible now, it could be possible in the future for a local manufacturer to produce a set of blades for one or more of the three turbines. Either way, this would nix the problem of using old, used turbine equipment to replace already aged turbine equipment, he said.
He noted more recent models of the Laker turbines have an improved version of the blade.
“It’s sort of an elongated steel thimble,” he said. “That approach might be an option if the bolt-on configuration matches (what we currently have).”
As for the current missing blade, Smith said its installation will depend on the arrival of the replacement blade and the weather.
“Winter is always a dicey time to predict a safe window for ground and weather conditions,” he said.
Smith said brief power outages experienced in the area cause the three turbines to instantly stop and recoil, which fatigues the blades in the area where they are likely to break. When the blades are new, they’re more flexible and durable. He said when the county gets new electrical transmission lines, the brief power outages should no longer be an issue.
Until then, Smith said he is going to direct Tom Armbruster, director of buildings and grounds/transportation, to shut off the turbines whenever the wind comes from the south.
“That is when the blades rotate toward the school,” Smith said. “In addition, we are going to direct all maintenance employees to approach away from the blades and keep visitors away. The blade ejection happens rarely, but we need to err on the side of safety. I have family, friends and staff at that end of the building and I am committed to their safety.”
Smith said the issues with the aging turbines are part of blazing the trail, as Laker Elementary is the first school in the state to have wind turbines on its property. The three 65 kilowatt turbines, which were installed in 2006, are the result of a $265,000 Michigan Energy Efficiency Grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission.
“We will always make safety the first priority,” he said. “Until we get newer blades, even though we inspect deflection annually, there is a possibility that it will happen again. We can and will make sure they don’t fall near our school.”
Smith said the district needs to continue searching for a new blade manufacturer. Until then, the district has arranged for a company from Minnesota that specializes in blade inspection to come and analyze blade deflection to ascertain the blades’ overall health projection.
“If any others are found to be in a worn phase, we’ll shut down the turbine until new blades can be mounted,” he said.
Smith said currently, Armbruster coordinates most of the turbine maintenance. When he needs assistance or advice, he contacts Shawn Harris, of Danwin Associates, who has volunteered time to help the district with its turbines when needed, Smith said.
Last school year, Lakers signed a contract to partner with Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Wind Energy Center for maintenance of the three turbines. Smith said, however, the college “lost interest” and did not sign an agreement.
From the time the three turbines were installed until October 2007, Brion Dickens, of Woodland Wind, LLC in Pigeon, worked on the Laker project, along with Bryan Chalou, of B’s Electric, LLC in Sebewaing.
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