WILLMAR – Are Willmar Municipal Utilities’ two wind turbines worth it? Wes Hompe, utilities staff electrical engineer, says it’s a little early to tell.
“Willmar Utilities is No. 1 a utility and what we’re here for is to provide a service to our owners, which are the citizens of Willmar,’’ he said.
“Nothing we invest in is cheap or short term. Our newest coal-fired generator here in town was installed in the late 1960s, but it’s still running, it’s providing heat and power,’’ he said. “We put in underground wires every single year and their estimated life is 25-plus years.’’
Utilities are state-mandated to provide 25 percent of power from renewable resources by 2025. Willmar’s nearly $10 million turbines went into service in September 2009 and were projected to provide about 3 percent of the city’s energy needs.
Hompe said Willmar’s turbines have an estimated life of 20 years.
“Are they going to be a great investment 20 years from now? We’ll find out,’’ he said. “In the first year, obviously there’s problems, everybody’s seen those. But it doesn’t mean they’re not going to work. It doesn’t mean they’re not cost-effective.’’
Hompe doesn’t know what future power costs will be, but they will probably increase. He said prices for power delivered to Willmar have increased lately due to transmission costs over which the utility has no control.
However, local power generation does not rely on the transmission grid or its associated costs. With wind generation, the price will not go up since there’s no fuel cost.
“The good news is the wind turbine price of power isn’t going to change,’’ he said.
Hompe spoke during last week’s meeting of the City Council’s Community Development Committee. The council had asked Hompe to report on the turbines’ operation and performance. Some have asked whether the turbines are working as expected.
“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, obviously, and when they don’t work it’s pretty obvious. We’ve had a few problems to begin with,’’ said Hompe, referring to a number of stoppages.
Up until November, getting production numbers from turbine maker DeWind Company had been difficult. Now, staff is wading through and turning bunches of numbers into something useful for people to see and be posted on the utility’s website.
Hompe said DeWind is required to pay for performance that is less than contracted. Availability of a wind turbine is defined as whether it’s ready to produce power if and when the wind blows strong enough to produce power.
Availability was contracted at 90 percent for the first six months and 95 percent for every period thereafter. Hompe said DeWind paid Willmar for under-production for both the first six-month and the second six-month periods.
The first six months of recorded availability from Sept. 6, 2009, to March 6, 2010, was 82 percent for unit No. 3 and was 47 percent for unit No. 4, which was down the most.
The second six months of recorded availability from March 7 to Sept. 6, 2010, was 86 percent for unit 3 and 94.4 percent for unit 4.
From Sept. 6, 2010, through Jan. 6, 2011, availability for unit 3 was 81 percent and was 86 percent for unit 4.
For Jan. 7-19, availability was 99.7 percent for unit 3 and 96.8 percent for unit 4.
Hompe said production from both units during the first 12 months equaled enough energy to serve over 600 homes for a year. For the 4½ months of operation from Sept. 7, 2010, through Jan. 19, 2011, they generated enough electricity to supply 293 homes, he said.
Hompe said the turbines are getting better.
“We’ve got technicians that are in the state and when anything happens, there’s one guy from Minneapolis, one guy from Jackson, and they come up and take care of it relatively quickly,’’ he said.
“Next week they’re going to be up there for the six-month maintenance period for pretty much the whole week, so you’ll see trucks there and if there is wind, (the turbines) might be down because people are up there working on it. They can’t be operating when people are inside.’’
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