A blaze-orange sign on Highway 33 just west of Cambria says “Utility Work Ahead.”
What an understatement.
Starting May 23, the skyline in the northeast Columbia County towns of Scott and Randolph will undergo a transformation, as 90 electricity-generating wind turbine towers, each about 400 feet tall from the ground to the highest blade tip, start to go up, and up, and up – forming what is likely to be the largest wind energy operation in Wisconsin.
Columbia County’s highway safety committee Friday got a taste of what’s to come when Glacier Hills Energy Park starts to take shape. Parts for the tower legs, which look like giant-size tubes, could start arriving by truck as soon as this Friday, said Michael Strader of We Energies.
We Energies is building the wind park to increase the amount of energy it generates through renewable resources. It is expected to generate up to 207 megawatts of electricity.
Until sometime in December, the towers will go up at the rate of about one a day, Strader said.
The parts of the towers will be trucked in from Manitowoc, and the blades, cells and hubs will arrive by rail from Colorado. Some of the blades are already here, on land beside the railroad tracks in the town of Courtland, which was set aside as the staging area for the wind farm’s construction with authorization in November from the County Board’s planning and zoning committee.
Strader said the sheer size of the project – with tower segments as much as 100 feet long and three sizes of giant cranes to set them upright – will be astonishing.
“Everybody knows this is coming,” he said, “but everybody wants to see it up close.”
The impact that the construction will have on Highway 33 – and on numerous county and town roads in the vicinity of Cambria, Randolph and Friesland – is the reason why Strader, who spoke to the highway safety committee in November, was back on Friday.
Crews will be working five days a week most weeks, unless bad weather puts them behind schedule and prompts an occasional Saturday workday.
“Bad weather, for us, means high wind and lightning,” Strader said.
For each turbine built, there will be nine huge truckloads traveling on and near the roads – four of them to carry the tower segments, and the remaining loads carrying the blades, cell and hub.
Columbia County Supervisor Vern Gove, who is a member of the Eastern Wisconsin Railroad Consortium, said he’s heard concerns about blockages at railroad crossings and intersections.
Highway Commissioner Kurt Dey said, “Yes, intersections can be blocked from time to time. But from a safety standpoint, they can’t be blocked too long.”
Orange barrels, many with lights on top, have cropped up in abundance at intersections of state, county and town roads, where gravel has been added to accommodate the wider turn radius of cranes, trucks and other vehicles that will be used in the construction. About 32 intersections will undergo such temporary improvements, and about 20 of them have been completed.
The barrels are there because the crew building Glacier Hills Energy Park doesn’t want non-construction traffic using the widened portion of the intersections. But, Strader said, some of the barrels appear to have been damaged, accidentally or deliberately, already.
That raised a question from committee members: What’s being done to ensure the security of the turbine towers once they go up?
Strader said it’s almost certain that somebody is going to think about climbing the towers, while they’re under construction or after they’re finished. The towers will be under lock and key, he said.
Also, Vestas American Wind, the company that will build the wind farm, will have its own security patrols monitoring not only the under-construction towers, but also the construction equipment and materials (such as copper) that would-be thieves sometimes target.
The security patrols will be a “constant roving presence” during the construction, he said.
Columbia County Emergency Management Director Pat Beghin suggested that We Energies and Vestas give tours of the construction to area fire departments, so they can know what to expect in the way of potential emergency responses unique to this kind of construction.
Strader noted that, during the workday, workers could be as high as 260 feet off the ground inside a tower.
But, the construction company also has a specially trained response crew to get injured, sick or trapped workers out of those high places; local emergency responders would tend to them only once they are safely on the ground.
No one is allowed to work in a tower, Strader said, unless the rescue team is at hand.
“Our emergency response team doesn’t leave the site until we know that everyone’s out of the towers for the day,” Strader said.
The towers will be set up in eight areas, called circuits – some with 15 towers, some with nine or 10, he said.
Electricity could be generated from one of the circuits as soon as late July or early August, he said.
While the construction is going on, Strader said, the crews don’t want gawkers.
“It’s best,” he said, “that the community stay away from the equipment while it’s being set up in the field.”
But, because they anticipate curiosity on the part of area residents, an open house has been tentatively scheduled for June 1, at a time and place to be announced. One of the exhibits at the open house, Strader said, will be one of the giant turbine blades – and visitors will be invited to write their names on it.
“It’s not every day,” he said, “that people see something the size of an airplane propeller.”
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