When We Energies began operating Wisconsin’s largest wind energy farm in Columbia County a little more than a year ago, Louis Caracci anticipated certain challenges – lightning strikes, high-altitude repairs and complaints from the neighbors about noise from the turbines.
He didn’t anticipate a We Energies repair truck sustaining $1,400 in damage after being gored, twice, by a bull.
Caracci, operations supervisor for We Energies, said no one was hurt when the raging bull charged the repair truck, but the service personnel in the vehicle called headquarters for advice on what to do.
There was nothing they could do, Caracci said, except stay in the truck and drive away at the first opportunity.
Caracci came to Thursday’s meeting of Columbia County’s local emergency planning committee to offer an update on any public safety concerns that have arisen since the 90-turbine Glacier Hills Wind Energy Park went on the grid in late December 2011.
The turbines of Glacier Hills, which are 400 feet high from the ground to the tip of the highest blade, are on rented farmland on about 17,300 acres in the towns of Scott and Randolph, in the northeast corner of Columbia County.
The specially built roads leading up to each turbine total 26 miles, and Caracci said We Energies pays local contractors to keep them clear of snow – a challenge in recent weeks.
Some consequences of compacting the ground where the turbines were built, he said, include changes in drainage on agriculture land, and soil that gets, in wet weather, muddy enough to trap the wheels of farm implements.
Caracci said he hears complaints like that regularly, as well as the expected concerns about the low-level noise that the turbines make when they’re turning and “shadow flicker” from light reflecting from the turning turbines.
Although the turbines’ noise level is below the threshold set by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin when it authorized the construction of Glacier Hills in early 2010 (50 decibels day and night during colder months, and 50 decibels by day and 45 decibels by night during the warmer months), Caracci said people who are used to no noise at all tend to notice even a small amount of extra sound from the wind farm.
“If you live in an area where it’s always quiet,” he said, “then the decibels don’t matter.”
There also are people who experience strobe effect in their homes, which is usually addressed with special blinds. One person reported sleep disturbances from the red lights atop some of the turbines that, per Federal Aviation Administration regulations, flash simultaneously around the clock.
If a Glacier Hills worker becomes sick or injured atop a turbine tower, he said, there are people on site who are trained to get the patient safely to the ground before firefighters or paramedics arrive. That hasn’t happened.
Glacier Hills turbines have been struck by lightning 11 times this year, resulting in seven blades requiring repairs – works that is done by outside contractors, who hang from baskets.
“It’s no different from a guy putting new fiberglass on a Corvette,” Caracci said, “except they’re doing it 150 feet off the ground.”
Should a turbine tower catch fire, he said, firefighters are probably going to let it burn, as each turbine contains gallons of combustible fluids such as gear oil and hydraulic fluid.
Emergency Management Director Pat Beghin asked whether an expected public safety problem – young people holding after-dark alcohol parties at the turbines and the roads leading to them – has become reality.
“No,” Caracci replied, “because farmers won’t let them, and I love it.”
Caracci also noted that an anticipated problem with helicopter ambulances landing in the area of Glacier Hills hasn’t been a problem, either. Helicopter pilots will land anywhere they have a clear space, he said – but if they can’t land immediately in the vicinity of the turbines, they can land at the nearby Cambria fire station off Highway 146.
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