OCOTILLO – When the wind turbine project that surrounds this community came before the Imperial County Board of Supervisors in April 2012, many spoke out for and against it.
But resident Jim Pelley stood out with his concerns, questioning whether the area has suitable wind resources for a wind farm the scope of Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Express.
“There are many serious issues with the project, but I’m here to talk about the viability of the project,” said Pelley, an aerospace engineer, during that hearing.
Pelley went on to make a rather detailed presentation in which he questioned the project based on wind observations he made for more than a year and explained what the Bureau of Land Management Wind Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement lists as “good wind resources.”
“Good wind resources (e.g., class 3 and above, which have an average annual wind speed of at least 13 mph) are found in many locations,” reads the BLM website quoted by Pelley in his presentation. “Wind speed is a critical feature of wind resources, because the energy in wind is proportional to the cube of the wind speed. In other words, a stronger wind means a lot more power,” the site reads.
Pelley, an Ocotillo resident for more than seven years, then alleged that Ocotillo Wind Express is economically unviable because turbines need wind speeds of about 20 mph to reach maximum energy generation and noted that based on his observations, average annual wind speeds in the area are slightly above 8 mph.
Suits and allegations
But despite Pelley’s pleas, the project was approved by the board and later by the BLM, the lead permitting agency. And since then, virtually every aspect of Ocotillo Wind Express has been questioned by Native American tribes, environmentalists and some residents like Pelley.
Planning irregularities, safety concerns and insufficient biological and cultural mitigation efforts – to name a few – have been presented in multiple lawsuits.
Notwithstanding, the developer, Pattern Energy, has prevailed and continued operating until a fallen turbine blade forced the project to be shut down for inspections in May, with the BLM putting the project under a so-called suspense order until each turbine was inspected and the project deemed safe.
This suspense order was lifted Wednesday and some turbines were brought back online. Siemens, a press release announced, concluded that insufficient bonding at the root end of the main blade caused the fracture. Other turbines will be brought back online gradually and have a certain upgrade applied.
In total, seven blades are expected to be replaced, the release notes.
But as Ocotillo Wind Express prepares to become fully operational, some are preparing to fight this project that like all wind projects in the country received a federal tax incentive.
William Pate, a San Diego resident who owns a home here, said organized residents hope to file suit against Pattern Energy through the so-called False Claims Act, which in part imposes liability on persons or companies that mislead the government to acquire property, money or a project approval.
“And Pattern Energy has done (that) in a number of fronts, the wind resources being one of those,” alleged Pate, who did not elaborate on a time frame for the lawsuit.
The wind resource
But while some question the quality of wind resources in Imperial County, a 2012 California Energy Commission wind resource map study notes that southwest Imperial County has wind resources ranging from “superb” to “marginal.”
This map, based on data gathered at some 160 feet from the ground, where wind is stronger, shows that most of the wind resource in the southwest side of the county is “marginal” to “fair.”
It also illustrates that the area closer to San Diego County – where Ocotillo Wind Express is located – has a combination of “good” and “superb” wind resources.
“The windiest weather is generally in the spring months,” said Marvin Percha, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service who described the area of Ocotillo as “windy” but not as windy as the San Gorgonio Pass in Palms Springs. He noted also that it is “fairly common” to see winds of over 19 mph in the Ocotillo area.
These winds are produced when the marine layer works its way along the coast “and when it gets deep enough, say about 2,500 to 3,000 (feet), it comes through the gaps in the mountains and that helps increase the winds just east of the mountains,” said Percha, who noted the weak wind season occurs in early fall.
As identified in California Energy Commission map, so-called “marginal” wind resources are between 12.6 mph to 14.3 mph. “Good” wind resources are between 15.8 mph to 16.8 mph and “superb” wind is everything over 19.8 mph.
The wind data
According to the Ocotillo Wind Express final environmental impact statement, based on data taken near Boulevard, 10 miles west of the project site, average hourly wind speeds of 8.8 mph and 9.1 mph occur about 53 percent of the time. In addition, the EIS notes that more than 7,700 hours of video provided by Pattern Energy show that at 10 meters (some 30 feet) from the ground, wind speeds of nearly 11 mph occur about half of the time.
The Imperial Valley Press asked Pattern for any wind data to review as well as to speak to a Pattern expert. In response, spokesman Matt Dallas wrote in an email that “Pattern collected multiple years of on-site wind speed data from multiple 60-meter towers, as well as from sophisticated LIDAR and SODAR units, to confirm the atmospheric models that showed the Ocotillo area to have a strong wind resource.”
And yet, data found in the project’s EIS listing winds in Boulevard, located over the mountains, and 7,700 hours of video might not tell the whole story about the resources found in Ocotillo.
Various meteorologists contacted for this article, including Percha, noted that at least some 30 years of data is needed to fully understand the weather of an area.
Furthermore, for those who oppose the project like Pelley, wind data from Boulevard is poised to be completely different from Ocotillo’s wind data as it is measured on a higher geographical altitude, and they also note that Pattern only submitted 7,700 hours of video data while alleging Pattern recorded more than 26,000 hours of data.
“I’ve never said that the wind doesn’t blow here in Ocotillo, the fact of the matter is that right now we have some winds, but it is very seasonal,” Pelley said in a recent interview.
But “at least 50 percent of the time (of a year) the winds are non-existent,” said Pelley, who is one of many organized residents who to this day question whether Ocotillo Wind is as economically viable as once presented.
While three decades of data may be the ideal way to understand weather, meteorologists indicate that data appropriately gathered in a specific location can give you a fair indication of weather phenomena.
As found in the Mesowest website – a site used by the National Weather Service – wind data collected in a station near the west side of the project shows that wind speed average for June was slightly over 11 mph. This average speed is less than a “marginal” wind resource in the California Energy Commission map.
In addition, Mesowest wind data gathered from 2011 through June 2013 – the latest available on the site – never shows monthly average wind speeds that could be more than “marginal” wind resources.
But to say that all wind detected by this station is of “marginal” nature would be an understatement.
For instance, June hourly data shows that wind speeds of over 15 mph and even 19 mph occurred numerous times and can be sustained sometimes for hours. But then again, data also indicates that wind speeds dropping to 5 mph and even below that occurred, particularly toward the later part of June.
As far as April and May, months in the middle of the windy season, data points to average wind speeds of 10.5 mph and about 11 mph, respectively. Still, both months had days of single-digits speeds and days where speeds climbed to 19 mph or more.
As far as April and May of 2012, monthly wind speed averages were 9.9 mph and 12 mph, respectively, both “marginal” resources. And a year before that, April’s wind speed average was slightly over 11 mph while May saw average wind speeds of 12.6 mph.
Wind data suggests that Ocotillo’s windy season in the last three years has had on average “marginal” wind resources, that is, those that are not faster than 14.3 mph.
Also, if annual wind average speeds are calculated for 2011 and 2012, they come out as being slightly over 8 mph, which does not meet the class 3 wind classification that the BLM Wind Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement lists as “good wind resources,” those with an average annual wind speed of at least 13 mph.
It should be noted, however, that what experts call the Sunrise station used for this article gathers data at some 30 feet, where meteorologists say winds can be weaker because of friction caused by the ground. And yet friction, explained National Weather Service meteorologist Mark O’Malley, is less likely to affect measurements taken near water or open desert areas. He also said “data from that station is pretty reliable. We feel that it is a pretty reliable station.”
But knowing average wind speeds alone do not explain the electricity-generating capacity of any of the 112 Siemens turbines that populate this project. To do so, wind speeds have to be compared with the turbine’s “cut-in wind speed,” the minimum wind speed at which the turbine starts supplying useful output.
Siemens’ specifications state that the model used in Ocotillo has a cut-in wind speed of at least 3 meters per second, which is almost 7 mph. Based on this figure, Ocotillo Wind Express turbines on average made their cut-in wind speed during the spring months of 2013.
In contrast, had the turbines been up during the fall months and winter months of 2012, they would on average not have gotten enough wind to produce energy, except during October, according to Mesowest wind data.
The lack of wind during certain months is certainly not surprising to Dallas, who wrote:
“As is true of all wind farms, the turbines at Ocotillo will not be spinning all the time. We know from our research that the winter months have lower wind speeds, with the wind picking up in the spring and summer months.”
“We do not disclose the energy generation of our projects,” wrote Dallas when asked how much energy Ocotillo Wind has produced since coming online in December and explained that “once it is complete, the projected annual generation of the 265 megawatt Ocotillo Wind project is equal to the energy needs of approximately 125,000 Southern California households each year.”
It is unclear then how much energy the project generated since coming online, and based on Dallas’ answer, it is unlikely that the public will ever know how much energy Ocotillo Wind will generate in the future.
What is clear is that when a blade plummeted overnight around mid-May the project produced no energy for more than month and in turn, bolstered safety concerns for local residents, officials and desert visitors who ride their off-highway vehicles in the area.
It is also clear that millions of dollars in benefits to the county and some 20 permanent jobs do not appease Ocotillo Wind opponents who are actually encouraged by safety concerns and their perceived lack of wind resources to continue fighting this federally subsidized project that to them, cannot live up to the promises.