PRIMGHAR – “The cost is coming down,” answered O’Brien County Highland Wind Farm project manager Adam Jablonski when he responded to a question about whether or not the cost of building new wind energy was still going down.
MidAmerican Energy Company (MEC) hosted a media event on Oct. 1 at the Highland Wind Farm project construction office complex. After an oral review and a Q & A session, the news media and others received a close-up look at a turbine site south of Primghar along U.S. Highway 59.
Invited to attend were O’Brien County officials, landowner association members, economic development corporation leaders, interested landowners, and the news media. Numerous questions were asked about wind energy both at the office complex Q & A and then again at the turbine site .
The first questioner noted that the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pegged the cost of building new wind energy at $2 million per megawatt in 2007 and then the cost had fallen to $1.8 million per MW by 2014. Is MidAmerican Energy learning that the cost of building new wind energy is still falling? asked the questioner.
“It is coming down,” replied Jablonski. “MEC is very proud of being able to do it below the national average. When you do this on the scale that MEC does, you do get some bulk discounts there. We’ve never built a small 5 to 10 turbine project. But yes, we’re below the national average and we do see the price is coming down.”
An Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) news release dated August 21, 2015 regarding MEC’s proposed Wind X proposal, says, “The IUB has issued an order approving settlement with modification and requiring reports regarding MEC’s proposed Wind X Iowa electric generation project of up to 552 megawatts.”
The news release also said that in modifying the settlement agreement, the Board’s order sets the cost cap for Wind X at $1.61 million per MW, down from $1.638 million per MW for the completed project as a whole.
The IUB noted, “This lower cap reduces the risk to customers and provides an incentive to MidAmerican to keep costs low while still providing a contingency for unanticipated changes that could increase costs above that shown by MEC’s economic analysis.”
The approximately $900 million Wind X expansion includes the 250 MW O’Brien Wind Energy Project in northern O’Brien County and the 302 MW project in Ida County both slated to be built in 2016.
Economic development board member and banker Rodd Holtkamp asked about the maintenance arrangement with Siemens in that their turbine technicians will work out of an operations and maintenance building now under construction at the Primghar industrial park.
Jablonski replied, “That’s where Lewis Lawrence is going to work here. We have an operation and maintenance arrangement with Siemens Energy. Lew and all the Siemens technicians will be located out of that building.
Jablonkski was asked if MISO controls when the wind farm power is switched on and off the grid. “Is that done from a distant control room?” the questioner asked.
“MISO ultimately does it. So, they dispatch the power generation facilities across the region from Canada to the Gulf Coast down south. They dispatch power from these generation facilities based on their loads.
“But, we can also control the turbines from any computer anywhere. So, if there’s a problem and it needs a manual shut down, or it needs maintenance performed, we can shut down the turbine from any computer.”
After a question, Jablonski cleared up one misconception about the power created in O’Brien County staying in the County. “I get that question all the time,” said Jablonski.
“So, we’re part of that MISO market region from Canada down to the South. I cannot tell you where an electron goes. MidAmerican Energy uses its electricity for our customers to keep that lowest cost of energy first. Then we have some wholesale sales to help keep our customer’s rates down. A majority of it’s used where it’s needed in the state where it’s produced. Our customers are allocated the lowest cost energy.”
A question was asked about how blades are made. “Are the blades made out of the same material that a modern airplane wing?” the questioner asked.
Bill Nosbisch, manager of engineering and asset management at MidAmerican Renewables, replied, “I actually used to work for Boeing. An airplane has a steel spar going down the middle of it with an aluminum skin. Our turbine blades are made from balsa wood and fiberglass.”
What gives the blade so much flex? Nosbisch was asked.
“Because it is made from balsa wood,” Nosbisch replied. “Balsa wood flexes just like when you were a small kid and you had one of those little balsa wood airplanes you put together and flew. They get a lot of use out of balsa wood and put fiberglass to give it the strength. It does have a plywood spar going down through the center and that’s just to keep its shape.”
MEC officials then moved their event to the turbine site where the TV media was fitted with climbing harnesses and instructed how to make a strenuous vertical climb without tiring. One tip Nosbisch passed along was to keep hands on the ladder rungs at face level and not extend them overhead. He said a climber invariably tries to pull with their arms and they will tire much quicker.
Back at their office complex presentation, Jablonski used a PowerPoint slide to show why MEC is building wind energy in NW Iowa and O’Brien County. The slide Jablonski pointed to was a wind speed chart. The slide shows a large portion of NW Iowa with average wind speeds of 16.8 to 17.9 MPH at 50 meters above the ground.
One question at the turbine site inspection was related to wind speed. Can you explain at what wind speed the turbine and generator will cut in and out to make power?
Nosbisch replied, “These turbines, the Siemens 108s, they cut in at approximately 7 MPH, not exactly, and they’ll shut off when the wind speeds hit 60 MPH. It doesn’t require human intervention, it’s done automatically. So, if we lose communications with the turbine, it will still follow those rules. It has no choice, it’s a built in safety.
“After it shuts off at 60 MPH, it waits for the wind speed to drop below that and then it’ll start back up automatically. Each turbine tower has its own wind vane and anemometer. It reads its own wind speed. So, each turbine takes care of itself.”
Nosbisch also noted that the gearbox in the nacelle has an 83:1 ratio. So, the high speed shaft and the generator, itself, turns at over 1,600 revolutions per minute to produce a stable voltage.
Supervisor Jim DeBoom wanted to know the footprint size for the turbine site and access road.
“A turbine site and access road takes up about a half-acre or so,” replied Comer.
“It does vary some. The landowner can plant right up to the edge of the 16′ wide crushed rock access road,” Nosbisch added, while using his foot to scratch a line in the dirt showing where the outside edge of large planters will typically be placed.
When will the Siemens wind turbine technicians start arriving that maintain all these turbines? a questioner asked. “We are up to 10 technicians right now,” replied the MEC wind farm manager. “They’re not all here.”
Ultimately, here will be about 30 turbine technicians working out of the operations & maintenance building in Primghar.
With the 214 Siemens 2.3 MW, SWT 108’s in the Highland Wind Farm and the 104 Siemens 2.3MW, SWT 108’s in the O’Brien Wind Energy Project combined, that means perhaps 30 Siemens technicians will maintain a total of 318 turbine sites in O’Brien County.