The St. Cloud VA Health Care System has contracted with a Florida-based company for a $300,000 study to help decide what to do with the failed wind turbine on the VA campus.
VA officials hope the study will help determine options for the turbine, which was erected on the St. Cloud VA campus in 2011 as part of a federal effort to use more renewable energy.
“No one needs to tell us the thing doesn’t operate. We know that,” said Barry Venable, St. Cloud VA spokesman. “What we need to determine is can it be made to operate or not? And that’s what the study’s going to provide us, is the information necessary to figure out a way forward.”
The $2.3 million wind turbine has been plagued with hydraulic and electrical troubles and hasn’t generated power since 2012. In October 2014, the VA terminated its contract with Massachusetts-based JK Scanlan Co. for defaulting on its commitment to provide a fully-operational turbine.
The company appealed the termination to the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. In a settlement reached in May 2015, the VA agreed to rescind the contract for convenience, meaning it was parting ways with the company without blaming it for default. In exchange, the VA received a payment of $450,000.
“From the VA’s point of view, pursuing litigation would have just delayed the project and wouldn’t have done anything to make the wind turbine operate,” Venable said.
This fall, the VA solicited bids for a study to help inform any future action on the turbine. The bid for $299,220 was awarded Sept. 29 to Venergy Group of Fort Pierce, Florida.
The study will include conducting a wind resource assessment, which is needed to identify any suitable wind turbines that could possibly be used at the St. Cloud site. A 60-foot meteorological tower has been erected to measure wind speed and direction.
The contractor will do a market study to determine if there are any turbine models on the market that might fit on top of the existing tower, Venable said. The study also will look at what maintenance upgrades or improvements might be required to make the tower and its foundation usable.
The wind turbine has been a source of frustration and embarrassment for VA officials, who prefer to focus on the facility’s mission of caring for veterans’ health.
The idea of spending more taxpayer money on the wind turbine may not sit well with some critics of the project. Venable said getting more information before deciding what to do with the turbine “seems a prudent step.”
“There’s too much time, effort and money invested in this thing to simply throw it away without a thorough examination of the alternatives,” he said.
All options, from tearing it down and scrapping it to making it operate correctly, will be on the table, Venable said.
A significant portion of the cost of the turbine was the foundation and structural tower. The problems have been with the nacelle, where the power is generated.
It may be possible to install a different model of nacelle on top of the existing tower, Venable said. Whether that’s feasible, whether someone would be willing to do it and whether it would be warrantied are questions that need answering, he said.
“We don’t know the answers to those questions, and that’s why we’re doing the study,” he said.
The VA worked for two years with the contractor on an action plan to get the turbine working, Venable said. Multiple wind experts inspected it, and major components were replaced, including the gear box and electrical and hydraulic systems.
The VA consulted with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which conducted a technical review. But even with that assistance, the contractor was unable to fix it. The VA had “no choice” but to terminate the contract, Venable said.
The study is underway and expected to last a year. When it’s complete, VA officials will consult again with the National Renewable Energy Lab to figure out what to do next.
The wind turbine was funded through a federal stimulus grant. The contractor was paid about 98 percent of the original contract amount of $2.3 million.
While the wind project is funded by taxpayer money, Venable said it hasn’t affected the St. Cloud VA’s budget or the work of its caregivers.
“This is not locally anyway taking away from care of veterans,” he said.
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