GUYMON – Broken blades and burned-out nacelles that housed generators atop wind turbine towers pose a threat to public safety at a wind farm in Oklahoma’s panhandle.
The issue is so bad, a representative from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission who visited the farm reported hearing cracking sounds as large, broken turbine blades on towers blew first one direction and then another, including out over open access roads that area residents use every day.
Blades could potentially “shed” from the structure, owners of the wind farm, Olympia Renewable Platform LLC, reported. And in heavy wind conditions, these blades could even be carried up to 50 feet from where they drop from before hitting the ground.
Brandy Wreath, director of the commission’s Public Utility Division, testified before elected commissioners about what he had seen at the KODE Novus I and II wind facility as part of the division’s request for an emergency order to require Olympia to provide regulators with a site safety and security plan.
Commissioners responded by issuing an order that gave Olympia just 10 days to present regulators with plans to protect the general public from hazards it presents. That plan was submitted this week.
“I am not someone whose nerves get on edge very easily, but I didn’t want either myself or my people close to it. What I saw gave me fear,” said Wreath. “I left with many more concerns and questions than I had arrived with.”
The 120-megawatt capacity project – located along the Oklahoma-Texas state line between Guymon and Hardesty – went operational in 2012 and contains 60 towers within Oklahoma.
About nine towers show signs of catastrophic failure, where portions or entire blades are missing or nacelles at tower tops have burned.
Dozens of other towers are locked down, either because of internal damage that can’t be observed without a detailed inspection or because of other problems that could be impacting their operations.
In a statement provided by its attorney Wednesday, Olympia said it is working cooperatively with landowners and regulators to fulfill the commission’s order.
“We look forward to working with the Corporation Commission to resolve this matter,” it stated.
‘They had a lot of problems’
Many of the turbines that make up the troubled project are on lands owned by Hitch Enterprises, an area farming, ranching and meat producing operation.
Company Chairman Jason Hitch told The Oklahoman the project “had a lot of problems with the blades when they were first installed.”
The original owner, identified by authorities as DeWind (a subsidiary of South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering), later declared bankruptcy and closed.
Ownership of the project in Oklahoma eventually was acquired by Olympia.
Hitch said he understood Olympia intended to use salvaged parts from some shut-down turbines to repair and return others to operational status. But that effort has been complicated. One renewable energy expert told The Oklahoman DeWind built the blades and generators used in the project itself. Because it went bankrupt and closed, any critical needed replacement parts that can’t be salvaged must be manufactured from scratch.
“I think they (Olympia) were sold a bill of goods,” Hitch said.
Commission’s order gives owner limited time
Olympia has told regulators it will remove and replace broken blades from seven wind turbine towers at the facility.
Two towers that have burnt nacelles will require additional inspections before solutions can be developed.
“The most prudent action plan is to use a drone to determine if the relevant structures are intact. If so, nacelle removal will be performed by crane, if it is determined that it is safe. If that is not possible, then the tower will be felled,” the filed plan states.
Olympia also has pledged to put temporary fences around some damaged towers and to post signs on those fences and on access gates that warn of “potential shedding,” where debris and parts could separate from the structure and fall to the ground.
“Due to their weight, debris and parts typically fall directly below their separation point. Occasionally, carbon-fiber composite materials can fall deviating from straight fall, mostly due to heavy wind, but typically not more than (50) feet or so,” the plan states.
The commission’s order also gave Olympia 30 days to provide a plan to either decommission the operation or return it to production.
And it orders Olympia to provide the commission with proof it has the financial viability to carry out those plans, something it should have been doing annually anyway.
Mark Yates, vice president with the Advanced Power Alliance, said its members have been willing partners with Oklahoma’s Legislature and regulators to help it create the “most stringent decommissioning statutes in the country,” providing the tools to handle an Olympia-type situation.
“Although this is an isolated incident and the project’s owner is not a member of the alliance, the industry takes seriously responsible development, public safety and landowner relationships,” Yates said. “We applaud the corporation commission for its efforts and hope to see the situation swiftly resolved.”
Hitch said area farmers and ranchers who like the income that operating wind turbines on their lands provides also hope for a speedy resolution.
Returning it to an operational, profitable status would be best, he said.
“We would hope the owner either sells it so someone who can afford to fix it up and operate it – that would be the best since it is already built – or to tear it down and clean it up.”
Wreath said a long-term solution is needed.
“These are ugly, and I wouldn’t want to look at them every day, but that isn’t why I am here,” Wreath told commissioners. “(While) we anticipated whenever the state law was written we would eventually encounter situations where a wind turbine would be unsafe or need to be decommissioned when it no longer could generate electricity, this is a first for us.
“The facility appears to be at the end of its useful life and needs to be decommissioned” to comply with state law, he said. “We want the company to tell us what turbines it plans to repair, what turbines it plans to decommission and what it immediately plans to do to make the site safe for the public.”