Located in one of the area’s windiest locations, why hasn’t the Science Center wind turbine turned since 2019?
After nearly two decades standing on Cleveland’s lakefront, the future of the wind turbine outside Great Lakes Science Center could be up in the air. And, the cause of that uncertainty could be part of a larger issue facing the future of wind energy in America.
The problem was first detected in the summer of 2019, according to Amanda Taunt, Vice President of Operations at Great Lakes Science Center.
“We assumed that it would be a relatively easy part,” said Taunt. “It’s a critical component in the turbine.”
She said an inspector found a gear inside the turbine was worn and needed to be replaced.
As a precaution, Taunt said the turbine was shut down until the part was fixed.
That was more than four years ago.
“We very quickly found that that part is no longer made and has not been made for a very long time,” said Taunt.
To understand why, you must go back to the wind turbine’s beginnings.
While it’s stood outside the science center since the summer of 2006, Taunt said it was originally built on a wind farm in Denmark in 1993.
That makes the turbine 30 years old. And while it may not sound old, it turns out it is.
“Most wind turbines are designed to operate safely for a period of about 20 to 25 years with today’s technology,” said Grant Goodrich, who heads Case Western Reserve University’s Great Lakes Energy Institute.
He said aging windmills can be like trying to get parts for an older car.
“Sometimes, instead of being able to get it at the dealership the same day, now they have to order it,” said Goodrich. “It takes a week, it takes two weeks. If it’s a very old system, you can’t find the parts at all. You’re on eBay motors looking for, you know, something that was made in the 1970s.”
And it’s not just an issue in Cleveland.
Ohio’s first utility-scale wind farm began operating in Bowling Green in 2003 with two wind turbines. A year later, two more were added.
But two decades later, the city said the turbines are nearing the end of their lives. One was shut down in 2021 because of the cost of repairs.
According to the city, the remaining three are scheduled to be retired in 2025 when the city’s current maintenance contract expires.
To determine the scope of the issue of aging wind turbines, News 5 Investigators analyzed data from the US Energy Information Administration.
As of its 2022 report, there were more than 71,000 operating wind turbines nationwide. Of those, nearly 6,700 or 9.3%, began operating in or before 2003.
Goodrich said increasingly, operators are faced with questions about what to do next.
“I think the takeaway as we talk about trying to grow renewable energy across the country, we do have to be mindful of replacing systems that are aging,” said Goodrich.
But at what cost?
Estimates for repairing the science center’s wind turbine total hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Taunt.
“Upwards to half a million, quarter of a million dollars,” she said. “Very significant, so it would be a significant investment.”
That, coupled with the uncertainty of what the planned lakefront development could mean for the science center’s front yard, means for the immediate future, the turbine remains still.
Goodrich said the three primary options facing operators of aging wind turbines are – pay for required fixes, replace old turbines with new, often larger ones that can generate more electricity and improve profits, or simply retire them – a cloudy future as America pushes toward a greener tomorrow.
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