Talk about a bust.
A multimillion-dollar wind turbine that was projected to generate electricity for the St. Cloud VA health campus is scheduled to be demolished in July after being plagued by problems ever since its blades first turned eight years ago.
“We had 215 acres of land in a handy spot to put a wind turbine and satisfactory winds,” said Barry Venable, a spokesman for the St. Cloud VA Health Care System. But, he added, “It spun sporadically for a few months and then it broke down.”
The VA built the wind turbine overlooking the Sauk River with help from $2.3 million in federal stimulus money as part of a pilot project to tap a renewable energy source to reduce energy costs, Venable said.
According to projections, the turbine was expected to generate about 15% of the medical center’s annual electricity.
But almost from the start, “it didn’t work well,” Venable said.
The Massachusetts-based company charged with designing and building the turbine conducted on-site technical reviews to figure out why it wasn’t operating better and replaced major components. But the turbine never met reasonable standards of performance, Venable said.
It generated a mere 464,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity over three years, at a time when the medical center used more than 37 million kilowatts.
Eventually, the VA pulled the plug.
“It’s terribly disappointing,” Venable said. “I’m a taxpayer, too. It’s not unreasonable to expect a wind turbine to work.”
By October 2014, the VA decided to end its contract with J.K. Scanlan Co. — terminating it for default based on the fact that the contractor failed to provide a fully operational, commissioned wind turbine as agreed on. Scanlan appealed the termination.
In a negotiated settlement in 2015, the VA rescinded its “for default” termination, but the two sides agreed to part ways. J.K. Scanlan paid the VA $450,000, Venable said.
VA officials then wondered: What do you do with a turbine that doesn’t spin?
One option was to repower it by installing a new or reconditioned nacelle, which essentially houses all the generation gear. But the payback would exceed the turbine’s life expectancy, Venable said.
Replacing it, including a new foundation and tower, would cost too much, he said. And leaving an inoperable wind turbine standing made no sense, Venable explained.
“You would have something sticking 250 feet up in the air that’s not doing anything,” he said. “The responsible thing to do is take it down.”
The VA will spend more than $326,000 to have it demolished, recycling what can be reused.
“Yes, it will take money away from other projects that could enhance veterans’ care,” Venable said. “We’re unhappy about it. … For the St. Cloud VA, it’s an embarrassment.”
“In all respects, this is a very decent VA Medical Center that takes great pride [in] taking great care of our veterans. We have other things to do than to worry about a turbine that won’t operate.”
It’s unlikely many in St. Cloud will be sorry to see it go.
“It never turned, so we only saw it in a stationary position,” said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis.
“Probably the first time it moves will be when it’s taken down,” he joked.
The turbine held much promise when it was built, carrying hopes that it would save taxpayer money, Kleis said.
But it wasn’t the VA’s fault it didn’t pan out, he added.
“It’s no different than any one of us buying a car and it turns out to be a lemon,” Kleis said. “This was a wind turbine that turned out to be a lemon.”
Demolishing it will remove the painful reminder that it didn’t work, he said.
Although the turbine was a failure, the medical center has achieved green success in other areas, including installing a geothermal system about the same time the turbine went up. That system heats and cools six buildings on the VA campus, Venable said.
“The difference is that nobody sees it because it’s underground,” he said.