California turbines frozen in Minnesota wind

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2010 - 11:31 PM

Anoka, Chaska and other city residents ask why their newly installed windmills don't spin. Operator says they will be running within two months.

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A crew from enXco Energy Services from California inspected a wind turbine on Wednesday in Chaska. The blades were turning when the crew arrived, but there are several similar turbines in the metro area and outstate that have been stalled recently by the Minnesota winter.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Like a lot of California transplants, 11 newcomers to Minnesota are having a hard time adjusting to our winters.

They are wind turbines, erected last fall by 11 metro and outstate cities. The green-energy machines were expected to be spinning before Christmas, but so far their blades have been largely motionless, apparently paralyzed by frigid weather.

The turbines sit idly in Anoka, North St. Paul, Chaska, Shakopee, Buffalo and six other cities, all members of the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA). The refurbished, 115-foot towers had operated on a California wind farm, where they didn't have to worry about cold hydraulic fluid turning to gel and oil lubricants getting too sluggish.

Avant Energy of Minneapolis, which operates the turbines for MMPA, says it is bringing in a company that will get the windmills running within two months.

"It is very important we get them up and operating," said Avant president Derick Dahlen. He said the relatively small turbines, bought with federal renewable energy bonds, demonstrate the 11 cities' support for green energy. "When they don't turn, that doesn't satisfy us," Dahlen said.

It also doesn't satisfy many in the cities that put up the turbines, often in highly visible locations.

"We have been getting a lot of phone calls asking why it's not turning," said Dan Geiger, Chaska's electrical director. He said the turbine hasn't moved since it went up in early November near busy Hwy. 212.

"We put a lot of time and energy into getting it installed," Geiger said. "We were hoping it would be spinning by now."

The turbine in North St. Paul, near Hwy. 36, ran briefly "before it got too cold. It hasn't run consistently yet," said City Manager Wally Wysopal. "Anything in the air that has visibility like this turbine, people are expecting it to turn," he said. "It's been a little embarrassing to have it not turning on the windiest of days."

Anoka officials voiced similar concerns.

This week, Avant brought in enXco Services Corp., the California firm that rebuilt the 20-year-old wind turbines and sold them to MMPA, Dahlen said. The firm will get them going and started work this week by checking their mechanical condition in Chaska and Shakopee, he said.

Meeting a mandate

The 160-kilowatt turbines are much shorter than the one- or two-megawatt turbines used on wind farms and will supply 1 percent or less of local power needs. But they will help MMPA meet a state mandate requiring most utilities to provide at least 12 percent of their electricity sales from renewable resources by 2012. That proportion will increase to 25 percent by 2025.

Dahlen said Avant and MMPA have taken over commissioning the 11 wind turbines from contractor Henkels and McCoy Inc., which installed them. Henkels issued a statement saying that it "wasn't consulted regarding operational suitability, including climate compatibility. ... We've properly done our job as contracted and want nothing more than to see the turbines fully operational."

Dahlen said some incorrect information has been circulating about the turbines' cost and the weather conditions needed to run them. Although an Avant official said last summer that the price was about $300,000 per turbine, Dahlen said that with refurbishing, transportation and installation, the total cost is $5 million, or about $417,000 per machine.

Dahlen said information also circulated that the turbines would run only at temperatures above 1 degree Fahrenheit and at wind speeds of at least 15 miles an hour. He said they can run in winds of about 12 miles an hour and, with the right lubricants and hydraulic fluids, are expected to operate down to 15 degrees below zero.

He said that Minnesota has turbines that operate at temperatures well below zero and that MMPA's have basically the same moving parts. A mechanical assessment of the machines could reveal surprises, he said, but he expects that installing proper heating elements, including an electronic control box heater, should remedy the cold weather problems.

The other MMPA member cities are Arlington, Brownton, East Grand Forks, Le Sueur, Olivia and Winthrop.

Wysopal, who chairs the MMPA board of city representatives, said the holdup is "not an issue of whether wind technology works, but getting the bugs worked out."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658

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