Why Wind Farms don't work

EDITOR's NOTE: We received this essay from Jack Ingram,  a fourteen year old 9th grader at Barnstable High School, on why he believes the Cape Wind Farm proposal is not realistic.

The Realities of Wind Farm Maintenance
By: Jack Ingram, US Naval Sea Cadet

In a perfect world, I feel that wind energy is exactly what the human race needs. I could see a society where fossil fuels would no longer be needed to drive our energy addiction, and the air around us would be exceptionally clean.

Cape Wind proposes to build and maintain 130 turbines. As most Cape and Island residents know, they are to be planted on Horseshoe Shoal. The turbines would be .34 nautical miles apart from each other and cover a vast, shallow portion of Nantucket Sound. The whole project seems legitimate on various levels, but recent flaws with other wind farms in the United States show signs of practical maintenance concerns.

A strong maintenance system is vital to the reality of sustaining a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. My recent interviews with wind farm managers from across the country reveal that turbine maintenance protocols lack consistency to sustain maximum wind farm energy production. In the US, there are only a few large-scale wind farms that have been attempted, and they are all located on easily accessible tracts of land.

On April 17th, 2006, I talked to Brad Adams, Project Development Director of Whitewater Energy Corp. and President of Whitewater Wind Energy, Inc. I asked to interview one of his technicians. He politely refused my request by commenting, “I’d love to let you interview a technician; however, we are so far behind in our maintenance schedule that may not be an option”. Mr. Adams runs a 224-turbine wind farm in San Gorgonio Pass, California where only 12 full time technicians try to keep up with frequent turbine maintenance protocols. Consequently, I calculated that one technician is responsible for over 18 turbines.

Enxco’s wind farms with locations in Palm Springs, California and Intrepid, Iowa have worse proportions of turbine to technician ratios of 26:1 and 34:1. A low turbine to technician ratio is critical if a wind farm is going to operate at maximum efficiency levels. After speaking with several wind farm professionals, they agreed that there are not enough “qualified technicians” in the country. “Often times we need to steal technicians from other farms”, says Mike Smith, Operations Manager for Century and Intrepid Wind farms in Intrepid, Iowa. He went on to say, “There are probably under 1000 technicians in the United States”.

The size and placement of the turbines also contribute to the success of any wind farm project. Whitewater’s turbines in Palm Springs, California range from 80 feet to 260 feet tall. Many of the Palm Springs turbines stand non-operable. Proposed turbines for Cape Cod would be a gigantic 417 feet tall. Planting turbines in Nantucket Sound’s salt water will only pose a greater challenge for maintenance crews. Unfortunately, how do we expect an offshore wind farm to succeed when other wind farms with smaller sized turbines that are on land fail to be maintained 100% of the time?

Mike Smith reinforced my concern about proposed Nantucket Sound based turbines when he stated, “offshore wind has been a challenge because it’s just that much harder”. How can turbines in Nantucket Sound withstand a hurricane if smaller turbines cannot tolerate maximum hurricane winds? After speaking with wind farm technicians and managers, I have come to find out that it does not take much inclement weather to predispose wind turbines to breakdowns, not to mention the damage catastrophic hurricane force winds could have on wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. The proposed Sound site combined with the lack of qualified technicians should give us all cause for concern if the idealistic wind farm is to become a reality.

The technicians that work on the turbines have a lot to say and it’s easy to believe the people who are responsible for daily wind farm operations. After interviewing a “veteran”, I learned what these workers do on an average day in their wind farm. I talked to an Enxco employee, William (Bill) Thompson out at the Alta Masa Site in Palm Springs, California. On a daily basis, he will service two turbines with his partner. There are 9 personnel, including Bill, functioning every day. Their job is to keep 158 turbines “going”. Bill told me that there are two varieties of wind turbine maintenance: scheduled and unscheduled. The scheduled maintenance occurs 3 times per year for each of his 158 turbines. During our conversation, I found out that for every scheduled preventative maintenance, (8 service hours), given to 1 turbine there are 5 unscheduled turbine breakdowns that involve more time than his normal maintenance. As you can see, I soon came to find out that wind turbines are not capable of being sustained with a meager three “tune-ups” per year.

Through my conversations, I came to learn that turbines break down more often than technicians can keep up with the maintenance-at-large. With this crucial maintenance information, I hope people can make reasonable decisions about the practical application of wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. 

Furthermore, it does not take much training to become part of a wind farm workforce. Although the main priority is safety, and technicians are instructed in field CPR and first aid, the rookie mechanic may be out “on the job” in a little over a week.  In the training classes, new workers learn about dehydration, frostbite, and everything in-between to insure the safety and security of the staff. The technicians also use the buddy system. This works out so that the new worker will be partnered with a veteran.

Other than for safety considerations, I came to find out that there are few pre-qualifications to become a wind farm technician. To my knowledge, there are no wind farm certifications or standards for wind farm workers. This job is challenging and demanding and pays $12.00 per hour.

With Bill’s experience, I knew that he must have an opinion about offshore turbines. When I asked him what he thought about putting one-hundred-thirty 417 foot tall turbines in Nantucket Sound, he replied: “That’s pretty crazy! Unless you give me scuba gear, I would not want to be out on that turbine…why do it? There’s plenty of land!” More importantly, there is no training to contend with salt concerns or even hurricane force winds. Poor weather conditions, hurricane or not, will directly influence the effectiveness of turbines in Nantucket Sound. Predicting and preparing for such weather conditions accurately and adequately will be a great challenge for wind farm workers who will need to stay safely on schedule with maintenance concerns.

After listening to Bill, I have to believe he is right; putting these turbines in water will pose only a greater challenge to mechanics like him. He uses his 4x4 truck daily, not a water-bound barge crane. As well, Bill drives that truck to his job on the road. He does admit that he has to dodge a pothole or two; however, he does not have to worry about running aground on Horseshoe Shoal, where I have experienced the depth of the water to be 2 feet deep in some places. What happens if they have to lock down the turbines in the face of an on-coming hurricane, especially if it’s low tide and the barge cranes cannot reach the turbines in time? The wreckage could be a disaster! These are just some of the subtle facts that may have been overlooked by others. I personally enjoyed speaking with people that toil with the windmills and who really know the daily, monthly and annual challenges.

Personally, I am 100% in favor of alternative energy resources. In fact, I worry about the rising price of fuel and wonder what my generation will do to meet future energy needs. Someday a similar wind farm proposal might work, but my investigation is saying to me- not today. Based on what I have learned, we do not want any Nantucket Sound wind farm turbines to become future maintenance disasters.

At no time have I intended to criticize the efforts of learned scientists, wind farm engineers, and/or concerned citizens for alternative forms of energy in their labors on the behalf of mankind. My only intent has been to inform the general public on the facts available to me. A wise man once told me, “Practical facts stand for themselves, but idealistic beliefs could go to the wind”. 

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