Release Date: February 10, 2009

Windfall of wind farms whirl in the Midwest

Midwest Construction

The winds of change are blowing in the Midwest. A number of wind-farm projects are under way and production is up. Illinois, for instance, saw its production of kilowatt-hours double in 2007 over the previous year. Policy changes, tax incentives and states' renewable energy standards are driving developments. Planning and logistics make these projects difficult.

Renewable Energy Grows
Long a creaking symbol of the rural Midwest, wind turbines are spinning in the region again as part of wind farms.

Illinois in 2007, for instance, generated 571 million kilowatt-hours of energy from wind, up 124% from 255 million kwh in 2006, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Energy Information Administration, an agency in the U.S. Department of Energy. Less dramatically, Wisconsin produced 111 million kwh in 2007, up 10% from 101 million kwh the previous year.

"There is huge market momentum for wind energy now," says John Greidanus, vice president of power and energy development for Appleton, Wis.-based The Boldt Co., a contractor overseeing wind projects throughout the Midwest.

Moreover, Illinois' capacity to produce energy from wind has increased noticeably, according to the EIA. In 2007, Illinois had 541 megawatts of total net summer capacity from wind, up more than 400% from the 105 mw in 2006.

"We have worked in various stages on dozens of wind projects," says Andy Cotter, senior interconnection specialist with Waukesha, Wis.-based American Transmission Co., a transmission utility. The company has done wind-farm projects in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, in addition to Wisconsin.

Concerns Lead to Opportunity
Wind farms are being driven by policy as concerns multiply about climate change and dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Currently, wind power supplies only 1.5% of the nation's energy, says Julie Clendenin, media relations specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association. About 32.1 billion kwh of wind energy was produced nationally in 2007, up almost 21% from the 26.6 billion kwh the previous year, according to the EAI.

Production is expected to continue increasing in part due to a federal tax credit for those generators that produce electricity from wind.

Also driving activity are renewable electricity standards in 28 states - Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin among them - that set either a goal or requirement for a percentage of energy to be derived from renewable sources, Clendenin says. Wisconsin, for instance, requires that 10% of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2015.

"We're hoping in 2009 for a national renewable standard," Clendenin adds. President Obama pledged during last year's campaign that 10% of the nation's energy would come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25% by 2025.

Already, venture capitalists, like T. Boone Pickens, are sniffing opportunity. The Texas-based tycoon is urging development of wind power and claims the world's largest proposed plant near Amarillo. The development would involve 1,500 units and produce 4,000 mw of energy.

Like Texas, the winds of change are being felt in the Midwest.

Two of the 10 biggest wind-energy-producing states nationwide in 2007 were in the Midwest, though neither is in Midwest Construction's traditional circulation area. Iowa was No. 3, producing 2.7 billion kwh; Minnesota was No. 4, generating 2.5 billion kwh.

(In the magazine's traditional circulation area, Illinois was the 13th biggest producer in 2007 and Wisconsin was 22nd. Neither Indiana nor Missouri produced wind power that year.)

At least six wind-farm projects are under construction in each of the four Midwest states where the magazine circulates, according to the AWEA - two each in Illinois and Indiana and one apiece in Wisconsin and Missouri. When those projects come on line, they will join the 23 existing wind farms. Of those, 10 are in Illinois, and nine are in Wisconsin.

At least two additional wind projects, Eco Grove and Rail Splitter, are in development in Illinois but not in construction, Clendenin says.

The biggest project under way - Fowler Ridge, a joint venture of the United Kingdom's BP Alternative Energy and Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Energy in Indiana's Benton and Tippecanoe counties - involves the construction of 222 units with a capacity to generate 373 mw of energy, says Boldt's Greidanus. A second phase is expected, but no details were immediately available.

The activity in the Midwest and rest of the nation is already having an impact.

"We surpassed Germany this year [as the No. 1 nation in the world] in actual generation of electricity from wind," Clendenin adds. "Germany still has more capacity to generate energy from wind power than the U.S., but because our winds are stronger, we generate more electricity."

Opposition to wind projects is minimal. Ironically, environmentalists themselves sometimes oppose projects if they are in the migration routes of birds, Greidanus says. Also, communities have been known to oppose projects over fears of their being eyesores.

"Even with oil prices down in the latter part of 2008, most of these things are going to stick because I don't think oil prices will stay low for long," Greidanus adds.

Nitty-Gritty about Wind
As the industry sorts through these issues, the Midwest has two contractors with substantial experience in wind farms.

In December, Boldt had completed five projects and was expected to finish three others, Greidanus says. Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction Co. has also completed a number of projects.

Obtaining approvals and permits is among the biggest challenges, says the American Transmission Co.'s Cotter. Five years could be expended, and additional time might be needed for obtaining easements from landowners.

Once this background work is done, transmission is usually a big hurdle, Cotter says.

"Favorable wind regimes are in less-populated areas away from where the majority of the electrical infrastructure exists," he adds. Nevertheless, the four wind farms that ATC has connected to the grid were close to existing transmission system. Looped feeds that included a few towers and substations were constructed.

Once the actual wind farm is ready for construction, the top challenges include logistics, sequencing and safety, Greidanus says.

Typically, roads are built because of usually remote locations of the wind farms and to handle the heavy components. A semi-trailer-truck can usually haul only two blades, which could weigh up to 50 tons. The handling of components more than once is avoided so they are not damaged.

"We restrict cell-phone use, including on personal vehicles," Greidanus says. "We don't want people to be distracted because of traffic moving in these areas."

After excavation, the process usually comprises constructing the foundation, erecting the tower, installing the turbine and attaching the blades.

A typical unit height is 260 ft, and average ground-to-tip height with the blade at its highest point is 389 ft-the equivalent of a 32-story building.

As a result, large cranes are needed, Greidanus says. Boldt uses the Manitowoc 16000.

"You might have to negotiate electrical lines and you might have to break that crane down just to move it 300 to 400 yds for the next unit," he adds.

Turbines are getting bigger. For instance, 182 Vesta turbines that produce 1.5 mw each are being installed at Fowler Ridge. So are 40 Clipper turbines that produce 2.5 mw each.

"A few years from now, people won't even be putting up 1.5-mw turbines anymore," Greidanus says.