Visible and frustrating: Utilities chief sees more timely response to turbine issues than warranty provider
WILLMAR — Willmar Municipal Utilities Commissioners thanked General Manager Wesley Hompe for a report and analysis on the operation of the utility’s two highly visible wind turbines during the past six years.
But the commissioners expressed frustration Monday with the past four-month period during which one of the turbines has been sidelined and electric generation halted for safety reasons after the nosecone fell off this past April.
Hompe prepared the four-page report and analysis after Commissioner Joe Gimse asked staff about a month ago to respond to questions the commissioners had about the turbines’ contract, operations and maintenance.
“Obviously they’re visible on the (north) edge of town and you folks as commissioners get questions quite often about them,’’ Hompe said.
Hompe noted that Minnesota has a goal of 25 percent of energy produced by 2025 to be sourced by renewable energy.
When the commission made the decision to go with wind turbines, the mandate was “front and center’’ for the utility to make an effort to begin complying with the renewable energy standard, said Hompe.
“This was probably the most cost-effective renewable energy at that time. So we did move forward with that.’’ said Hompe.
He said the turbines’ energy performance improved from 2010 through 2012 as early problems were resolved. But production fell in 2013 because of breakdown and replacement of a 15-kilovolt breaker in each turbine, among other problems. The turbines ran well from November 2013 through April 2014 when the nosecone on the south turbine fell off.
Hompe said turbine supplier DeWind Company of Round Rock, Texas, has a finished nosecone ready to ship along with parts and crew to install it within the next couple of weeks.
After the three-year extended warranty with DeWind expires in September, Hompe said, the utility’s four trained technicians will inspect the turbines more frequently than did DeWind technicians to see and address things before they become operational issues such as the nosecone problem.
If the inspection and repair expertise exceeds the training of utility technicians, the utility will have contracts with vendors and specialty companies to handle those areas, he said.
Commission President Steve Salzer asked how many turbines DeWind has in the United States. Hompe said over 50 units in the United States and 20 in Canada.
Gimse asked how much the utility is paying on bonds that financed the $10 million project. Finance Director Tim Hunstad said principal and interest payments amount to $700,000 to $800,000 a year. Payments began in 2012 and will end in 2025.
Gimse praised the report and said it answered a significant number of his questions. But he questioned a sentence that said the turbines have performed as projected and he asked what is actually happening with the turbines, what are the turbines producing and what is the actual cost.
“In reality, are these wind turbines a good deal for the ratepayers of the city of Willmar?’’ he asked.
Hompe said the utility will take more control of maintenance rather than DeWind now that the warranty will expire.
“Now it’s our baby. We expect to get better, a lot better,’’ he said.
Hompe said he agreed with and appreciated Gimse’s frustration. Hompe said he’s asked the same questions. Hompe said the utility was depending on DeWind to perform, but it didn’t happen as expected. He expects the utility’s performance on maintenance and repairs will be a whole lot more timely.
“Once we begin to take over and get a better control of it ourselves, because we’re going to be fully in charge, I do feel we’re going to do a lot better on that,’’ he said. “And maybe something as simple as periodic oil testing on the gearbox will keep a failure from happening. But we still would need a $200,000 overhaul on that. Maybe we just reduce our risk on those types of things.’’
Hompe referred to a pie chart that showed the turbines provide 1.9 percent of the city’s energy needs at an annual cost of $800,000. Great River Energy provides 71.8 percent at an annual cost of $8.8 million; Wisconsin nuclear power provides 6.2 percent at about $4 million; Western Area Power Administration provides 11.5 percent at $1 million; and Willmar’s power facilities of 8.6 percent at $1.5 million.
“It is important. There’s no question. But how it affects all the rest of the bottom line is not as much as how it affects our skyline,’’ he said.
Commissioner Jeff Nagel asked how often the utility contacts DeWind to speed them along on the nosecone repair.
Hompe said Power Production Supervisor Jon Folkedahl calls them daily, sometimes more than once a day, and they don’t always answer his phone calls. Hompe said DeWind is not as responsive as the utility’s people would be.
Hompe said the loose nosecone would have been tightened up on a periodic visit.
“It never should have gotten to the point where it actually came off,’’ he said.