By: Drew Robb
The extension of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) in 2001 fueled the development of the largest new crop of wind farms ever seen in U.S. history. Larger plants such as the 300 MW Stateline project on the Oregon-Washington border and the King Mountain wind farm in Texas (278 MW) received much of the initial attention. Yet 20 GE Wind Energy 1.5 MW turbines that comprise the Fenner Wind Farm have proven to produce not only new clean wind generation for New York State, but also a sea of good will and support for wind development within the state.
“This innovative project reflects our ongoing commitment to protecting and enhancing the quality of our natural environment,” said New York Governor George Pataki, “while ensuring that we’ll have a steady and reliable form of energy we need to keep our economy healthy and strong for years to come.”
The Fenner Wind Farm in rural New York State provides 30 MW of generating capacity.
Fenner, in fact, may provide a model – not just for the wind industry, but for anyone involved in the development of energy resources – on how to encourage local support through thoughtful planning and community involvement. Despite initial concerns over wildlife and visual impact, as well as issues over zoning, siting and electricity contracts, Fenner was built on schedule and, after one year of operation, is well regarded as a positive addition to the culture of this staunchly rural region.
“Community involvement played a major role in the success of this venture,” said Russ Cary, supervisor for the Town of Fenner. “Wind energy is a far better neighbor than just about any other industry we could have imported. As well as supporting the income of family farms, wind helps keep the open space and that supports the kind of lifestyle we prefer.”
The town of Fenner is situated in New York’s Madison County, about 40 miles to the southeast of Syracuse. Its population of 1680 is greatly outnumbered by the number of cows and horses in the vicinity. So when plans were unveiled to build the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi in their backyard, some local farmers and businesspeople voiced concern.
“The scariest thing to most people is the unknown,” said Cary. “GE Wind and project developers Atlantic Renewable Energy and CHI Energy did a great job answering questions, educating the locals and eliminating all the unknowns.”
During early hearings, the developers fielded questions about noise, wildlife and bird migration. Several studies examined these issues, demonstrating little environmental impact, according to Cary. With those hurdles overcome, the main site developer, Atlantic Renewable Energy Corp of Richmond, Va., conducted wind resource assessments with the support of consulting meteorologists at AWS Scientific (Albany, NY). The location was chosen due to wind speeds of about 17 mph (one of the best sites in New York) and its proximity to a 115 kV transmission line.
“Actual turbine locations were selected based on a combination of factors, including the result of a computerized optimization program known as WindFarmer, landowner preferences and local zoning regulations,” said Bill North, a principal at Atlantic Renewable.
North negotiated all the land leases and power line easements with individual farmers – 14 farms house wind turbines and a couple of dozen more became involved due to wiring going over their land. These farmers receive a percentage of power sold, as does the town itself.
“The best way for farmers like myself to look at wind is as another agricultural product,” said Cary. “Wind is like a harvesting machine that produces energy rather than wheat.”
As well as extensive negotiating with farmers, North held an open house and spent a lot of time with the project’s neighbors and the town planning board. On two occasions the board unanimously voted in favor of zoning adjustments to remove obstacles from the path of the developers. They even increased the scope of the project once they understood its value.
“As the development process unfolded, it became clear that we had sufficient support in Fenner for a larger project,” said North. “That enabled us to shift from 12 MW to 30 MW.”
The 1.5 MW GE wind turbines were chosen due to their size, reliability and the support for the grid. According to North, the Fenner planning board preferred the large turbines – with a much smaller overall footprint per MW generated – than a larger number of smaller windmills.
“The GE Wind 1.5 MW turbine is an excellent machine,” said North. “Its variable speed feature yields higher production per unit of swept area, further maximizing the production of the wind farm.” The turbines also have built-in power electronics, enabling the turbines to provide VARs as needed to the grid, rather than acting as a drain on utility resources. This helped tremendously during interconnect negotiations. “Niagara Mohawk clearly likes to see GE’s built-in power control technology in a distributed generator and it certainly helped improve perceived utility system impacts as evaluated by both the utility and the NY ISO during the interconnection analysis,” said North.
Before erecting the turbines, residents wanted to see what kind of visual impact they could expect from the 1.5 MW turbines – the largest turbines assembled in America. They stand 328 feet high (about as tall as a 33-story building) and have 231-foot diameter rotors (longer than the wingspan of a Jumbo jet).
“People were interested in how the turbines would look within their local landscape,” said Mary McCann of GE Wind Energy. “So computer simulated photos were created in advance to show how they would appear in the local setting. The simulation enabled the community to better see and understand just how the turbines blend into the landscape.”
To ensure the accuracy of the simulation process, 300-foot tall fluorescent balloons were erected at various spots throughout the 2000 acres where the 20 turbines were to be built. Images of the turbines could then be superimposed on these photos to give locals an accurate view of how the turbines would appear. Cary kept a copy of a simulation and says it looks exactly like the actual structure.
“It’s critical to show visual simulations of proposed projects at an early juncture in the planning process to give all neighbors realistic expectations,” said North.
Interestingly, the turbines are attracting visitors to the region and the town council is investigating the possibility of some kind of agri-tourism center utilizing the Fenner Wind Farm as its centerpiece.
CHI Energy Inc. (Stamford, Ct.), which came aboard as an equity investor and co-developer of Fenner in 2001, negotiated the interconnection agreement with the local utility Niagara Mohawk. “In contrast to the challenges of interconnecting during the ‘PURPA’ era, Niagara Mohawk showed a completely fresh, cooperative attitude,” said North. “Few problems were encountered in finalizing the 115 kV interconnection.”
The power purchase agreement (PPA), however, was another matter. CHI failed to secure a PPA before commencing construction, but gambled on the strength of demand for green power and pushed on with the project. The company hired M.A. Mortensen (Minneapolis) as the general contractor. They, in turn, subcontracted with local firms such as Rasmussen Excavating (Earlville), Van Dyke Excavating (Fenner) and Hynes & Fuller Construction (Madison).
“Great care was taken to ensure the turbines and their supporting infrastructure made as little impact as possible to farmland or pasture,” said Cary. “Farmland extends right up to the base of just about every one of the 20 GE Wind turbines.”
Merit Electric from Syracuse performed the electrical work, installing 6.6 miles of underground 24.9 kV power collection lines to connect the wind farm to a new substation. This substation steps up the power to 115 kV for connection to the adjacent Niagara Mohawk transmission line.
To ease the financial burden occasioned by the lack of a pre-existing PPA, CHI received a $5 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
“In addition to the tremendous support we’ve received from the community, we’ve also received support and encouragement from NYSERDA and Governor Pataki to offset development costs and make this wind farm a reality,” said Daniel Pease, vice president of operations for CHI Energy.
Soon after the wind farm went on line, CHI began a partnership with green power marketer Community Energy Inc. Under long-term arrangements with CHI and electricity suppliers, Community Energy markets the clean energy produced from Fenner within the local region. Current customers include universities, electric utilities, corporations and government agencies.
“Merchant wind projects are definitely more risky, especially given the nascent state of green power markets,” said North. “However, I am pleased to report that green tag sales from Fenner are increasing steadily.”
With the power from Fenner being successfully marketed within the State of New York, representatives from GE Wind and CHI assisted the town of Fenner in celebrating in October 2002 what was proclaimed by local communities to be “Wind Energy Week.” They also organized a dedication ceremony for the project.
The wind company worked hand-in-hand with three nearby school districts to plan activities, provide briefings for local students, and offer information on wind energy and the local Fenner project.
“Since wind projects have a life of 20 years or more, it is important not only to be a good neighbor, but also to assure that the local community has adequate information on their local wind project,” said McCann. “The Fenner dedication ceremony provided an open forum for local landowners, community members, local government and media to share their experiences and feelings about their new local wind energy project.”
The ceremony featured speakers from the local communities, including landowners and local and state government officials, and NYSERDA, GE Wind Energy, and CHI Energy utilized the opportunity to thank project participants, new power purchasers and the local townships. With a good portion of the local community in attendance, the event was believed to be one of the largest events held in Madison County. One energy industry speaker commented that the only time he remembers seeing a larger gathering at the opening of a power plant was during the sixties during anti-nuclear demonstrations. The celebration even prompted a poem from a local farmer (see sidebar).
Power for the Fenner Wind Farm is provided by 20 GE Wind Energy 1.5 MW turbines.
The town supervisor summed up the reasons behind such overwhelming backup for the project. “Some take a short sighted view and oppose change,” said Cary. “The citizens of Fenner, however, became informed enough that they chose to view the long-term and saw the environmental and economic advantages inherent in wind energy. Producing energy on our own soil is good for the town and good for the nation.”
Blazing a Trail
While the Fenner Wind Farm is a success on its own merits, its ultimate value may yet to be realized. By overcoming the various barriers that stood in its way, and showcasing exactly how local residents and developers can form a partnership to build environmentally friendly sources of energy, it has become a model for New York’s ambitious plans for wind power.
New York State, it turns out, has as much wind energy potential as California – about 5000 MW. Eighteen months ago, Governor Pataki signed an executive order obligating state agencies to purchase 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2005. This figure then increases to 20 percent by 2010.
To assist in accomplishing this goal, NYSERDA is providing an additional $17 million to support the development of five new wind farms throughout upstate New York. The 315 MW these projects produce will generate enough electricity to power about 315,000 homes.
“New York State can potentially develop thousands of megawatts of wind power within our borders and these projects represent a significant step in that direction,” said NYSERDA president William Flynn.
Drew Robb is the president of Robb Editorial, a company specializing in the writing of technical articles in the engineering and high tech fields. He graduated from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, majoring in geology. Over the past five years, he has published more than 100 articles on a variety of engineering and power related subjects.