Minnesota utility hopes to recoup $250k when wind generators didn’t turn

WILLMAR, Minn. — So you think the extended warranty on that big screen under the tree cost you?

Willmar Municipal Utilities pays $65,000 a year for an extended performance warranty on each of the city’s two troubled wind turbines. That’s  $130,000 per year, or $390,000 during the past three years.

Willmar Municipal Utilities photo

ON HOLD: Plans for two more wind turbines on the drawing board were put on hold partly due to cheaper power available on the grid.

That’s probably a good deal, given the continuing headaches with the wind generators.

“Our concern is to keep them operational, and you’ve seen the difficulties we’ve had in doing that,” said Joe Gimse, a Willmar Municipal Utilities commissioner. I think that’s a concern for all of the commission members and the staff of the municipal utilities — to keep (the turbines) turning and try to make them as efficient and effective as possible.”

The deal the city’s utility made with manufacturer DeWind Co. gives the utility cover if something mechanical goes haywire and stops the turbines from producing power less than 95 percent of the time on those days when the wind is blowing sufficiently.

The utility in September sent an invoice to DeWind for more than $250,000 to cover the past three years’ lost energy and revenue. There’s been no word on the warranty clam from the company,  a subsidiary of the multinational South Korean corporation Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering.

“Most recently, the first one starting acting up in late May, early June,” said Wesley Hompe, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager.  “It took them awhile to actually nail down what was happening because it was really difficult to identify intermittent problems. Once they identified what the problem was, they started working on getting replacement parts on order for that, and then it looked like the second one started doing the same type of thing.  So they were both down for similar reasons at about the same time.”

The parts and technician needed for the latest service call arrived from Germany in November.

The utility pays a $35,000 annual service fee to maintain each unit.

The starts and stutters have been a way of life since Willmar Municipal Utilities installed the $10-million wind turbines in 2009. The super-sized windmills, located next to Willmar Senior High School, provide about 3 percent of the of the west central Minnesota city’s power demand.

Thus far, a 200-pound electrical breaker has failed and oil has leaked from the units. Hydraulic heating blankets, essential for operating in Minnesota’s cold environment, also failed.

“Unfortunately, Willmar’s experience is not unusual,” said Lisa Linowes, who monitors wind energy development for the Industrial Wind Action Group. “There are several stories very similar to this where municipal utilities were sold on the benefits of owning and operating their own wind turbines only to learn after the fact that keeping the turbines running can be a nightmare, even with a warranty plan in place.”

Wind power production increased from 6.6 kilowatt hours in 2010 to 8.3 kilowatt hours in 2012, but operations appear on track to log the lowest electrical output to date in 2013.  The utility’s website states the turbines could produce almost 10 million kilowatt hours annually.

But now, some local officials sense the winds shifting against what started out as a popular renewable energy initiative.

“I do get calls from constituents.  When the windmills aren’t functioning, it’s pretty easy to see they aren’t working,” said Ron Christianson, a Willmar city councilman. “They tend to remind me of government.  Sometimes they work good, sometimes they don’t work at all. “

This is the city’s second warranty claim filed with DeWind, which reimbursed Willmar about $73,000 for lost production in the first year of operation.  DeWind did not respond to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau’s inquiries to its Irvine, Calif., office.

While Willmar Municipal Utilities officials have scrapped plans two other turbines once on the drawing board, they remain committed to the program.

“We’re estimating that it’s got a 20 year lifespan,” said Hompe.  “So essentially the bond that we purchased it under, when that’s paid off is when you get your payback like any other utility item.”

Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]


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