Newly Installed Wind Turbines Idled by Minnesota Winter

Cold weather blamed for failure of windmills to work properly

By Tad Vezner

Updated: 01/23/2010 09:56:40 PM CST

More windmill generator problems, failure in cold temperatures as grease and oil thicken, and ice builds up. Who’da thunk?  

Last year, about a dozen Minnesota communities dreamed of clean, green energy: spinning windmills powering hundreds of homes. Now, months after the deadline, the windmills stand largely immobile, and communities are still waiting for the power to flow.

Eleven cities, including North St. Paul and Anoka, are participating in the wind turbine project, each getting a 115-foot windmill via the Minnesota Municipal Power Association, or MMPA.

The turbines were to be fully operational by Nov. 7. To date, the number is zero.

One reason offered this week at a North St. Paul City Council meeting: hydraulic fluid and lubricating oil in the turbines' gear boxes. In cold weather, the fluid turns gel-like and doesn't flow, said Derick Dahlen, president of Avant Energy, which manages the MMPA. That can be particularly problematic if the turbines are already at a standstill.

To fix the problem, a contractor installed heating elements this week in the turbines. In addition, heat tracing is likely to be added to the hydraulic lines and lubrication oil system.

But that might not be enough, said Dahlen, who blames his engineering and construction contractor for the delay.

"I think they should absolutely have known about the cold weather issue, but I think the problems go deeper with that. It's a contributing factor, it's not a causal factor," Dahlen said. "The root problem is that the contractor is not solving any problems. ... The weather warms up, and they still don't run."

The units are not set up correctly," he added. "(The contractor denies) that there's a problem."

Lisa Lutz, in-house council for Henkles & McCoy Inc., replied: "We were just made aware of the situation in headquarters (in Pennsylvania) today. We are investigating this matter. Henkles & McCoy is a family-owned business that has been in business for 86 years, and stands behind its work."

In the meantime, residents driving past the turbines wonder why they aren't running.

"Who's the idiot that didn't realize that a California whirligig is something that doesn't work in Minnesota?" asked John Schmahl, a 35-year North St. Paul resident and frequent gadfly at city meetings. "I have never seen it turn. Not once."

Schmahl refers to the fact that the windmills were bought from Escondido, Calif.-based, enXco, a subsidiary of the French company EDF Energies Nouvelles, and have never operated under such cold conditions.

North St. Paul City Manager Wally Wysopal said yes, the city's windmill has turned and even put some power on the grid.

But Dahlen admits: "This is the farthest north they (the windmills) have been. So we expect to have some amount of issue with cold weather operation ... and we expect to solve it, too. The problems are all solvable problems."

Dahlen said the turbines had been refurbished, because the MMPA could not afford new units, but have a history of running well.

Wysopal said he's disappointed by the delay.

"We're feeling that we just expected it to be going as soon as it went up, but apparently that's not feasible sometimes," he said. "We see it as a contractor issue; an issue between the contractor and (MMPA). ... For now, we're going to accept that."

The windmills each cost about $417,000 and have been erected in Anoka, Arlington, Brownton, Buffalo, Chaska, East Grand Forks, Le Sueur, North St. Paul, Olivia, Shakopee and Winthrop, as well as at the MMPA's energy park in Faribault. To fund the project, MMPA sold $5 million in zero-interest bonds.

Under the program, the cities buy energy from MMPA, their primary energy provider.

The turbines were installed to meet a state law requiring energy producers to provide 25 percent of output from renewable sources by 2025. The delay in getting the windmills online has not affected the supply, because other energy sources were already in place.

The 160-kilowatt turbines are much smaller than some modern turbines elsewhere in the state. For example, the turbines at Xcel Energy's Grand Meadow Wind Farm, near Rochester, stand nearly 40 stories tall, and generate 1.5 megawatts. They work in temperatures down to 20 below, Xcel officials said.