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There's energy in them thar hills

A ridge in southern Somerset County passes muster as the first spot where wind will be turned into electricity for Pennsylvania power customers

Sunday, April 02, 2000

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GARRETT -- Wednesday, they couldn't build windmills on the hilltops just outside town.

It was too windy.

Laborer John Porter helps steady a windmill blade that was hoisted into place last week near Garrett, Somerset County. Ultimately, there will be eight windmills generating electricity on the site. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

That's good, sort of.

Sure, it tightened construction schedules a trifle. But consider it nature's personal endorsement that this southern Somerset County ridge passes muster as the first spot where wind will be turned into electricity for Pennsylvania power customers.

According to plan, that electricity is just a month away from flowing.

Last week, the first of eight 10-story-high windmills went up. Then, up went the second. A week from tomorrow, all eight are to be ready.

Then, on May 1, developers expect to throw the switch that sends 10.4 megawatts into the power grid, enough to light 2,500 homes, just about all the dwellings in Bellevue.

Expect, the company buying that electricity for resale to Pennsylvania power users, to seize that opportunity for wooing would-be customers. GreenMountain says the $10 million wind farm is a way to produce power without booting the environment around, that a similar-size coal-powered generating station would exhale 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually.

That's fuzzy and warm environmentally. But for now, the public -- from townspeople to a steady trickle of rubberneckers driving through -- is a lot more wowed at just seeing 200-foot-high towers growing in the fields where farmer Don Decker grows grain.

"Pretty darn big, don't you think?" one passerby asked as he pushed himself out of his pickup truck, swinging a camera.

"The whole thing's going to be spectacular," said Debbie Sarver, who gets the out-of-town curious stopping past her business, Bogey Breakers Golf Shop, hunting directions. "They're enormous."

Enormous covers it.

They are shiny and white, these windmills. They are thin.

Their hearts, brains and muscle are 70-ton turbines, called nacelles, big enough to carry a Queen Mary-size sport utility vehicle. There are three windmill blades -- each a 95-foot-long butter knife. And all this heavy machinery is 55 yards in the air, atop a single steel tube 14 feet in diameter, no more than four times the size of a hearty oak tree.

There is a line of full-grown trees behind Decker's barn and silos beside it. Utility lines run through his field. None of them reach knee-high to these windmills.

This is only the second wind farm in the eastern half of the nation; the first was in downstate Vermont, where is based.

But the Somerset County wind farm is easily the most powerful -- although waiting to be eclipsed by a New York project.

On this morning, workers are getting a demonstration of just why these windmills are here.

Just over the hill, in Garrett, population 520, the thermometer on the local bank says it's 38 degrees. But on the hilltop, a mix of farmland and reclaimed strip mine under a thin carpet of snow, an unending blast of wind turns 38-or-so into face-numbing cold.

"Count in the wind chill," said crane operator Don Kelly, a local resident. "It's got to be zero."

This ridge is 2,300 to 2,460 feet above sea level -- just nine miles northeast and 800 feet lower than Mt. Davis, the southern Somerset County summit that is the highest point in the commonwealth.

Richard Curry, a suburban Washington, D.C. consultant, drove the back roads of southwest Pennsylvania before finding this hilltop for American National Wind Power Inc., the company that owns the wind farm and will sell the electricity to GreenMountain. By Curry's reckoning, annual winds on the hilltop will average 15-to-16 mph, well above the 8-to-10 mph experts estimated the wind farm will need to produce income.

So, the wind gods smiled on the project.

The commerce gods weren't so pleasant.

"It started with a storm in the Atlantic," said B.C. Lees, whose California-based BCL & Associates Inc. is overseeing construction for Nordex GmbH, the Danish and German manufacturer of the wind turbines. "That delayed the shipments that were coming by boat."

When the shipments made land at the Port of Philadelphia two weeks ago, things didn't quicken.

Some of the gear was too big for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and had to wheel over a patchwork of routes that ran halfway up the state. The rest could travel the toll road -- at a crawl.

Philadelphia-to-Garrett is a five-hour drive in the family station wagon. "It's taking the trucks about 21/2 days to get here," Lees said, moments before a rig bearing a single nacelle on an 80-foot trailer climbed the final hill to the wind farm at all of 6 mph.

"It's a matter of getting the material here," Lees said.

And then, it's a matter of making it into windmills.

The 200-foot-high base, a steel tube, comes in two pieces.

Kelly, operating a 130-foot crane, lifts the 60-ton bottom onto a concrete pad, where it's bolted down.

Then comes Mike Hepler of Vandergrift, guiding a 230-foot crane and lifting the the 40-ton top half into place. It's married to the bottom with inverted flanges and 120 bolts.

Finally, come the blades.

And it's all done delicately, given that these are towering cranes, toting parts the weight of three tri-axle dump trucks.

Hepler -- a veteran of bridge-building on the Mon Valley Expressway and "one of the best I've seen," according to Lees -- is guided by workers inside the windmill, issuing directions via cellular phone.

"He can move something just an inch one way or the other," Lees said.

"Less than an inch," Hepler said.

When the work is done, the windmills will be strung out in a swath about 11/2 long, each a million dollar machine that GreenMountain Senior Energy Analyst Brain Killkelly said will quietly swoosh wind around at about a maximum 17 rpm.

For Lees -- veteran of about 1,000 windmill raisings -- it will be a world of difference from about 15 years ago, when state of the art for pioneering western wind farmers were turbines that spun five times faster, yet produced only about 5 percent as much power and had to be clustered by the score to get worthwhile output.

"You'd see all these windmills -- some spinning clockwise, some counter-clockwise," he said. "It raised your anxiety level just to look at them."

They didn't do much for birds, either. The spinning blades could fell dozens at a time -- something Killkelley said the Somerset array won't do, in part because they're slower and clustered in smaller numbers.

"I can't speak specifically to the Pennsylvania project, but our judgment is that, over time, the wind industry has taken steps to minimize problems," National Audubon Society spokesman Perry Plumart said.

The new windmills aren't just stronger and maybe a little kinder, they're smarter.

The wind farm will have a caretaker, but not somebody who has to stay around and tend the farm. Lees said that if computers in the turbines sense a problem, they'll simply ring up the caretaker.

"He can be shopping at the local Wal-Mart," Lees said, "and he'll get a call on his cell phone."

If all this is windmill stuff is new to Somerset County, all this Somerset County stuff is new to Lees.

Around Garrett, folks have accepted the project -- acceptance that's turning now to excitement, Borough Secretary Evelyn Lindeman said. Sarver, the golf shop co-owner, said the wind farm is on its way to becoming a full-blown tourist draw.

"We're not used to this kind of treatment in California," Lees said. "California has more lawyers than anywhere in the country. It's a push and a shove to get anything through. Here, we get real good cooperation from the people, from the all the contractors. This is still a county where you can do business on a handshake."

There could be more handshakes to come.

Wind generation developers have made the rounds across the Somerset County area, scouting more wind farm sites. Killkelley said GreenMountain representatives are still scoping out new places -- although he won't say where.

Lees has heard tell of one weather-testing station set up near the Fayette-Somerset county line.


He doesn't know.

"These people are secretive," he said. "Like prospectors."

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