Part II - Visit to a Small Wind Farm
By Frank Young
In Part I of "Wind Power" in the August-September Voice, Frank describes the meeting with the representatives of Atlantic Renewable Energy Company whose intent is to erect a number of large wind turbines (between 60 and 90) along the ridge of Backbone Mountain in Tucker County.
When I learned in late spring that an 8 turbine wind farm was operating in nearby Pennsylvania and was supplying wind generated electricity to the interstate electric power grid I was intrigued.
When I learned a week or so later that a larger wind power project was on the drawing board for Tucker County, West Virginia I decided to go see the Pennsylvania facility. In the meantime, the Tucker County proposal's developers, Atlantic Renewable Energy Co. (ARE) invited some of us within West Virginia environmental organizations to a meeting about their wind power project.
For my wife, Becky, and me finding and getting to the 8 turbine wind farm in Garret, a small town in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, was not difficult. That wind power facility is a mile or less off U.S. Rt. 219, about 10 miles north of Interstate Rt. 68 from the Grantsville, Maryland exit.
Heading north on Rt. 219, coming around a bend just outside Garret, the Green Mountain Wind Farm looms almost intrusively to the motoristís immediate left. Upon seeing the large towers and turbines, I pulled to the roadside for a better look. To gawk, as it were.
My first thought about the 30 story high machines I was looking at was "awesome"!
My next thought was "Imposing"! The turning blades, 90 feet long, three on each turbine hub, were an impressive sight, indeed. They were so large as to look like giant, unstoppable fans.
But two of the eight turbines and blades were not turning. For whatever reason, they were "parked". When these three bladed monsters are parked, two blades are at 10:00 and 2:00 o'clock, respectively, and the third blade is at 6:00 o'clock- straight down. Now this is a personal observation; but to me those parked blades looked eerily like the face of a dead elephant, its ears up a little, but its limp trunk just hanging there. Very "sad" looking, these two "dead" wind turbines.
We were still almost a mile from the formerly surface mined mountain atop which these windmill towers were perched. We decided to try to get a closer look.
A Closer Look:
We drove on into town and out a street that appeared to be leading in the direction of the towers. The further we drove the larger loomed these "monsters". Soon we saw some signs that said "Green Mountain Wind Farm," with arrows pointing head. A smooth but narrow blacktop road lead up to several mountain homes and then, all of a sudden, there they were!
A smaller blacktop road to the left lead right up into the middle of mountaintop hay and pasture fields in which were located these eight really giant tower and blade assemblies. A large dwelling house sat among the wind towers. We were now less than a quarter mile from some of these wind turbines. Gates across service roads leading up to the towers were closed, with "No Trespassing" signs posted. The eight towers and turbines were arranged in a random pattern over an area of 50 to 100 acres. Hay and pasture grass grew up to the concrete pads around the towers.
We spent more than two hours there. We took pictures. We tried to walk closer. We stood in the rain and tried to listen for sound from these wind power generators.
We could see lettering on each large generator-transmission assembly housing atop the towers. It said "NORDEX".
The weather was windy, rainy and cold. This on July 15th. The elevation here was only about 2300 feet, though. Somehow, this mountain gap has a high wind velocity. It was a good place to find a brisk wind. Mt. Davis, a few miles to the west, is Pennsylvania's highest point.
No power lines leading from the tower sites were visible. We later learned that underground lines ran to a local power co-op substation about a half mile away.
As long as the light rain fell, we could not hear any turbine or blade noise. The rain masked their sounds. After the rain totally stopped we could hear some turbine blade noise. It was a faint but noticeable "swosh - swosh - swosh" sound, with the "swooshes" at about one second intervals. Becky said it sounded like a washing machine on wash cycle from about two rooms away. Too, a background "buzzing" or slight "grinding" noise was barely audible- a sound somewhat like one can sometimes hear from a tube-type fluorescent light. I suspected that the "swoosh" noise was from the wind blowing across the turning blades and the "buzzing grind" was from the 6-ton transmission-generator unit atop each tower. The sound was not as intrusive as the visual appearance.
The sounds from these assemblies disappeared (were masked) when we talked, when the rain started again or when a car drove by. But we were about 500 to 1000 feet away from the closest tower-turbine unit. I suspected that if one were trying to sleep in a tent nearer the tower the noise would maybe have been bothersome.
The tower and blade assemblies together reach the length of a football field in a vertical dimension. The towers are cylindrical and have a diameter of about 15 feet at the bottom. There are no outside ladders on the towers; they are perfectly round from bottom to top. Access to the generator units on top is by ladders on the inside of the supporting towers.
Three of the eight towers had a flashing white strobe light on top. It was not quite dark when we left. I presume that after dark the white flashing lights were replaced by red flashing lights.
The looming, intrusive appearance of these machines was probably accentuated by the treeless, grassy fields which surrounded them. I tried to visualize how they would look surrounded by a forest. They would still be looming, I think.
I donít know of any forests in the eastern United States nearly approaching 100 yards in height.
Initially, my shock at the size of these machines was shaking. As I spent more time there I tried to decide if I could ever get over the intrusive feeling about them. I decided that I could, after enough time and exposure to them. But even now, almost two weeks later, Becky still says, "They looked like something thatís not supposed to be there." She admits that she feels the same way about the several Ohio Valley power plant smokestacks we can see from a hilltop above Ripley.
We counted the blade speed in revolutions per minute (RPM). Some turned at about 13 RPM. The fastest was about 20 RPM. Blade speed slowed when the wind slowed. It speeded up when the wind speed increased. But no matter how hard the wind blew, blade speed did not exceed about 20 RPM.
Earlier in the day we had been told by a company representative that at winds speeds above about thirty miles per hour the blades gradually turn their narrow edges, instead of their broadsides, to the wind to maintain an even 20 RPM. We were also told that at wind speeds above about 56 miles per hour the blade and turbine brakes are applied and the unit totally stops and "parks" until the wind speed drops to below 56 miles per hour. This park operation is to prevent damage to the blades and transmission-generator units due to high winds and high RPMs.
Other Observations and Feelings:
A company representative had told us earlier in the day that "Aesthetics is a subjective judgment." I think this is probably true.
But my initial feelings about the imposing and intrusive nature of these mountaintop machines still sticks in my psyche. I could probably get over that feeling.
I felt the same way when I first saw a 1960's era coal fired power-generating plant cooling tower and smokestack. I mostly got over that.
And I felt the same way when I first saw, from the valley floor of Cabin Creek, a drag line operating atop a surrounding mountain. I havenít gotten over that yet.
We talked with a few people in the small town of Garret, under the mountain that supports the wind power plants. After only about 2 months of exposure to the machines, they seemed to already be taking them for granted. They said that they really arenít a topic of conversation around town anymore, except for when visitors, like us, ask about them.
As we left the town of Garret we stopped near our first "stop and gawk" point for another look and a couple more pictures. We could see plainly only five of the wind power machines from this point. Then we saw a sixth. It was an ominous looking spinning blade, looping up over the horizon at about one second intervals. It was eerie. We could not see the supporting tower- only about 20 or 30 feet of a giant blade, looping - looping - looping - looping - looping up from the horizon. It was awesome, sort of scary, to be at a location where we could see only the turning blades but not the supporting tower, spinning, looping above the horizon. It reminded me of the first few scenes in Bob Gatesí film "In Memory of Lands and People." The part where the top of the giant strip mining shovel, called "The Gem of Egypt", moves into and out of view and then back into view along Interstate 70 in Ohio. Of course, Gatesí sound effects were not available at Garret, PA that July 15th. But the eerie feeling from seeing that giant looping blade swing - swing - swing - swing over the horizon is still with me.
Iím still trying to sort out what I feel about the prospect of 60 to 90 of these giant wind power machines spread along 7 miles of Backbone Mountain.
On one hand, I feel a need to see "us" change from coal fired electrical production to something less polluting and less consuming of finite resources.
On the other hand, by going down the road of perhaps more benign but still somewhat problematic "wind farms" along scenic ridges, I wonder if we are maybe overlooking or otherwise bypassing even more benign and attractive power sources Ė or if we even need to change how we live to not need so much energy.
We can all think about this some more. Maybe wind power is a suitable "interim" power source to get us across the literal rivers of pollution until we develop technologies for the "perfect" power source; or the "perfect" lifestyle that doesnít require massive amounts of man-made power.