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Willmar, Minn., wind turbines viewed from Kandiyohi County Road 90. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

Willmar, Minn., wind turbines have best year ever

WILLMAR, Minn. — More often than not in 2015, when someone looked up at the Willmar wind turbines, they found them spinning.

“I am pleased to report we did record the highest production total so far since the turbines have been in production,” said Jon Folkedahl, Willmar Municipal Utilities director of electric production.

The turbines produced 8,345,335 kilowatt-hours of power last year, enough to power 858 average Minnesota homes for a year, based on numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The turbines produced about 3 percent of Willmar’s power needs.

The total turbine production in 2014 was 7,710,476 kwh.

Folkedahl credits Willmar Municipal Utilities’ total control of the operation and maintenance of the wind turbines for the increase in production. Seven employees are trained to climb the turbines and complete regular maintenance, including keeping an eye out for oil leaks, which can be a problem.

“Those guys have been excellent. They’re able to replace sensors and electric parts,” Folkedahl said.

Before Willmar took control in August 2014, Willmar Municipal Utilities had to rely on original turbine supplier DeWind Company of Texas for service and repairs.

“They really didn’t do a good job being timely,” Folkedahl said.

This would lead to weeks of downtime. With local control, parts can be overnighted and local utilities staff can be up the turbine the next day.

“We’re back to business in a few days instead of a few weeks,” Folkedahl said.

There was minimal downtime for the turbines in 2015, from events including regular maintenance. When workers are on the turbines, the blades are shut down.

“We do have to shut down from time to time,” Folkedahl said.

A major disruption did not take place until December, when turbine number 4 had a hydraulic oil issue. Renew Energy Maintenance of South Dakota was brought in to replace the hydraulic oil, which required a specialized pump to bring the oil down to ground level. Each turbine has 375 gallons of oil.

“It is very common to constantly maintain wind turbines. Wind turbines are a little finicky,” Folkedahl said.

However, Folkedahl said Willmar’s turbines are in good working order and are still top of the line.

Production does not rely only on the turbines availability.

“It all depends on how much wind there is. It goes up and down year to year,” Folkedahl said.

According to a wind study of Willmar before the turbines were installed, the city experiences wind speeds around 26 to 30 mph, around 30 percent of the time, reported the Tribune in August 2008. At that speed the turbines can produce up to 2 megawatts each.

The DeWind turbines can generate power with wind blowing up to 55 mph. So far the city hasn’t reached that threshold. The towers are manufactured to withstand wind speeds up to 130 mph, which can be the sustained wind speeds of a F-2 tornado.

The turbines were installed in 2009, to help Willmar meet the Minnesota Renewable Energy Standard, which required utilities to produce 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025. Since then Willmar Municipal Utilities has learned it is not required to meet those standards, at least at this time, Folkedahl said. Willmar Municipal Utilities is an independent utility, not part of any larger utility group. Currently, the energy standard does not apply to these types of utility producers.

That does not mean the city has completely turned its back on renewable programs.

“We do want to do the right thing. We do want to welcome renewables,” Folkedahl said.

There are no other renewable energy projects on the schedule for Willmar Municipal Utilities right now, but the utility is open to potential renewable projects, and if the right one comes along, the utility would not be against it, Folkedahl said.

The hope is that 2016 will be just as productive for the turbines as 2015. The year started out slow, with turbine 4 still down with its oil issue in January and the two turbines only producing 375,325 kwh.

However, the duo bounced back in Feburary, producing 779,191 kwh, up from February 2015. If production stays steady, Willmar Municipal Utilities will be able to make up the ground it lost in January.

“March is looking good so far,” Folkedahl said.