Q&A: Turtle Creek Windfarm

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EJ Photo/Travis Charlson

In a back office of a triple wide trailer, Henry Woltag sits in a bare, corner office while a slew of executives from headquarters occupy the conference table in the main room.

The big wigs, who fly in from EDP Renewables in Houston once a month, are talking about project goals, deadlines, and other intricacies related to the Turtle Creek Wind Farm.

Woltag, on the other hand, zooms in on a satellite image of rural St. Ansgar, looking for Sheryl Ehlke’s property.

“Each turbine tells a story, each landowner has a story,” Woltag said.

Woltag began to rattle off some specifications about the new Vestas V-136, a model number for a new type of windmill. He found Ehlke’s property and stopped.

“Right here, turbine number 38,“ Woltag said, pointing at the screen. “That is the first place in America where this [Vestas] model was installed. It’s literally the bleeding edge of turbine technology in the United States.”

As the Development Project Manager for the windmill farm, Woltag has spent countless hours going around and visiting landowners involved with the project.

When construction is complete, Turtle Creek Wind Farm will have an installed capacity of 200 megawatts — enough to power approximately 80,000 average Iowa homes each year.

Hoards of cranes, pickups, and construction workers have descended on Mitchell County and begun erecting these massive white turbines that dot the cornfields.

A fact sheet from EDP Renewables.

There’s seems to be an endless stream of contractors and subcontractors, so the EJ sat down with Woltag to find out some more about the project.

Justin Van Beusekom will oversee the windmills once the construction is complete, and he sat in on the conversation as well.

Here are their remarks, lightly edited for clarity:

What’s EDP’s role in the project?

Woltag: We manage the whole life cycle of the project. So on the front end as a developer, I’m involved the project all the way through the process design phase and into construction.

We have those that are internal tour company — electrical engineers, civil engineers, and we’ve worked with third party engineers to come up with all the designs of the wind farm. We kind of place the turbine locations in house with our energy assessment team and give that to our engineers. They lay out all the roads, underground cables, and we go through multiple iterations of refining that before we get to construction.

Once we’ve got these plans, we do a competitive bid process with major construction companies in the renewables business.

We essentially asked them “here’s our designs that we’ve spent years coming up with, we want you to build these designs to T”, and then we oversee them during construction to build.

After Construction?

W: We are the folks who are here long term, and we want to understand and see firsthand what’s going on during construction.

We want to be a resource to the landowners, so we have our construction personnel working with them so there’s continuity. Because White, you know, at the end of the day, they’re hired to do a job. They have all the specifications that they have to built it to, but they’re going to be gone at the end of construction.

I takes four, five, six sit downs with land owners to educate them, go through the lease, address their concerns, and then sign the lease.

 What’s the life span of these windmills?

W: The oldest project in the company’s fleet is getting close to twenty years old, and those projects are stone age technology compared to what were installing now now. But those are still going strong and generating revenue for us, for the landowners, and we see them continuing their useful life.

As an industry, some of the earliest projects that were built in the late seventies, early eighties on the west coast in California are going through a re-power phase. They’re taking down maybe five hundred, six hundred, thirty to fifty kilowatt turbines and putting up three to five brand new turbines to replace that. So if those projects were built in the eighties are just getting re-powered now, I think that’s an indicator of what we can see as an industry going forward.

What problems have you run into?

W: Setting landowners expectations realistically, and we’ve told them construction isn’t pretty. These people are used to seeing their property a certain way. It’s been in their family for generations, so seeing the crane come through, or seeing us stretching underground cable — they’ve just never seen anything like it.

It’s hard to prepare folks for that. We’ve tried to be as transparent and open ahead of time, letting them know what’s going to happen. But there are concerns people have about tile getting fixed, about material left in the field. We appreciate their patience, and we’ll clean the project up once construction is complete.

Whats your relationship with local businesses?

Justin Van Beusekom: It’s kind of like owning a house. Anything that needs to be done, basically gets contracted out. We do stretch up to Rochester for some electrical work, but a lot of it is local. Weed spraying, plowing, building maintenance, even the cleaning lady that we use, she’s out of the local area. We only turn wrenches inside of the turbines, therefore we have someone come and take care of that other stuff for us.

Even local gas stations, we don’t have a pump on site, we go to the local gas stations and fill our trucks up every day. For lunches, we eat in local communities as much as we can.

Also, we donated money to the local high schools for scholarships, for proms, homecoming, and to Ducks Unlimited and those things as well. We’re trying to be a good neighbor, and fit in to the neighborhood the best we can and help everybody out.

How did you get into the windmill business?

J: I got a degree in management, and that was all it took. But at the time, the industry was so new, and was growing so fast, that we couldn’t find people fast enough. But now it’s picked up.

From a technicians standpoint, there’s several colleges — 10 or 15 in the five state area that offer a wind technician certificate or a wind technician degree. It’s a one to two year program.

Basically, we pull some employees from there, so I think thats a good route to go. I don’t think it takes anything special, like I don’t think you have to know how to work on turbines as much as you’ve just got to be able to be a mechanic.

What’s surprised you most?

W: I’d never stepped foot in Iowa before. I didn’t expect how welcoming some of these land owners would be.

I’d meet folks for the first time and they’d say “What are you doing for supper? Why don’t you come over?”. It’s those folks that I talk with on a regular basis, and I’ll still be in contact with long after this project is built.

And that’s made my job so much more rewarding.

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