Jessica R. Wheeler
WASCO – The long-awaited Golden Hills Wind Project in Sherman County is breaking ground this spring, with developers optimistically projecting the first turbines to be commissioned by end of this year.
Avangrid Renewables held a meeting with farmers and landowners Tuesday, April 27, at the Wasco School Events Center. Dozens attended to hear a presentation, meet crew leaders, and ask any final questions before construction begins in earnest.
Brian Walsh, director of business development for Avangrid, said this project has been 20 years in the making and despite the many changes and challenges along the way, developers are excited to be finally breaking ground.
Walsh said crews currently are finishing with surveying the sites and staging equipment. They will begin cutting turbine access roads in a few weeks.
The Golden Hills development is a 200-megawatt project consisting of 51 wind turbines. The turbines slated for Golden Hills will be a bit different from those installed in nearby wind farms such as Hay Canyon and Klondike. For one thing, the output has increased dramatically with the newer turbines, from 1.5 or 2 megawatts to as much as 4.2 megawatts.
Another key difference is in the size of the towers.
There will be 10 of the GE 116 2.5 megawatt turbines, with a blade diameter of 380 feet. The hub height will be 279 feet, with the total height of the turbine measuring 493 feet from the ground to the tip of the blade in the 12 o’clock position. And there will be 41 of the Vestas V150 4.2 megawatt turbines, with a blade diameter of 492 feet and a hub height of 345 feet. The total height is a whopping 590 feet from the ground to the tip of the blade.
By contrast, the older turbines have blade diameter closer to 250 or 300 feet and a hub height of about 200 or 250 feet.
“These are some of the biggest land-based turbines in the United States,” Walsh said.
Because of the massive size of the new towers, the construction process will be a bit different in terms of how the turbines are assembled and raised.
One issue has been identifying safest routes in and out of the wind tower corridors. Developers plan to cut new temporary and permanent roads through wheat fields and scab lands, but tight corners and steep slopes keep proving to be a challenge.
Walsh said the crane needed to raise the towers must travel on relatively stable and level ground, unlike farm equipment, which handles the slopes and grades of the rolling hills of wheat country fairly well.
A great deal of time and effort has been put into mapping out the best routes for transporting the turbine blades — blades that will be much larger than those that have passed through the county in the past. The Vestas blades are nearly 245 feet in length and weigh 70 metric tons.
“Access roads must be large enough to accommodate such large turbines,” Walsh said. “(Our contractors are) finding ingenious ways to get the turbines to the sites.”
Some farmers at the meeting expressed concerns about truck traffic and congestion during the height of summer, with wheat harvest kicking off in July. Walsh said the crews are aware of the farming schedule and will be doing their best to alleviate any conflicts between farm equipment and construction equipment.
Others voiced concern about fire danger in summer, especially pre-harvest when the dry wheat can be two feet tall. Among the concerns are vehicles and construction equipment driving through or parking in unharvested wheat, not only for crop loss, but for fire risk.
Walsh said site managers will be especially vigilant about the risk of fire, with designated smoking areas for crews and strict guidelines for vehicle use on and around dry grass. Crews will also have blades and sprayers on site in the event a spark does lead to fire.
Farmers are prepared not only for land disturbance and crop loss due to construction during harvest, but also during seeding in September and October. Freshly seeded wheat ground can be easily torn up by large machinery moving turbines to the site. A plan is already in place to compensate farmers for crop loss as a result of construction, Walsh said.
One farmer was worried about the temporary roads. He pointed out that compaction in the soil from a temporary road isn’t something that will recover in a year, and that crop loss in that area may continue for years to come.
Walsh briefly touched on the Golden Hills project map, noting that the northern end of the project does still include certain corridors approved for turbines, although no towers are planned there as of yet. This is due to the extreme electrical output of the new turbines. The Bonneville Power Administration substation at John Day cannot accommodate any more than is currently promised by the Golden Hills project. That could change if BPA were to upgrade their substation, but for now the project is at capacity.
The Golden Hills project will cover a wide swath of Sherman County land north and northeast of Moro on both sides of Highway 97, ending just southwest of Wasco near Highway 206.
“With our deep roots in Oregon, we’re proud to continue adding clean energy capacity in the Pacific Northwest to serve the needs of our customers and build a clean and connected future,” said Morgan Pitts, communications manager for Avangrid.