Urban wind farm helps revitalise the rust belt

Paul Boughton

Steel Winds Wind Farm takes up a 30-acre portion of the old Bethlehem Steel mill, located along the shores of Lake Erie in Lackawanna, NY, USA.

Steel Winds marks many firsts. It is the first urban wind farm in the country, the first to go up on a former industrial site, the first wind farm on the American great lakes and the first commercial deployment of Clipper Windpower’s 2.5 MW Liberty series wind turbines. Eight of these turbines (a total of 20 MW) are now feeding electricity to the grid, enough for over 6000 homes.

“Where Bethlehem Steel once supported an earlier industrial revolution, today the Steel Winds project is bringing new jobs and clean energy technology to the Lake Erie region,” says Paul Gaynor, President and CEO of UPC Wind, co-developer of the project. “We are pleased to be operating at full capacity and introducing this newest generation of wind turbines to the market.”

These turbines feature several innovative features. It includes, for example, a compact two-stage helical designed to reduce loads, minimise the likelihood of damage and increase gearbox lifespan. It accomplishes this by using multiple generators and a multiple path, distributed gearbox. These generators split the load by a factor of 16 – four times greater than in commercially available gearboxes. If one generator goes off line, the other three continue. To ease maintenance demands, a single 650 kW generator can be removed and lowered to the ground by an onboard crane. Further, high-speed gear sets can be replaced without removal of the gearbox.

While gearboxes in comparable turbines weigh 50 to 70 tons, the Clipper model weighs 36 tons. In addition, designers made several upgrades to variable speed technology. The turbine makes use of advanced feedback controls to optimise the blade pitch to reduce drive train loads and improve energy capture. A two-metric ton service crane installed in the Liberty reduces repair time and the costs normally caused by depending on a third-party crane.

The Clipper 2.5 MW Liberty wind turbine is the first wind turbine to utilise a patented, distributed powertrain and four permanent magnet generators to mitigate loads to components found in many of today's multi-megawatt wind turbine designs.  Manufactured in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it is among the largest land-based wind turbines in the world, and the largest wind turbine manufactured in North America.

“We are delighted that our first production Liberty machines will bring to the local area a meaningful contribution toward the beautification, revitalisation and economic development of this brownfield site,” said James G P Dehlsen, Chairman and CEO of Clipper Windpower.  “Steel Winds is an exemplary project, and certainly a tribute to the local communities that recognised the benefits early on and enthusiastically supported the effort.  We look forward to our continued role in this milestone project.”

BQ Energy, co-developer of the project, selected the Clipper Liberty turbine after looking at models from many different manufacturers.

“Most turbine manufacturers push their best-selling models, but these are based on technology which is now several years old,” says Paul Curran, managing director of BQ Energy, co-developer of the project. “The Clipper Liberty turbine is based on the latest technology and we really liked the fact that it the company is really focused on operational reliability.” 

The green industry has gained so much impetus that it has almost become an established part of the mainstream. But the Steel Winds project may be evidence that brown has emerged as the new green. 

Steel Winds has returned the Bethlehem Steel facility to productive use under the New York Department of Environmental Conservation Brownfield Cleanup Program. The EPA defines brownfields as being property which has problems in expansion, reuse or redevelopment due to the presence of hazardous substance, pollutants or contaminants.

The EPA estimates that there are 450 000 brownfields in the US. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilises existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped open land and improves as well as protects the environment.

BQ Energy has embraced this brownfields concept as part of its business model. It was founded by Curran to harness the advantage of recent advances in wind technology and the community goal of redeveloping brownfields and creating jobs. It particularly focuses on oil refinery, steel mills, and similar brownfield sites with heavy industry.

Curran first fell in love with the idea during his time with Texaco in Europe. A 23 MW wind farm was opened inside an oil refinery in Rotterdam. This inspired him to form his own company.
“We have several projects in development at oil refineries and steel mills,” says Curran. “Some are at active sites so they might use the wind turbines to generate their own energy.”

He became interested in the old Bethlehem Steel site during a visit to Buffalo to look at a couple of oil refineries that had been closed down. When he saw the famous steel mill site, however, he realised it was a far superior site with excellent wind resource potential.

At its peak, Bethlehem Steel employed over 20 000 people. But it suffered badly from the availability of cheap steel and shrunk steadily starting in the seventies. It filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and was acquired by a steel company named ArcelorMittal in 2005. Today, ArcelorMittal employs 250 people who are engaged in steel finishing.

This history meant that much of the plants assets were still operational. It has a railroad running through it, a major port on the site capable of docking several ocean going vessels, major transmission lines and buildings available to be used for control rooms and offices. With good roads already present, it was easy to bring large cranes and heavy equipment onsite - wind farms in rural areas typically have to construct their own road networks. Further, the substations was rated fro 80 MW yet was only using 3 MW. With a few minor modifications to bring it up to current code, the substation was ready to export power to the grid.

“By renovating these assets we were able to cut our costs significantly,” says Curran. “Choosing a brownfield site makes a big difference when you need to approach the community for a permit.”

While permitting was perhaps easier at this site than in the typical hilltop location, it was far from a pushover. As the community had no experience with wind farms anywhere in the vicinity, they were initially cautious.

Lots of discussion ensued to allay fears about noise and environmental factors. The developers encouraged the locals to go to another wind farm in upstate New York. Many did. Once they saw that wind farm, they got behind the project.

“It is a beautiful site in sharp contrast to the steel mill backdrop,” says Curran.

Development at Steel Winds was also materially helped by brownfields tax credits issued by the State of New York.

“It can be difficult to attract investors to polluted sites,” says Curran. “The state's program indemnifies you from any pre-existing condition of the site.” 

Development Partnership
While Curran paved the way for the project by finding the site, arranging the brownfield grants, negotiating the lease and accelerating the permitting, he turned to UPC as co-developer to harness its wind farm construction expertise.

“Teaming up with UPC was critical as they managed the construction side with a new technology and made the project gel,” says Curran. “With a new kind of turbine to erect, it is vital to partner with a company with lots of experience with other turbines.” 

Like BQ Energy, Gaynor of UPC was a fan of the Clipper Liberty turbine. In fact, he plans to use that same turbine in further wind farms the company is developing in Utah and New York. The company has ordered 150 turbines from Clipper.

Gaynor relates that with it being such a tight site, the developers wanted the biggest turbine with the highest yield. To produce 20 MW, it was a lot easier to place eight Clipper 2.5 MW machines rather than 12 Vestas V82’s (1.65 MW) or 13 GE 1.5 MW turbines.

“The ability to get 20 MW in a small site really made Clipper the economic winner,” says Gaynor. “You get an extra MW from the Liberty in comparison to the GE 1.5 for not much incremental real estate. Since we installed the Clipper turbines, they have been performing well and showing high levels of availability.” 

Construction, however, was not without its challenges. Being on a former industrial site, it was important to keep foundation placement away from areas of known contamination.
As a result, UPC conducted more pre-siting work than usual to verify the best turbine locations.

Once construction began, rigorous environmental protocols had to be followed with regard to any potential brownfield material. Fortunately, the developers did not have to move any towers. But Gaynor’s team discovered a small amount of material in one foundation area that had to be handled it a specific way to comply with regulations.

The construction period itself stretched out from October through March, mainly due to the high winter winds from Lake Erie. That complicated turbine erection. In addition, UPC learned some valuable lessons specific to the Clipper machines. These turbines have four major parts which are assembled on site - the baseplate, gearing/genset and two parts for the roof assembly. Initially, assembly was attempted at hub height. This required four picks from a crane and involved some fancy footwork eighty meters in the air during windy conditions. 

“We realised that Liberty turbine assembly should be done on the ground so that you only need one crane pick to mount it on the tower,” says Gaynor.

Going forward, the project will be operated by UPC Wind, with turbine operation and maintenance services provided by Clipper Windpower for the first five years.

As well as the power Steel Winds will bring to over 6000 western New York homes, the new wind farm has brought jobs to the area. But more importantly, it has helped to revitalise a region that has suffered many decades of decay since heavy industry moved out in the seventies and eighties.  

Like his father before him, Lackawanna mayor Norman Polanski once worked at Bethlehem Steel - as a pipe fitter. He never thought the time would come when he would lose that job, but that eventually happened to him along with work for most of the town. The situation grew steadily worse and quite recently Lackawanna’s biggest tax paying business left the area.

That's all changed now as the sleepy town is now basking in the media spotlight. The story of the area's transformation has been covered widely on TV and print, both at home and overseas. That's led to renewed interest in the region and Polanski reports that a dozen new businesses have opened, as well as the first new hotel in over a century.

“Lackawanna was a leader in the industries of the 20th century and now claims a leadership position in this key energy technology of the 21st century,” says Lackawanna mayor Norman Polanski. “We are proud to welcome Steel Winds as a new majestic landmark for our Lake Erie shoreline.”

Drew Robb is with Clipper Windpower Inc, Carpinteria, CA, USA. www.clipperwind.com

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