Last Thursday, I was given the opportunity to join Mayor Kilmartin and borough council member Mark Kosoglow on a tour of the Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm in the Blue Knob area. Our tour of the state’s largest wind farm was guided by Gamesa Energy project developer Josh Framel, Kurt Knaus, who works in media relations for Gamesa, and Portage Water Authority forester Mike Barton.
I thought it would be a good idea to share my experience at the 40 wind mill site with The Daily Herald readers. Not everyone is familiar with what a wind farm actually is, and there’s really no way to gain an understanding of the enormous size of the turbines until you see one. It’s amazing.
As the mayor, Mark and I were traveling up the mountain towards the wind farm, it didn’t take long to begin noticing the wind mills. The mayor pointed out the first one, as Mark and I scrambled to find it in our vision; and once we did, I was kind of embarrassed it took me so long to see it because of its size. As we kept driving, more turbines popped into view. We went up another hill and began to descend down, and there in front of us was a group of four wind mills.
It felt like I was entering another world; it was strangely eerie. It was as if I was in the movie War of the Worlds, but I having the mayor instead of Tom Cruise for protection. It was quite simply an odd feeling. I felt small.
The wind mills are every bit of the 404 feet they measure. Yes, the height is unbelievable, but the three 140 foot blades were what made the turbines stick out. They dominate the skyline.
Before we approached the wind farm entrance, the mayor stopped the vehicle along the road where a few homes and turbines were in sight. We wanted to listen for any noise caused by the wind mills, since that has been a complaint by residents near the farm. It was quite windy on Thursday, but we didn’t hear anything from where we were at. Perhaps we weren’t close enough yet.
We continued up the road another few minutes and we arrived at the main entrance of the wind farm. Our tour guides were there waiting, and as I stepped out of the vehicle I could see wind mills in about every direction. Some close, some afar – all very noticeable.
Josh (Framel) had a rental van that we all piled into. Mike (Barton) unlocked the gate, and our tour began. We traveled down the 60 foot-wide road Gamesa constructed for the 1,000,000 pound crane to get to each turbine site, or footprint as Gamesa calls it.
The road was still wide since it’s still a semi-construction site, but I could tell Gamesa was in the process of bringing it to its finished 10 to 15 foot-wide road. Some of that was done by re-seeding with wildlife seed mix in the initial clearing area, which Gamesa began doing back in October.
As we were driving to our first turbine site, I noticed how wooded the area of the wind farm remained. With a 60 foot-wide road and all the footprints, I was surprised with how the site appeared. I was told by Mike that any area Gamesa disturbs, the company has 20 days to stabilize that area. It’s regulated by DEP, and a local conservation district oversees it.
Gamesa hired Shoener Environmental Consulting Services out of Moscow, PA as the local conservation district. Shoener actually designed the road system we were traveling on. The consultants were on site every day for the first three weeks of the wind farm construction, and still make a non-required visit to watch over the project every Friday.
Soon we pulled into the near one acre footprint of a wind mill site. We got out of the van to see up close this massive structure. Being right underneath the turbine and looking up at it is undoubtedly neck straining.
I was standing on the wind mill’s foundation, which is mostly underground. There was a 100 foot diameter crane pad used temporarily during construction, and a 52 foot diameter, eight foot deep concrete spread foundation that was mainly underground. The actual wind mill was attached to a small, above ground, pedestal.
I was expecting the turbine to be deafening, and there was noise, but it wasn’t as bad being right underneath it that day. There was a constant noise though, like a jet flying overhead. Definitely noticeable, but to me, expected.
Another thing I noticed was the lack of vibration. I’ve heard from people that the structures vibrate, but I placed my hand on the tower and felt nothing besides the chill of touching steel. The foundation I was standing on also didn’t vibrate.
Josh talked to us about how the turbine worked, and how the three carbon-fiber blades transfer some of the energy in the wind to the generator. The blades are connected to a hub, which connects to the nacelle, and that houses the mechanical components including the transmission and generator.
The steel tower supports the turbine and provides access to the nacelle. The tower’s tubular design is said to reduce noise and eliminate bird nesting locations.
It was getting cold and by the time our guides were done talking, we were all eager to get back into the van, get warm and venture further into the farm. As we were driving, I kept noticing these long rubber strips planted into the road that we were driving over. The strips were one of Gamesa’s erosion controls, which obviously could be driven over. They were made out of conveyor belting (a rubber and fiber mix).
Mike (Barton) began pointing out other erosion controls, such as culverts and rock-lined ditches, that were being used to slow water down and filter through. Mike said he was impressed with the care applied around the streams and erosion controls on the wind farm.
Erosion control blankets were in use on the steeper slopes along the road. The biodegradable netting is embedded with hay and sometimes seed, and eventually deteriorates.
As we were talking about erosion control, we stopped to get a closer look at a culvert. Where we were standing, we were in the jet-wash of four turbines about a half-mile away. I could hear the wind mills more as they rotated, sometimes hearing a whistling sound that was pointed out by the mayor. The winds were coming from the northwest that day, and as I said before, it sounded like a jet flying over but never leaving.
I noticed two other wind mills that weren’t operating. Josh said that a full-time maintenance crew is always on site, and the crew tries to do maintenance on a few turbines each day.
I was also told the turbines won’t operate in wind slower than 7 miles per hour (mph), or sustained winds over 50 mph. The optimal amount of wind is said to be over 20 mph. But wind wasn’t a problem Thursday, so I imagine the turbines I saw not rotating were under maintenance.
The next footprint we arrived at was a little larger than the previous one. There were more trees cleared. Josh pointed out that an additional one-tenth of an acre was cut for blade movement, and the reason the first site was smaller was due to new improvements that has now eliminated having to cut any additional acreage for the rotating blades.
I have read that other wind development companies level four to five acres per site, but if the borough allows Gamesa to construct a wind farm, an average site on Ice Mountain would be eight-tenths of an acre, and at the most nine-tenths of an acre per site, according to Gamesa.
We didn’t stay long at this site, and Josh was going to take us next to the collection and substation where the wind farm connects to the local power grid, but we never made it there because the mayor had to get back to Tyrone.
As we were heading out of the wind farm, I asked the forester about the wildlife at this particular site. Mike said he sees more deer and turkeys now more than ever. He said they come out and eat the wildlife seed mix that’s used to grow back the widened construction road.
Mike also mentioned Gamesa’s willingness to help save an Oak stand (a group of trees alike in species) that we were driving by at the time. He said the road originally would have taken out the Oaks, but by making a simple phone call the road was moved over to avoid the stand.
As our short tour ended and we were getting ready to go back to Tyrone, I took a look back at the several wind mills I still could see. All I kept thinking was how amazing the structures were. From what Gamesa showed us that day, I was impressed with the construction process that still wasn’t completely finished. I’ll never forget what it was like standing underneath the enormous turbines.
But, would I want to see those wind mills every day for the next 30 years?
There’s no denying that when you’re riding down I-99 past Tyrone those wind mills will be visible. They will redefine Ice Mountain and the skyline, even from afar. The structures are that big.
Anywhere we can “safely” put alternative energy, we should. The Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) requires Pennsylvania to produce 18 percent of its energy from alternative sources, including wind, by 2020. We’re going to see more and more wind farms in our state.
We all know the money issue, and Tyrone Borough could always use revenue to offset costs. Plus, the lease agreement is still negotiable. Will more money be thrown into the pot? Will Gamesa offer other incentives to persuade council?
Our tour Thursday was great, but Gamesa guided the tour. Allegheny Ridge’s wind farm and the borough’s proposed wind farm would be two different construction sites. I don’t know how our water supply could be affected by constructing a 10 to 15 turbine wind farm on the watershed. Maybe it wouldn’t harm our water, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure until a wind farm would actually be built.
I do know the Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm has 40 wind mills producing two megawatts of electricity per turbine, per day. On average, that supplies 500 households out there somewhere with electricity – clean energy.
Soon, Allegheny Ridge will have 35 more turbines erected.
I do see why our borough council has to consider Gamesa’s proposal. Maybe this is our community’s chance to do a little to help a lot later in our world. I wonder how people my age and younger feel about wind mill development on Ice Mountain, because we are the ones that will have to live with the turbines for the full 30 years.
We have to trust in our elected council who are voted in by us, to speak for us and do what’s best for the community and our surrounding area.