The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 16, 2012

IBEW members harness wind energy

By The Building Tradesman

BRECKENRIDGE – Last month, we featured the work of the iron workers building the Gratiot County Wind Farm, Michigan’s largest.

This month, we give a shout out to the crew of 20 or so members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who set up the system to harness the energy of the wind farm’s 133 turbines.

Henkels & McCoy handled the electrical part of the installation of the turbines, which were mostly set in farmer’s fields scattered around 30,000 acres in Gratiot County, about 20 miles west of Saginaw.

“It’s nice that all of this has gone union,” said Henkels & McCoy General Foreman Justin Hathon of IBEW Local 665. “The job has gone very well, although we could have done without all the mud. But the mild winter has been great.” Hathon lauded the safe nature of the work for the electricians: 370 days on the job, encompassing 100,000 man-hours, all accident-free.

The turbine installation was slated to be complete last month, and the wiring for the last tower was completed March 3. As the electrical portion of the job winds down this month, Hathon said the only tasks remaining involve final testing and quality control checks.

Each of the turbines is capable of delivering 1.6 megawatts of power. The electricity is delivered via underground power lines to a nearby substation, where is it put onto the grid. A separate monitoring system connects all the wind turbines via fiber optic cable, and allows a manager to monitor the system, including energy output and troubleshooting capabilities.

Hathon said the crew of electricians got better at their tasks as the project moved along, because of all the repetition. “There’s a learning curve at the beginning, and we’re always shooting for continuous improvement,” he said. “After a while the most difficult part of the job is the physical aspect.”

A single ladder extends straight up through each windmill’s tower. Each tower is 328 feet to the rotor, which is roughly equivalent to a 32-story building. Platforms encircle the inside of the tower where vertical sections are joined, providing rest areas.

“During the course of a day, once you’re up there, you don’t want to come down unless you have to,” Hathon said. “All that climbing is tough on you.”

The project represents Detroit Edison's largest contract to purchase renewable energy. The utility has a 20-year agreement with Invenergy Wind to manage site operations.

The 212.8-megawatt project that will generate enough energy to power more than 50,000 Michigan homes. DTE Energy will own and operate nearly half of the wind farm and purchase the remaining power from Invenergy under a 20-year power purchase agreement.  The wind project will help DTE Energy meet Michigan's renewable energy goals.

“We're excited about partnering with Invenergy to create Michigan's largest wind farm,” said Steve Kurmas, Detroit Edison president and chief operating officer. “DTE Energy is making nearly $2 billion in renewable energy investments in the state to help meet our future energy needs, which also creates jobs and spurs economic development.”

AT WORK ATOP a rotor in Gratiot County is Mike Combs of IBEW Local 557.