Building a wind farm isn’t easy

Published 9:45 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Editors note: This is the first of two-part series.

Parts of Freeborn County may soon look like John Kluever’s kitchen — a mess.

Before touring Whispering Willow Wind Farm last Thursday in Franklin County, Iowa, Kluever, the Freeborn County administrator, compared the construction of a wind farm to the current renovations being done to his kitchen — only on a much smaller scale. The metaphor resonated with officials from Freeborn County and Franklin County.

Email newsletter signup

“We knew there was going to be disruption, but I don’t think anybody knew the scope,” said Franklin County Planning Director Russell Wood. “And I think it’s important to let people know that analogy. … Right now, you may be looking at the mess in your kitchen, but soon, hopefully that mess will be taken care of and everything will be back to normal.”

This is a lesson that was reinforced when about 10 Freeborn County officials toured Whispering Willow and met with officials from Franklin County.

“We’re slowly, as a staff, starting to wrap our arms around the impact this is going to have,” Kluever said.

Officials from the two counties stressed that the benefits will be worth the difficulties.

David Engels, manager of wind development for Alliant Energy, organized the tour of Whispering Willow to give officials from the two counties a chance to meet and talk about wind farm construction.

“I hope that in many ways the experience of seeing a project of this nature — very, very similar in scope to what we’ll be doing in Freeborn County, and talking with folks who’ve lived through the process — can help us all understand together a little bit and ease some of the anxiety we all can feel when a project of this magnitude comes into the area,” Engels said.

Engels stressed the meeting was not intended to be a commercial for Alliant Energy. Instead, it was a chance to learn and pass on knowledge of what citizens can expect if Bent Tree is approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is expected to rule on a certificate of need and a site application in August.

Whispering Willow, six miles south of Hampton, Iowa, and the potential Bent Tree project have many similarities, Engels said. The two wind farms are being built by subsidiaries of Alliant Energy: Whispering Willow by Interstate Power & Light and Bent Tree by Wisconsin Power & Light.

In their first phases, Whispering Willow will be 121 turbines and Bent Tree is expected to be about 122. Each will produce about 200 megawatts of electricity, enough for each wind farm to power about 50,000 homes.

And Whispering Willow and Bent Tree also have the opportunity for expansion beyond 200 megawatts, and both will use Vestas V-82 turbines.

At the time of the tour, Whispering Willow was about half complete with about 66 turbines erected. Only about four turbines had reached mechanical completion — which means all internal wiring was completed and the turbine passed inspection.

The turbines at Whispering Willow won’t begin operating until late 2009, Engels said.

A turbine can be fully erected in about one long day. The three main erection cranes are a key part of that process.


The tour passed by the largest crane, which Engels said has a 440-ton lifting capacity and about a million pounds of dead weight. It took 16 semis to bring in all the components for the crane, he said.

To move from one site to another, the crane is moved on walking paths, which often cut through fields and other terrain to minimize the number of times the crane crosses the road.

These looked like mazes of black soil through the green fields. In some cases, Engels said Alliant Energy pays the farmer for estimated crop loss.

The tour saw the crane when it was parked beside the road, as the workers waited for the utility company to disconnect power lines so the crane could cross.

Workers often will construct a temporary ramp or bridge for the crane to cross a ditch, because it’s cheaper than disassembling and reassembling the crane.

“Keep in mind the cost to disassemble the crane is about $50,000 and about two days production time,” Engels said. “We can build a pretty nice ramp or a pretty nice bridge for something less than $50,000.”

The crane sat on railroad ties, which are used when moving the crane to distribute the crane’s weight.

Contractors are working to restore the fields, and they’re removing sand used during construction to bring back topsoil.

“Part of our commitment to the landowners in these cases is that we meet with the landowners to discuss what the restoration activities will look like, obtain the landowner’s agreement, and complete our activities, then bring the landowner back out to inspect,” Engels said.


Multiple Franklin County officials said damage to roads and fields was the biggest issue during construction.

About 150 semitrailers are used to deliver the components for one turbine, creating a high level of traffic — often consisting of heavy loads — that produces a lot of damage to local roads.

Most of the roads around the construction area are gravel, and Engels said four road graders worked full-time to keep the roads in operating condition during the peak of construction.

The paved roads that were used were also damaged, and gravel was used in spots to temporarily repair rough patches.

Engels said Alliant Energy is repairing the roads damaged during construction and intends to leave them in the same condition as when construction started. While it’s a positive that the roads will be repaired, some wanted to see the damage at its worst.

“I saw stuff that had been replaced, and I saw stuff that was in the process of being fixed, but I didn’t see anything at its worst,” said Neal Gjersvik, Manchester Township supervisor and chairman of the Freeborn County Township Association.

The amount of traffic can also cause some issues for school buses and postal workers in the area of construction, and Engels said that’s something that will need to be discussed before construction begins.

Some questions were raised about the repairs to the roads. Gjersvik said gravel roads are preferred to have around a 6 percent grade. Franklin County said that’s not how contractors have always repaired the roads during construction.

Gjersvik said water will collect on roads that aren’t graded to a proper peak, which would cause potholes.

About 29 miles of access roads were made leading to the turbines, Engels said. Those roads were about 22 to 24 feet wide during construction, but the access roads are narrowed down to 16 feet after construction. Farmers will be able to farm that land.

With the difficulties of construction, Engels said all groups involved need to work collaboratively to make the project work.

“One of the things that landowners probably get tired of hearing us talk about is the fact that we view ourselves as guests on your property — a long-term tenant,” Engels said. “I don’t own the property on which I have a $3 1/2 million investment. I take that very, very seriously.”

Read Thursday’s Albert Lea Tribune for the second in this two-part series.