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Wind Turbines Produce Drama, Cash, and Some Electricity: Big Trouble at Biglow Canyon

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Big Trouble at Biglow Canyon | “Unexpected”
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At 2:11 a.m. on February 1, 2022, according to a report in The Oregonian, a wind turbine at the Biglow Canyon Wind Farm in Oregon hurled one of its giant blades the “full length of a football field” away from its tower. Described as heavier than “four Toyota Camrys” and “as tall as an 11-story building,” the detached blade sliced a four-foot-deep crater in a nearby farm field. In an eerie newspaper photo, the crash site looked like the wreckage of an alien spacecraft.

A few days earlier a driver delivering fertilizer had recovered and photographed “industrial-size bolts” on the ground near the troubled tower. His coworker returned to the same location during the evening of January 31, just hours before the blade flung loose, to tow out the vehicle of another delivery worker who had gotten stuck in the mud.

“Someone could have been killed or badly injured,” observed Kathryn McCullough, whose husband farmed the same fields.

Owned by Portland General Electric, the turbine was built by Vestas, a Danish firm that has been one of the world’s largest producers of wind-energy machines. The Oregonian investigative feature in August 2022 was headlined “Wind Bust: How an Airborne Blade Exposed Broader Problems at PGE’s Flagship Wind Farm.” The report revealed concerns about both Vestas turbines and PGE’s maintenance of them.

The recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act is expected pay out $400 billion in carbon and climate policy pork, and much of it is crashing down on weather-restricted energy systems such as wind turbines. The wind welfare industry is already off to a flying start. Using 2022 data, energy journalist Robert Bryce compared the subsidies for all major American forms of energy, “calculated on an energy-produced basis,” and found that wind power received nearly 70 times more taxpayer loot than carbon-free nuclear power.

As a major wind industry supplier, Vestas stands to indirectly profit from the taxpayer largesse.

In 2012, facing the threat of Congress ending the wind production tax credit (PTC), a Vestas official warned that 75 to 95 percent of the American wind power industry could disappear without the corporate welfare. In 2014, according to the Washington Free Beacon, the two U.S. senators from Colorado specifically cited Vestas as the reason they were supporting renewal of the PTC.

Not surprisingly, Vestas has also been a big donor to major left-wing nonprofits that promote its problematic weather-dependent wind power.

Big Trouble at Biglow Canyon

PGE responded to the February 2022 blade detachment by shutting down and inspecting all 217 turbines at Biglow Canyon, 76 of which were made by Vestas and 141 by Siemens Gamesa, a Spanish-German firm. Some of the turbines were still out of action four months later.

The Oregonian investigation found that “hatches, metal disks and blade bolts” had repeatedly fallen off PGE’s 265-foot-tall turbine towers and the utility had “knowingly operated at least four turbines at Biglow Canyon with broken blade bolts, in one case for nearly a year.”

The newspaper cited concerns with all of PGE’s turbines, but also revealed that the Oregon power company was considering suing Vestas. Although the McCullough family were initially supporters of the wind project, the newspaper said they began noticing problems just three years after the Vestas turbines were installed in 2007.

The turbines started leaking lubricants:

It’s a condition that persists today. Many of the once-pristine white Vestas turbines are visibly soiled by oil, blackening the towers, the blades, the gravel pads and spitting into the fields below. The McCulloughs snapped photos of the problem as recently as early August showing their truck spattered in oil after just 30 minutes parked near a turbine, and the ground darkened with oil spots.

The Oregonian showed photos of the badly soiled turbines and the truck hood, plus large parts that had been falling from the Vestas machines:

Kevin McCullough said that over the years, he has found 10 to 12 hatch doors, most of them beaten up and coated in oil, that have broken off the top of the Vestas turbines and fallen into the fields he farms. Each measures 25 inches by 29 inches and weighs about 10 pounds.

“The Vestas turbines, they lose doors all the time and you’ll see them laying in the field,” confirmed another farmer quoted in the report. “They’d hurt you. My neighbors won’t park by them.”

The report also cited an official from the Oregon Department of Energy who estimated that the items falling from 265 feet up could smash into the ground (or anything and anyone else) at nearly 90 miles per hour.

In 2008, according to The Oregonian, PGE told state regulators its Vestas turbines would average 37 percent of their rated capacity. But the newspaper found the turbines never even achieved 37 percent of rated capacity, let alone made an average of that production level.

“They’d probably argue that it was new technology and they were learning how to operate it,” chirped a ratepayer advocate quoted by The Oregonian. “But they asked us to pay for output, not a learning experience.”

Because the weather is fickle, the capacity factor of wind turbines is very low. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average capacity factor of all American wind energy is just 34.6 percent. At 92.7 percent, carbon-free nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of all major American sources of electricity.

Although the Vestas machines were just halfway through their 30-year estimated useful lifespan by 2022, The Oregonian reported PGE was already thinking about retiring them.

Despite all this, a PGE spokeswoman gave a prickly reply about the tone of The Oregonian’s questions.

“We challenge your categorization of the volume of troubles,” she wrote. “Since coming online, Biglow Canyon wind farm has generated more than 13,000,000 MWh of clean electricity, which translates to powering 120,000 homes per year.”

All things considered, that’s nothing to brag about.

Biglow Canyon came online in 2007 and covers 25,000 acres (39 square miles), almost the size of the city of Eugene, Oregon, home to 177,000 people. By comparison, California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant covers just 1,000 acres (1.5 square miles).

Yet every year Diablo Canyon produces at least 16.5 million MWh of carbon-free electricity (and sometimes more than 18.5 million MWh). That works out to a cumulative total of more than 281 million MWh during the era when Biglow Canyon generated just 13 million MWh.

Leave aside the years of oil leaks and smaller debris falling onto Oregon. If throwing just one 11-story, multi-ton piece of equipment since 2007 can be excused away as the acceptable price to pay for Biglow Canyon’s relatively pitiful zero-carbon energy output since then, then the hyper efficient Diablo Canyon needs to drop 22 giant blades on its local community just to catch up to the same level of incompetence.

Biglow Canyon’s turbine troubles should be considered a serious problem in any context, but even more so relative to the tiny power output and immense chunks of Oregon’s land and skies that it consumes.

In the next installment, Vestas wind turbines experience “unexpected and increasing wind turbine failure rates.”

Ken Braun

Ken Braun is CRC’s senior investigative researcher and authors profiles for and the Capital Research magazine. He previously worked for several free market policy organizations, spent six…
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