“Catastrophic failure with wind turbines is not new, and it’s not rare…. Recent experience shows that not much has changed in the ensuing years.”
“Those of us who follow the wind debate closely have repeatedly witnessed cases where projects were permitted despite an obvious lack of meaningful evidence on a host of topics…. The recent Maryland [Dan’s Mountain } decision provides an important precedent that other states can and should now follow.
[Editor Note: A new feature at MasterResource will periodically review important wind-related news in the US and around the world. For proponents of fuel-neutral, let-the-market-decide energy policy, as well as those opposing industrial wind turbines for environmental reasons, the news is increasingly positive. It should be highlighted and shared to motivate grassroots energy activists. MasterResource is indebted to Lisa Linowes for authoring this new series.]
This week begins with two stories covering turbine safety and a recent ruling by the Maryland PSC to deny the Dan’s Mountain wind facility application.
Safety: Snap, Crackle, and Drop
Wind turbine safety had an ugly three weeks.
During the late hours of May 31, a turbine blade at NextEra’s Breckinridge Center in Oklahoma (in-service since August 2015), broke off near its base and was thrown to the ground – snap. Days later on June 5 and 8, two turbines – one at NextEra’s Endeavor I site in Iowa (operational since 2008) and a second at EDF Renewable Energy’s Salt Fork Wind project in Texas (online since Dec 2016) — exploded into flames filling the sky with thick black smoke – crackle.
By time the air cleared, news arrived that another NextEra turbine, this one at the Nebraska Steele Flats facility (since Oct 2013), buckled and collapsed – drop. Collectively, the four failed turbines represented less than 16 operating years.
Wind boosters were quick to insist that turbine failures are rare, isolated events and pose no threat to public safety. But looking back just six months the narrative rings hollow. Since November, turbine collapses have been reported in Rhode Island, Kansas, California, Nova Scotia, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Germany and now Nebraska.
Turbine fires occurred in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, the UK, Finland and twice in Texas. And numerous blade incidents have been reported (and unreported ) including one in Michigan where a blade fell across an active snowmobile trail. Thankfully, no one has been killed, but it’s only a matter of time. (Click here for a list of turbine failures in the Windaction database).
Catastrophic failure of wind turbines is not new, and it’s not rare. In 2007, Spiegel Online published “The Dangers of Wind Power” where the authors cited the thousands of mishaps and accidents involving wind turbines and opined that “facilities may not be as reliable and durable as producers claim.” In 2011, the LA Times published “The Dark Side of Solar and Wind Power Projects,” in which reporter Tiffany Hsu examined how turbine accidents were surging. Recent experience show that not much has changed in the ensuing years.
Efforts to establish safety setback distances beyond the industry’s preferred 1.1x turbine height to neighboring property lines have faced costly legal challenges with the industry claiming larger setbacks are nothing more than veiled attempts to stop projects from being built. But with each smoldering tower and shredded blade, communities are less willing to accept Big Wind’s definition of safe.
Today, many more and bigger turbines are operating in widely varying geographic and meteorological conditions, which compounds the stress on blades, towers, and foundations. Add to this the pressure to get as many turbines in the ground as possible before the subsidies phase out and we’re looking at a continuing recipe for failure. It’s no wonder the green-conscious State of Vermont is seeking a setback rule of 10x turbine height to nearby residences. Others should follow Vermont’s lead.
Maryland Says ‘No’
On January 14, 2016, Dan’s Mountain Wind Force LLC filed an application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) with the Maryland PSC to construct a 17-turbine (59.9 MW) wind energy facility in Allegany County, Maryland. The application before the PSC came after the company failed to secure a permit though the County’s permitting process and after they asked for and received an exemption from the state’s review process back in 2008. By returning to the PSC, the company hoped to get around the County’s denials.
Following a lengthy adjudicative process, Terry J. Romine, Chief Public Utility Law Judge (‘PULJ’) for the Maryland PSC, ordered the certificate be denied. In her order, Judge Romine stated that any project benefits that might accrue to the public at large did not “justify or offset subjecting the local community to the adverse impacts that will result from the wind project’s construction and operation.” Dan’s Mountain appealed and last week the PSC issued its final order upholding Romine’s decision.
A number of important findings were presented in both Romine’s order and the PSC’s reaffirming decision that would apply in other jurisdictions, but one in particular caught our eye. Judge Romine found that the Applicant failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove there would be no adverse visual impact on properties within 1-mile of the turbines. Rather, the visual assessment was dominated by views at distances beyond 1-mile where the simulated turbines appeared slight on the landscape. Judge Romine wrote that the ‘potential adverse impact’ on nearby properties could not be fully assessed or mitigated.
The Applicant complained that a ‘potential adverse’ finding did not support the denial.
This is where it gets interesting. The PSC slapped back the complaint this way:
The PULJ found that the Applicant failed to meet its burden of proof that the Project will have either no adverse impact or a minimal adverse impact on the esthetics of the areas surrounding the Project. …the limitations of that evidence cannot be balanced in favor of the Applicant. An applicant for a [certificate] cannot, through a failure to present sufficient evidence, somehow turn the term ‘potential,’ given the unknowns caused by its own failure, to its advantage.
Those of us who follow the wind debate closely have repeatedly witnessed cases where projects were permitted despite an obvious lack of meaningful evidence on a host of topics and where that lack of evidence was applied in favor of the applicant. Invariably, such actions were justified by the opportunity to place renewable energy on the grid. The Maryland decision provides an important precedent that other states can and should now follow.
Windaction is frequently asked about pending legal cases involving wind energy permitting. In the next post we will highlight some of the recent cases.
 Residents living near operating wind turbines report many instances of blade failures that are not cited by the media. At the Granite Reliable wind facility in New Hampshire, the Operations and Maintenance Supervisor, testified that in just one year an estimated 50-60 lightning strikes were logged for the entire project (33 turbines).