ST. CLOUD — The ill-fated, much maligned and profoundly dysfunctional wind turbine at St. Cloud VA Health Care System will finally have its last chapter.
“We’re going to take the thing down,” Barry Venable, public affairs officer, said Friday. “After seven and a half years, it’s an item of curiosity.”
The VA has “fully explored” its option to repair the turbine and has decided to take it down in 2019, Venable said.
“To characterize how we feel here locally, we’re disappointed,” Venable said. “Lots of time and effort and energy and money went into something the produced nothing of value. And that’s not the values that we pursue over here.”
The turbine, first conceived in 2007 as a way to reduce the VA’s energy consumption, has remained still since August 2012.
It was only operational between April 2011 and August 2012. It hasn’t produced any energy since Aug. 15, 2012.
“During the brief periods it did operate, it contributed a total of 464,000 kilowatt hours of electricity,” Venable said.
To put that in perspective, the VA campus consumed almost 13 million kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost of more than $1.1 million.
So during its functional lifespan, the turbine only produced 3.5 percent the electricity needs for the campus for just one year.
In 2009, a full feasibility study projected a wind turbine could provide up to 15 percent the VA campus’s electricity needs.
It was expected to more than make up for its $2.3 million price tag. In today’s dollars, that’s about $2.66 million. The project was funded through a federal stimulus grant. A significant portion of the cost of the turbine was the foundation and structural tower.
Officials at the time estimated it would be an annual energy cost savings of about $90,000-$100,000.
“The projection at the time was the payback over time would be more than the cost of the turbine,” Venable said.
The full costs of the project can’t yet be known, as the timeline and cost of removal are yet to be determined.
The 600-kilowatt turbine is about 250 feet tall at the highest point of its blade rotation. That’s about the height of a giant sequoia tree.
The turbine weighs about 107 tons, with most of that weight in the turbine’s tower.
The dismantling work has to be put to a competitive bidding process.
“We have an estimate of what we think is reasonable, but we can’t influence the competitive bid,” Venable said.
Exploring all options
In 2016, the VA commissioned a study to determine the best next step for the turbine, which cost $300,000. It looked at a few alternatives, including installing a new turbine, repairing the existing one or removing it all together.
The study showed the existing turbine could not be repaired and a new turbine wasn’t financially feasible.
“Out of the options considered in the study, the best value to the taxpayers is to take it down,” Venable said. “It’s the best available option, with the least cost to taxpayers. The other options are simply not feasible.”
The turbine had multiple and varied problems, even before installation was complete.
Major components were repaired and replaced in efforts to make the turbine functional, Venable said. That included replacing the hydraulic systems and the gear box, or nacelle, which converts wind energy into mechanical energy, producing electricity via a generator.
“The VA never accepted that the project was completed,” Venable said. “There was a warranty in play,” in relation to repair costs.
“We were never able to commission the turbine,” Venable said, which requires a series of certification checks and operational standards the contractors were required to meet.
“This particular turbine could not be made to function, despite vigorous efforts over a number of years,” Venable said. “We’re confident that we did everything we could to make it work.”
Venable emphasized this was not about all renewable energy.
“So we’re talking about one machine. We’re not talking about an industry or a concept,” he said.
When it was initially proposed and studied, the functioning turbine would have helped the VA meet federal energy guidelines created under President Barack Obama’s administration.
Obama directed the VA to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent by 2015. A 2005 federal law requires all federal agencies to draw 7.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2013.
When installed, it was slated to be the first VA in the country to have a wind turbine.
“We’re relieved to move on,” he added. “Because we like to focus on patient care and this will remove an object which rightfully occupied the public’s attention in the way they view this organization.”
He hopes the public won’t continue to use the failure of the wind turbine project as an example of the failure of government.
“It should not be used or compared against the great performance and great care that our employees provide to veterans,” Venable said.
Other green initatives
Lost in the story of the failed turbine was the success of a geothermal heating and cooling system for some of the buildings on campus.
The same pool of funds that paid for the wind turbine also paid for the VA’s first well field, which is used to power a geothermal system.
“(The well fields) have performed remarkably well,” Venable said. “But instead of being 250 feet up in the air, they’re 250 feet underground and nobody sees them.”
That system provides heating and cooling for six buildings on the VA campus.
“This turbine doesn’t represent the medical center and our efforts at green management,” Venable said.
In May, it was announced the St. Cloud VA was named one of the top 25 hospitals in the country for health care sustainability for the third year in a row.
“We take this stuff personally,” Venable said. “We have done many things around here to transform this campus from one that was built to take care of World War I veterans to a modern and green health care center, ready and capable of taking care of veterans for another 100 years.”
Other green initiatives include creative recycling, waste reduction, organics composting, paper conservation, green purchasing, laundry water reuse, LED lighting, electric utility vehicles, use of green space for healthy activities and constructing buildings which meet global green-building standards.
Timeline of an ill-fated turbine
2007: A feasibility study for the projected site of the wind turbine is conducted, which estimates the power a wind turbine could generate.
2009: A full study of the wind turbine’s feasibility is completed. It estimates the turbine could generate up to 15 percent of the electricity consumed by the VA campus.
September 2010: A blade damaged while being shipped delays the installation of the turbine. Workers need a replacement blade to proceed with installation, at the time expected to be completed in January 2011.
January 2011: Installation of the wind turbine was supposed to be completed.
March 2011: Replacement blades are installed on the tower along with other components. Officials hoped the turbine would be operational by early April 2011.
April 2011 to August 2012: The turbine is operational, but it has only functioned 47 percent of the time since it officially began spinning. A variety of problems limited its operation. Brown stains on the blades were caused by leaking hydraulic fluid. It was harmless, but visible.
November 2012: The Times Editorial Board calls for the VA to cut its losses on the turbine.
July 2013: A replacement gearbox for the turbine is expected to arrive, but is discovered to have been damaged during its shipment from India. Officials at the time hoped that damage could be repaired on site. Officials hoped the turbine would be functional by the end of July, early August 2013. Up to this point, Venable said at the time that the turbine “has not performed up to any minimal set of expectations.”
Fiscal year 2013: The VA campus consumed almost 13 million kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost of more than $1.1 million. But the turbine generated only about 230,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, and nothing since. Using those numbers, that’s less than 2 percent of the campus’s annual needs.
March 2014: A Times analysis by reporter Mark Sommerhauser found the VA has already lost more than $325,000 in energy cost savings it would have realized had the turbine worked as projected since it went online in April 2011.
November 2014: The VA announces it is terminating its agreement with the lead contractor the wind turbine project, Massachusetts-based J.K. Scanlan Co. Officials said the contractor failed to provide a fully-functional turbine and were seeking compensation.
March 2015: The turbine is a regular topic of the Times opinion pages as the public watched its installation and failure to function. A letter to the editor from March 2015 by Dennis Johnson of Kimball said “Enough already. … I have read all the articles regarding the reasons it has never worked. After all this time, why is it still here?”
May 2015: J.K. Scanlan Co. appealed to U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals the VA’s termination of their agreement on constructing the windmill. In a settlement, the VA agreed to rescind the contract for convenience, meaning it was parting ways with the company without blaming it for default. In exchange, the VA received a payment of $450,000.
Fall 2016: The VA commissions a study for about $300,000 to determine next steps for the inoperable wind turbine. They could include repairing it, replacing it or removing it.
August 2018: The VA announces it is removing the wind turbine after a study was completed. The timeline and final cost of removal have not yet been determined. Venable said in its entire lifetime, the wind turbine generated 464,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. That would have covered about 3.5 percent of the VA’s 2013 electricity needs. Vanable says the VA only ever paid about $2.27 million to the contractor and received $450,000 back from the settlement.
2019: Bids for the removal of the wind turbine will be accepted and the project will be awarded. The timeline for the turbine’s removal is unknown.