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Graveyards of the windy West

What is happening to the hundreds of wind turbines being uprooted in California? Is there a market for second hand wind plant? Do old turbines just die or are they being passed on to eager buyers of second hand power generating equipment? To get the right answer you need to ask a different question.

Old and in the way, hundreds of vintage wind turbines from the early and mid Eighties are being pulled down in California to make way for modern, more productive wind technology. Many more will hit the junk pile when the ongoing legal battle over repowering the Altamont Pass is settled. The rapid march of technological progress in the wind industry has made the sprawling old wind farms in Tehachapi, San Gorgonio and the Altamont Pass more valuable for their windy real estate than for the relatively small amounts of power they can produce. So where does an old wind turbine go to die?

Not all of these historical turbines are worn out, but very few are finding a home elsewhere. Most are being stripped for parts, in an effort to keep the rest of the fleet running. Many are simply being scrapped, with steel and aluminium parts sold to junk dealers for recycling. These days only a few are being resold for continued operation.

Larry Barr of EnXco, the recently renamed Foras, which owns or maintains over 5000 turbines in California, hopes that will change. He sees a future for a business based on the resale of old turbines. "We would be interested in seeing that market open up," he says. "As it is now we can't find one." The only market for used turbines that at one time showed signs of potential was in India, when a number of old California turbines found their way there in 1996. But the Indian government put a stop to what it regarded as a heinous attempt by the West to dump outdated technology on it. The government of Madhya Pradesh disallowed the use of second hand machines in the state in order to preserve "the orderly and healthy growth of this emerging power generating technology." The state also banned turbines in the 55 kW to 250 kW size range.

Much of the repowering of old wind farm sites in California, where old turbines are uprooted and replaced, has been in the Palm Springs area. SeaWest has replaced hundreds of turbines at four sites, including pulling down 200 Micon 65 units and 70 Micon 108 models. According to the company's Steve Thompson, all of these will be held in inventory, with scavenged parts used for retrofits of turbines still up. SeaWest still operates 200 Micon 108 machines, 53 Micon 65 machines, and 53 Windmatic turbines. Thompson is unaware of any second hand sales activity. "We're not actively selling the used ones," he said. "We'd be open to that, if you know of anybody."

Retrofitting with scrap

Some of SeaWest's old turbines from Palm Springs are being sent north to SeaWest projects in Altamont Pass. In one example, out of 24 old ESI 63 kW turbines that SeaWest owns in the Altamont, all but five have become unusable. SeaWest is now using Enertech 60 kW turbines from Palm Springs and putting them atop the old ESI towers at Altamont. Most of these turbines date from the early 1980s.

Much of the planned repowering in the Altamont Pass is waiting for a resolution of legal issues (box) and operators charged with keeping the old wind farms running are grateful for the ever growing pile of scrapped parts from projects elsewhere. "We'll keep everything running here as long as we can," says SeaWest's Mike Welch. "With all the extra parts, we should be able to keep it running for quite a while." Welch thinks the full repowering effort in the Altamont Pass may be a few years off.

On Cameron Ridge in Tehachapi Pass, 200 of the old FloWind Darrieus rotor turbines have been disassembled. According to FPL Energy's David Caparelli, the large aluminium blades have had a substantial scrap value, while some of the towers and control components were saved for parts. At the nearby Pacific Crest site, FPL has removed about 100 Micon 108 turbines, 50 Nordtank 65 units and 150 Nordtank 75 machines, though left some operating.

Jack Dressel, a long time member of the California wind business, has been removing foundations at Cameron Ridge, "revegetating" the soil and disposing of the old turbines. While Dressel is working on selling about a dozen turbines to individual ranchers and landowners around the country, most of the machines are simply taken apart. He has even found a novel use for tubular towers-using them as water pipes. "FPL doesn't care about making money off these old ones," comments industry observer Paul Gipe. "The big money is in getting their new projects up and running, not selling off old turbines."

Dressel is able to sell some stock on the spare parts market, however, and has sold over 100 turbines to EnXco, which uses them to maintain over 5000 turbines. But according to EnXco's Barr, "We've bought all we can expect to use, and have walked away from others." Turbines passed over by EnXco usually get turned into scrap.

Not economic

Barr says he would like to see a market for second hand turbines. "We're going to be looking for a home for all the turbines we own." But he is not surprised that it hasn't developed. "It's hard to make that cost effective, no matter how cheap the turbine is," he says. "I looked at it and it just doesn't pencil out. You're better off to buy a new turbine." A new foundation is $15,000 and shipping is a couple of grand, estimates Barr. "It's not proven to be cost effective for a wind plant. On a case by case basis, it's possible, but the market hasn't materialised. Nobody out there is buying them." Caparelli agrees. "It's just not economical to put in a machine that's been used for ten years," he says. "There's usually not enough life expectancy to pay back the investment in foundations and wires."

Earlier attempts by Foras, as EnXco was then known, to sell off old California turbines in Minnesota proved the point. "In states with good net billing, we thought it could work," says Barr. Net billing allows electricity consumers to offset their own electricity consumption against that fed into the grid by their own turbine. Foras targeted farmers and rural businesses, trying to sell 65-100 kW machines, but the market didn't materialise. Just two reconditioned Micon 108 units were sold-to Indian tribes in North Dakota for net metering at gambling casinos.

Another Southern California operator, Windland Inc, is trying to market its older turbines, but has had little luck so far. Windland has a 16 MW plant composed of American Carter, Enertech, and ESI turbines, Dutch Stormaster turbines, and Danish Vestas and Bonus machines. Their goal, according to the company's Linda Sitton, is to sell off the Carter 25 and 300 kW turbines to make room and raise capital for new turbines. All the turbines are still running, and will keep running until they are sold. Windland advertises the turbines on their web site at bargain basement prices, yet to date has had no takers. "I have a feeling they are Y2Kers," Sitton says of people with Year 2000 phobia. "People who are looking for off-grid turbines."

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