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Tornado trouble at construction site -- A lesson from Kansas winds

A routine wind plant installation in America's heartland took an unnerving hit recently from a small tornado, which whipped through the construction site and damaged blades waiting for installation. The same airfoil properties designed to capture wind energy allowed the twister's 70 mile-per-hour (31 m/s) winds to scatter as many as ten blades around the site, including one that was moved as much as 55 metres and had to be replaced.

Fortunately, the tornado was not the rare class four or five monster that could take down an operational wind project and the 100.5 MW Spearville Wind Energy Facility is now operational. It was developed by California's Enxco, using 1.5 MW turbines from GE, and is owned by Kansas City Power & Light Company (KCP&L).

Nicks and dings

GE Energy technicians made a site visit to assess the damage and repaired nicks and dings on the LM Glasfiber blades where necessary and replaced the one blade deemed a full loss. The many turbines already erected when the twister rolled through suffered no damage at all. "It wasn't as substantial as everyone would believe it was," says Enxco's Pat McAllister. "We escaped with relatively minor damage, especially because the site was unattended when this came through."

Kansas joins other heartland states, particularly Oklahoma and Texas, lying within the renowned Tornado Alley, where the propensity for tornados of destructive force is most common in the US. MacAllister says that as a greater proportion of wind projects go up in America's expansive Great Plains the likelihood of a project succumbing to a rare but destructive tornado is inevitably increased.

The Spearville tornado was a learning process, he says. "If we don't experience it we don't learn from it. Now that we've seen this we know that blades, being airfoils, can be lifted and moved about and the method we've used to secure them has now changed." McAllister equates more thoroughly strapping down blades waiting for installation to other care protocols such as preferred blade storage angles so ice accumulation cannot damage the glassfibre. In the unlikely event a major tornado did inflict considerable damage on a wind project, most owners are protected by the usual project insurance.

Output from Spearville is distributed to local KCP&L customers. It is the third major commercial wind project in Kansas, but notably the first to be owned by a regulated Kansas utility. Mortenson Construction Company led the construction effort and developer Enxco will be retained for operations and maintenance services. The other two commercial projects in Kansas are the 112 MW Grey County Wind Farm, owned and operated by FPL Energy and the 150 MW Elk River Wind Farm, owned by PPM Energy.

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