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Guided tour of wind energy at its most intense

Four busses chock full of wind power devotees, some 200 in all, left Windpower '98 in Bakersfield for a tour of wind plants in the Tehachapi Pass on the last day of the conference. The route crossed the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley past irrigated orange groves, vineyards, fields of carrots, and not a few nodding pump jacks before climbing the long grade up the Tehachapi Mountains.

After a final series of curves along Tehachapi Creek, the freeway opened onto the floor of the Tehachapi Valley and more than 1000 wind turbines were immediately visible on a series of low ridges. Altogether, there are some 5000 turbines in service throughout the Tehachapi Pass generating about 1.3 terawatt hours a year. The tour included stops at SeaWest's Mojave site, Oak Creek Energy Systems, and Zond's new assembly hall.

Our bus drove directly through the Tehachapi Gorge passing the abandoned Airtricity site with its derelict Storm Master and WindMatic turbines and the deserted Wind Source site with its defunct Aeroman machines. A freeway-close glimpse was also afforded of Zond's wind wall with its 400 Vestas V15 turbines, of the former Arbutus site on rugged Pajuela Peak where only the Bonus turbines are still in service, and of steep-sided Cameron Ridge topped with FloWind's few remaining Darrieus turbines before reaching SeaWest, our first stop.

Approaching SeaWest from the desert town of Mojave, the old Micon 108s were spinning merrily, while the Mitsubishis, with their higher start-up speed, were just coming to life. SeaWest and Fluidyne had cleaned the Mitsubishis of their infamous oil leaks for the tour's arrival. Always hospitable, SeaWest's Jim Watkins and Dean Landon answered questions and kept herd on the curiosity of their visitors. Of all the wind plants in the world, there is little to compare with standing at SeaWest's "1018," or control building, and gazing out across a sea of 1064 wind turbines as they lap against the shore of Cameron Ridge. This is wind energy at its most intense.

From the rectangular arrays at SeaWest, the tour bus lumbered past fields of Joshua trees and the yellow blooms of goldenbush and coriopsis, heading for Oak Creek plant and its recent repowering. Oak Creek today is not the wind industry junkyard it once was. Hal Romanowitz and his crew have been busy for the past year clearing debris, removing felled turbines, re-grading roads, and re-seeding. The bus stopped beneath the new Micon turbines operating at the top of Oak Creek's site. The Micons overlook the famous escarpment where more than a decade ago turbulence destroyed the America made Carter 25 turbines that once stood there.

The Oak Creek stop afforded spectacular views of the Mojave Desert, the Garlock Fault (lesser known than the San Andreas, but just as deadly), Cameron Ridge, Mogul Energy's new Mitsubishi 450 kW machines, and much more. The Micons stand on one of the best viewpoints in the entire Tehachapi Pass. SeaWest's Mojave site, Tacke's half-dozen 600 kW machines, Coram's Aeromans, R Lynette's three AWT prototypes, and Zond's Victory Garden where Zond's prototype Z750 and two Z40s stood out among the hundreds of Vestas turbines surrounding them, were all clearly visible.

Leaving Oak Creek the bus climbed over the low col of Oak Creek Pass -- and CalWind's old Nordtank turbines with their red tips -- before descending to the tour's final stop: Zond's assembly hall.

Formidable product

Whisked off in small groups by uniformed, mostly young, Zond employees, the tour took in the single assembly line that's shipping two turbines per day in two, ten-hour shifts, five-and-a-half days a week. Unlike the American Wind Energy Association's now legendary Kenetech tour several years ago, Zond permitted cameras in the assembly bay. Groups moved from station to station much like the turbines that were being assembled from parts shipped in from across the United States. The machines were tagged for "Lake Benton," Zond's big 100 MW project for Northern States Power that's currently under construction.

The Z750 is clearly not of the lightweight and flexible "American" design school; it is much too beefy. But it is not a European machine either. The wind turbine incorporates ideas from both worlds. The Z750 is identical to its forerunner, the Z40, except for larger bearing surfaces and a stiffener in the snout of its integrated drive train. Variable speed operation is designed to reduce loads on the drive train. The fit and finish of the nacelles moving through Zond's assembly bay looked every bit as good as those from manufacturers in Europe. Back at the conference's exhibition in Bakersfield, the Z750's fibreglass nacelle cover had shimmered against the dull box-like nacelle of the Vestas' V47. The Z750 appears to be a formidable product, pushed by a sales department possessed of an aggression not previously seen in the wind industry.

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