How to Build a Wind Power Farm

Harness the Power of Nature with a Wind Farm

Wind Turbines on a Wind Farm
Wind Turbines on a Wind Farm. Imagevixen

Wind is a free fuel. It’s blowing around for anyone to harness.

What’s more, wind power is sustainable energy with impressive environmental benefits. In the U.S. alone, wind power prevents the release of about 62 million tons of greenhouse gases and conserves 20 billion gallons of water annually.

Capturing wind on a large scale requires a wind farm, a collection of specially-designed wind turbines positioned across the landscape, or ocean, where the winds are steady and strong.

Wind turbines have multiple blades, which are set high on towers, that spin in the breeze and harvest power.

Industry experts say the U.S. has enough wind resources to effectively double its current wind generation capacity.

Why Aren’t There More Wind Farms?

Potential obstacles to building wind farms include public controversy over the placement of the wind turbines, permitting challenges, financing concerns, and technical issues, such as the need for infrastructure to transmit the power to the electrical grid that serves customers.

7 Steps to Building a Wind Farm

Building a wind farm is a big project that requires teams of specialists to handle the many aspects of the project from conception to planning to implementation. That said, here are 7 basic steps that are required for any wind farm project.

1. Select a Windy Location

First, make sure to choose a location that has enough wind resources.

The best sites for commercial wind farms have wind speed of 13 miles per hour (6 meters/second) or more, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Too much wind can actually strain equipment and make the project more expensive.

Special wind speed maps will help you identify a region with suitable wind resources.

For example, the U.S. Department of Energy offers a handy wind map. You can also use a tool called an anemometer to measure wind energy at the specific site. Some states even offer anemometer loan programs. Your engineer may use specialized services and software, such as windNavigator® and GHWindFarmer, to analyze topography, weather conditions and aerodynamics in order to optimize the location.

Further, you’ll need to consider special concerns of the target location, such as road access, potential noise impacts, flickering shadows from the blades, and cultural issues.

2. Assess the Risk to Wildlife

The spinning blades on wind turbines can kill endangered birds, bats, raptors and waterfowl, so it’s best to position turbines away from busy wildlife corridors and annual migratory paths. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends using a tiered approach that includes a preliminary assessment, site characterization, and field studies to predict and assess the species and habitats harmed by the wind farm.

As the site developer, you’ll need to work closely with the appropriate government agency (or permitting authority) to reduce and mitigate deaths of animals due to the wind farm. In some cases, you may be allowed to build the wind farm if you alter its operation to be more wildlife-friendly. For example, you could be required to temporarily stop turbines during migration season and during periods of low wind, when bats are most active and power yield is minimal.

3. Consider Costs and Financing

Think about how much energy you want to produce -- or how much the site can produce -- and how much money you can spend. Purchasing wind turbines alone can set you back an average of $1.37 million per megawatt of capacity.

Generally, it’s cheaper for utilities to develop wind power facilities than it is for private investors because utilities can tap into favorable financing structures that reduce costs by about 30%, or about 1.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Government stimulus programs also make it easier to develop a wind farm. The production tax credit (PTC) now provides a 2.3¢/kilowatt-hour tax credit during the first decade of operation. Currently, PTC is available for facilities commencing construction through December 31, 2016, with the amount of the credit phasing down in subsequent years. 

Alternately, if you begin construction on your renewable energy facility prior to 2020, you may instead elect to make an irrevocable election to claim an Investment Tax Credit (ITC) in lieu of the PTC. If you choose this option, the ITC amount will be reduced by the same phase-down amounts as the PTC. An analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows that these options have particularly attractive financial benefits for community wind projects

To project the levelized cost of financing your wind project, plug your specific details into the interactive BITES tools (Buildings, Industry, Transportation & Electricity Scenarios) provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. You may also want to browse the database of state and federal incentives for renewable energy.

4. Meet Legal Requirements

Electricity producers are governed by federal laws such as the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA), the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT 2005), and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007).

In addition, individual states have different interpretations of how these federal laws apply, and they have varying mandates to promote renewable energy through Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) legislation.

A lawyer or consultant specialized in renewable energy development can help you navigate the laws governing your proposed project. You will also need various building and environmental permits from government agencies.

If your wind farm will sit on government property, or has a federal agency partner, permitting can be contingent on a formal environmental impact assessment process. For example, wind farms placed on property managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are governed by certain guidelines intended to protect federally protected species and other natural resources.

5. Identify Equipment and Wind Farm Design

Modern wind turbines are sleeker and bigger than old-fashioned windmills, with enormous blades and towers as tall as high-rise buildings. The precise placement of these turbines on a wind farm affects its overall energy production.

As a general rule, the larger the wind turbine, the greater its generation capacity. The most commonly installed wind turbine has a capacity rating of 1.5 megawatts and can power 500 homes. Newer models run even bigger. General Electric’s website lists sizes up to 3.4 megawatts for onshore use and up to 6 megawatts for offshore. Other leading wind turbine manufacturers include Vestas, Goldwind, Enercon, Siemens, Sulzon, Gamesa, United Power, Ming Yang and Nordex. 

Large and heavy wind turbines require bigger foundations and cost more to install. Offshore wind turbines must be designed for ocean conditions. Keep in mind that wind turbines rarely run at full capacity since their energy generation is weather-dependent.

In addition to wind turbines, a wind farm requires an electrical power collection system, transformers, a communications network, and substations. A SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition information system) is used to monitor performance. Your engineer will recommend suitable equipment and turbine placement based on your site, finances and energy goals.

6. Secure Transmission Capacity

If you’re planning a commercial-scale wind farm, you will need to a way to deliver energy to wholesale or retail customers. Typically this requires transmission lines linking the output of your wind farm to the electric power transmission network, or energy “grid,” in your region. Commercial wind farms sited in remote locations can find it a challenge to secure transmission capacity and interconnectivity with the grid.

Alternatively, smaller wind farms can be used as a dedicated source of electricity for a community or business. In these cases, the wind farm may not require a link to the regular electric grid. However, to sell excess power, you still need a way to deliver that power to the electric utility.

Check with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which works with wind developers to secure transmission capacity and interconnectivity. The Utility Wind Integration Group also provides resources for connecting a wind farm into the electric system.

7. Install, Test and Run the Equipment

Wind farm construction can be completed within a few months. However, you may first need to build roads into the site for hauling in the wind turbines and other equipment.

For each wind turbine, you’ll need to excavate a hole and fill it with reinforced concrete to serve as a stabilizing foundation. This process is more demanding in rocky conditions or offshore wind farms. Once the foundation is prepared, erect the turbines with specialized hoists.

Put the electrical wiring and systems in place, and run tests to ensure that all the elements are operating properly. It often takes six months before all the kinks are ironed out and the wind farm achieves full commercial production capacity.

Each wind turbine needs about a week’s worth of routine maintenance per year. The American Wind Energy Association says it takes one wind technician to service each 10 megawatts of installed generating capacity.

What’s next? Enjoy the breeze while the wind works for you!

This article is not intended as legal advice. You’ll need to hire qualified experts to assist you with each step in this process.

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