High winds make turbines grand

Wally and Willy have been supplying some of your power for years now. Over time, though, they’ve been joined by 80 more wind turbines about 10 miles south of the southern edge of Minot.

Wally and Willy are the nicknames given to the first two turbines installed in the Bismarck-based Basin Electric Power wind farm there years ago. The turbines supply power to Basin’s nine-state grid, power shared by five North Dakota-based power cooperatives.

“I’m extremely proud. We collected data down there at the radar base and so we knew we had a tremendous wind resource … convincing them that this is a place for wind generation,” said Bruce Carlson, the general manager for Verendrye Electric Cooperative, one of those five North Dakota cooperatives.

There was a Minot AFB radar base there before the two original turbines went up, and from the top of one of the towers data was collected. At first there was only going to be one turbine.

“Basin Electric said it really would make more sense to put two up if you want to put a generator there,” Carlson said. “Because of Wally and Willy’s success that’s how we got the other machines down there.”

The original duo, which have blue bases to contrast with the 80 newer ones with white bases, each supply 1.3 megawatts of continuous power at full capacity. The new ones each provide 1.5 megawatts of power.

On days like Tuesday, which peaked at wind gusts of 60 mph and had an average sustained wind of 30 mph and average gusting of 45 mph, all 82 turbines reached full capacity. All it takes for full power is sustained winds of 25 to 30 mph.

“One megawatt of generating capacity, if it’s running all the time, can supply the needs of 800 residential homes, so that gives you perspective,” said Daryl Hill, a spokesperson for Basin Electric.

All 82 turbines at full generating capacity produce a little over 122 megawatts of power. That’s 97,600 average residential homes with all the trimmings: television, refrigerator, blow-dryer; you name it. Verendrye has 15,500 metering points, Carlson said, so that means the wind farm is providing enough juice for all their customers with enough to spare to go back into the grid for other co-ops.

Those other companies are Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative in Williston, North Central Electric Cooperative in Bottineau, McLean Electric Cooperative in Garrison, Burke-Divide Electric Cooperative in Columbus, and McKenzie Electric Cooperative in Watford City. And those are just the North Dakota ones.

But not every day is like Tuesday, and during those winter months it’s much better not to have so much wind.

“Electricity is one of those products that the very moment it’s generated somebody is using it,” Hill said. “It doesn’t matter how you generate it; that’s just the nature of electricity. So that means if you switch on the lights in your home or your office, somewhere a generator is generating the electricity.”

And North Dakota has fast-growing needs, especially in the west with the oil fields and the booming population.

“We have to remember that the member-owners of the cooperative expect power 24/7, and as good as our wind resources are we have to have a back-up when the wind’s not blowing,” Carlson said. “In order to incorporate wind into our mix we have to make sure we have a back-up generation source for the wind. We’re very fortunate that there’s a lot of natural gas available now in western North Dakota.”

That back-up is often provided by natural gas peaking generating stations. Peaking stations come on only when the demand is high, like peak power use hours.

While the wind farm straddles the oilfields to the east, Culbertson Generation Station, a natural gas station in Culbertson, Mont., backs it up in the west.

Wind power isn’t enough right now to provide all the needs all the time even during non-peak hours on most days, though, so Basin provides a mix of generation.

“We have two big coal plants in North Dakota and Wyoming,” Hill said of Antelope Valley Station north of Beulah and Leland Olds Station near Stanton in North Dakota.

The coal plants fire up a lot more electricity alone than the wind farm can. The Antelope Valley Station is capable of producing 900 megawatts, or roughly 720,000 homes, between its two units fed by the lignite coal mine it sits on. Each unit creates 450 megawatts. Leland Olds, a much older coal plant, produces 669 megawatts, with the smaller of its two units producing 222 megawatts and the larger producing 447.

“We have a very diverse electricity portfolio,” Hill said of Basin Electric. “There has to be a generator running somewhere.

“Typically a wind project generates a full load 40 percent of the time,” Hill said of the turbines.

On a nice, windy day, though, those windmills pack a stronger punch than their idyllic location in the green prairie under the blue sky would suggest.