Revisiting Ocotillo

By Roy L Hales

The Ocotillo wind farm went online almost five years ago. Were they not documented in such meticulous detail, some of the  reports coming from the tiny desert community this project surrounds would be difficult to believe.  I once received a constant stream of YouTube videos and reports. It was one of the sites that shaped my perception of the energy sector.  To some extent, I’ve moved on from this story, but I always knew I would be revisiting Ocotillo.

Revisiting Ocotillo

Ocotillo Wind Capacity by Parke Ewing (More detailed chart at bottom of page)

Parke Ewing has not been able to move on.

Last May, I asked him for an update.

Ewing replied, “It’s about 9:30 – 10:00 o’clock in the morning. Not one wind turbine is spinning. There is no wind. Their capacity factor, since they became operational, is only about 21.3%. Pattern Energy stated the wind farm would be 34% and they also said it would produce 891 gigawatts (GW) per year. So far, the most they’ve ever generated is 536 GW. So it is substantially less than what they proposed to get approval on this project …”

Update On Mechanical Failures

Turbine T126 after the collapse – Parke Ewing photo

This is the beginning of a four minute clip, which you can listen to on the podcast above. Some of the details include:

  • “About 70% of the turbines leaked oil. They had a crew out here cleaning all the turbines. They did a lot of them and I am sure they fixed some of the leaks.”
  • On November 21, 2016,  turbine #126 crumpled and fell over“They’re in the process of replacing the entire turbine right now. The nasal came in today and the tower sections and they are unloading those as we speak,”

These are just the latest in a  litany of problems

Six months after the project officially went online, a 173 foot-long-blade flew off one of the turbines.

There was a turbine fire in 2015.

So far:

  • 10 turbines underwent blade replacements
  • 9 turbines had their gear boxes replaced
  • 2 turbines were replaced

Contacting The Developers

Turbine #110 after the January 15, 2015 fire – courtesy Parke Ewing

Attempts to contact the turbine manufacturer, developer and local utility have been futile.

Ewing says, “We’ve tried to talk to Pattern Energy [the developer], of course we always get a generic reply that they’re working on this or checking on that, but we never get an answer on the noise, or the lights, or anything. They really just write us off. They don’t talk to us. We get an email reply sometimes, that’s about it.”

I phoned Jeff Grappone, of Siemens USA after the turbine caught fire in 2015. He suggested I send an email. I did this, asking:

  • Do they know what caused this fire?
  • How often turbine fires occur? Are they, for example, as common as traffic accidents are for automobile drivers?
  • What about the oil leaks? the blade replacements? the three replaced yaw gears? Is this normal for a two year old wind farm?
  • There are also some extreme conditions at Ocotillo. I have seen videos of those incredible dust storms. There are good winds at times, but they are more often 0-4 mph and there are occasionally incredible blow ups. Is this a an exceptionally difficult location?

Grappone never replied.

Maybe I asked too many questions.

Dust Storms

I recently tried a different tactic, when asking Pattern Energy about the dust storms that have plagued Ocotillo since the site was built. I sent them the video you see below and asked for an explanation.

Matt Dallas emailed back, “Ocotillo Wind operates its equipment in accordance with our permits. The dust in the video was created by the wind, not by the turbines. You’ll see many of the turbines are not operating in the video because the wind speeds that day were so high they exceeded our maximum operating capacity.”

He was not aware that I had previously interviewed a site developer about dust storms on utility scale wind and solar sites.

According to Harvey Stephens, Vice President of Operations at World Wind & Solar, fugitive dust problems are caused by scraping large areas of the desert crust clean of vegetation. This leaves the underlaying soil exposed to the wind.  There are remedies, such as planting grasses, windflowers and other materials as a protective blanket to stabilize areas disturbed by grading operations. When developers follow these procedures, the dust storms normally cease after a year or so.

Ocotillo has been inflicted by dust storms since construction began. In the video below, you can see one from August 2012.

I pointed this out to Matt Dallas, who did not reply.

The Noise

Another View of T 126 after the collapse – courtesy Parke Ewing

Ewing and his wife suspect, but can not prove, that infrasound noise from the turbines might be the reason that they are “tired all the time.”

He describes the sound made by the turbines, when they are turning, as  ” … the most irritating sound I have ever heard.”

(There is a recording in the podcast, above.)

“One of Pattern’s project managers came by and listened to the sound once and said he would take it back to whoever is in charge. We never heard another word about it,” says Ewing.

“We like to be outside. That’s why we are here in the desert. We have a fairly nice place here, with a lot of trees and stuff that we need to keep watered. It is difficult to do when they are making noise. It is kind of like a noise trespassing, that really shouldn’t be happening on your property.”

What’s The Problem?

Workers washing the leaked oil off turbine 162 – courtesy Parke Ewing

Parke Ewing Believes The Problem Is Wind Technology.

Parke Ewing believes the problem is wind technology.

I agreed with him, until I saw some German sites in 2014.

The problem at Ocotillo does not appear to be so much with the technology, as how it was used.

This is not a good location for a wind farm.

The local community does not derive any benefit. Their homes are surrounded by giant wind turbines which produce electricity for San Diego, 87 miles away.

The site was politically expedient in 2012, when America was embarking upon a crusade to fight climate change. There were massive tax credits, which enabled developers to see a quick return on their investment.

Only there are many pathways to a low carbon future.

The Ocotillo Wind Farm should never have been built.

Now the manufacturer and developer have made their money, and people like Parke Ewing are left with the mess.

One thought on “Revisiting Ocotillo”

  1. Their claimed capacity factor, since they became operational, is only about 21.3%. This figure is not a net energy figure and it does not account for all the transmission losses to end users. Currently over a third of California energy consumption ( which does not include Defense Dept consumption) is being imported and these numbers are growing annually. The source for most this energy, coal, nuclear and naturals gas. The losses from transmitting this long distance energy from 7 other states exceeds all the wind energy being produced in CA.

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