Meikle Wind project is now up and running

Trent Ernst, Editor

The Meikle Wind Project is now fully operational.

“Meikle Wind is now the largest wind facility in British Columbia, increasing the installed wind power capacity in the province by 37 percent,” says Mike Garland, CEO of Pattern Development. “This project was unique for its construction, design and weather challenges, as well as for our discovery of rare dinosaur tracks during construction, which we donated to the Tumbler Ridge Museum.”

The Meikle Wind facility is utilizing 61 GE Renewable Energy wind turbines and has the capacity to generate clean energy for up to 54,000 homes in the province. The facility has a 25-year power purchase agreement with BC Hydro.

Meikle Wind utilized more than 500,000 person-hours of labor during construction, with in excess of 30 percent of the value of contracts awarded to First Nation-affiliated contractors and other regional firms. Going forward, the facility will be managed by 16 operations and maintenance personnel, and will also utilize a variety of local subcontractors.

Michael Thompson says he’s been working on the project since 2008. “It’s been a great journey, and it’s extremely rewarding to see them spinning when you drive past,” he says.

The project hasn’t been without its challenges. “At a high level, we’re very pleased that the issues around the washouts last year didn’t adversely impact the process in any significant way,” says Thompson. “We got into operations pretty much when we thought we would. It didn’t derail us in any significant way.”

That incident really highlighted one of the big challenges for anyone building large projects in the north, says Thompson. “Anything that takes more than six months to construct, you have to deal with the weather,” he says. “It’s unpredictable. We planned the project over two years to avoid the worst of the weather, but when you get to that second year, you’ve got to finish. There’s no taking a third year. When we had a delay in the good part of the year—June and July with the flooding—we wound up doing more towards winter. But we got the job done and we don’t feel like we had any significant delay to the schedule.”

“There was a time when you couldn’t get in or out of Tumbler Ridge. There was a moment when the team realized ‘oh, what are we going to do now?’ We worked very closely with the ministry of transport. I was calling them twice a day. They were very patient and really helped us. That was an extreme relief for us. We had to come up with a permanent alternate route. The section of Highway 2 that we were planning on bringing in our generators was still closed. We had to come up with a new bypass route, and they did it within a week or two. They really supported us on that. GE Renewable Energy and the transport hauler did what they could to minimize the impact. We lost a few weeks, but we were able to make it up.”

One of the unique elements of the project was that two different models of turbines were used. “Generally on a wind project, you chose a single turbine model for the whole site,” says Thompson. But this is a bit of a compromise. “That one turbine has to be suitable for the most challenging part of the site, so it might be a little over engineered for the less windy locations.”

With this project, says Thompson, they tried something different. The windiest area was along a main ridge line, while many of the turbines are actually located off the main ridge. “It splits the project into two areas. Instead of treating it as one project using one model of turbine, we treated it as two projects.”

This, he says, lead to some concerns around getting the right parts to the right place. “These are very big components. You don’t want to have parts going to the wrong part of the site. Shipping and receiving has to be extremely well planned.”

Fortunately, there were no mix ups. “The majority of the components were brought to a place close to the project and stored there, and then could be ordered from there: ‘today we need one of these and one of these,’ so it gave us some flexibility.”

He says logistics were key to construction. The generators came in by rail, and then were delivered from Alberta. This route was the one that took the longest to re-open. “The generators weren’t a huge load as far as size, but very heavy.”

The other parts—the blades and bases—were brought into town via the Port of Stewart. “It was pretty amazing to see,” says Thompson. “They probably are the biggest pieces of equipment ever brought in via the Port of Stewart. That was a big success as well. It would have been a different process if Stewart wasn’t able to do that.”

Thompson says it might seem strange to ship the blades by water, then bring them in by truck. “Rail is more cost effective than road,” says Thompson, “but water is more efficient than both, so it was better to get them as close as we could by water.”

Besides, he says, the longest blades on the project are just about 58 metres long. “They can’t even fit on the rail cars even if you don’t have any bridges or tunnels.”

This, he says, is becoming one of the biggest challenges to the wind industry: moving blades around. “This is becoming more a constraint than just building them,” he says.

While the project made up time over the last few months, it hasn’t been without its own set of issues. “When you get to the stage of commissioning, you get everything, weather-wise,” he says. “We had days that were too windy to work on the top of the tower, we had a week with no wind. You can’t commission the turbine when it isn’t spinning. We had everything. Because it was winter, we had to keep the roads all open, and we have about 40 or 50 km of road, so that’s a lot of snow plowing. GE Renewable Energy did a fantastic job of commissioning for us in December and January.”

Still, it was close. “We set ourselves a finish date of late January, and we got there on the last day, so we’re very happy.”

Now that construction is finished, the operations team has moved in. “That consists of a couple of people from Pattern, seven or eight people from GE Renewable Energy and a full time local service contractor,” says Thompson. “We have about 14 or 15 people out there in total working full-time, including the contractor, then other contractors for things like road maintenance and snow clearing.”

Curiousity seekers can now go visit the turbines, says Thompson. “We have an operations building on site. That’s where we ask anyone who is going to visit the site to check in, so we can let them know of any access restrictions. We just ask people if they will do that when they arrive at the site.”

Wind power has proved to be a hard nut to crack. In Ontario, the price of wind is over 13 cents per kilowatt hour, which has lead to skyrocketing power bills and a strong backlash against wind. While Thompson can’t speak to the price that BC Hydro is paying for power from the site, he does allow that it is less than Ontario.

The publicly available information on this gives a range between 6 and 12 cents, he says, and the cost of wind isn’t 12 or 6. “Wind ranges across that entire range. It’s a very difficult question to answer, because I can’t tell. There are many factors that go into the cost of production.”

Thompson says the company is planning for the long term. “We have a 25 year contract with BC Hydro. After that…it’s generally your turbine foundations that are the controlling factor on the design life. What happens in 25 years is a good question that nobody has a firm answer on. Things that were built 25 years ago are so technologically outdated, they are generally replaced. I doubt we’ll see the same changing technology over the next 25 years, and there will still be wind there.”

What happens then? He’s not sure. “Think about it like having a 20 year old car,” he says. “If it’s a car you know you’re going to get rid of, you’ll treat it one way, if you know that you’ll keep it for another 20 years, you’ll keep it in a different way.”

For Thompson, the biggest success story of the project is the positive impact it has had on the community. “We asked our suppliers to do what they could to help support the Tumbler Ridge economy. We didn’t force them, but we explained the situation to them. We feel that was extremely successful. And the majority of project personnel were based out of Tumbler Ridge and felt incredibly welcomed.

“It was a good time to be in Tumbler Ridge. Town Council was extremely supportive and welcoming. You don’t always get that when you’re operating a wind project. We have retained most our assets that we’ve developed as operator, so we look at these things with a very long term view. A lot of the project personnel were sad to leave. They travel all over the place, and it says a lot when they want to stay….”

“It can be hard when a couple hundred new people come into town. It can be disruptive. There were always little things, but I think it went really well. And the construction team felt it went really well. Many of them would have stayed a lot longer if we had more work. I think that’s a credit to the town, to the company, to the suppliers. That was the biggest story for us.”