Sunrise Powerlink Going Green With Ocotillo Wind

Editor’s note: Updates have been added at the bottom of this story since its original publication.

Within the next few days, the Sunrise Powerlink, the 500,000-volt transmission line that stretches 117 miles through the desert and over the mountains from the Imperial Valley to San Diego, built at a cost of $1.9 billion, could crackle with renewable energy for the first time.

No, really, it will, says Pattern Energy, the company developing the 112-turbine, 265-megawatt capacity Ocotillo wind energy project that will hook into the big transmission line and send power to San Diego Gas & Electric customers. A company spokesman called suggestions by opponents that the site has inadequate wind “absolutely absurd,” and a rather basic principle of wind seems to be on the company’s side on this dispute.

ocotillo wind sunrise powerlink

image via Ocotillo Wind Turbine Destruction Facebook page

The local wind power foes have taken to posting their own wind measurements to a Facebook page called Ocotillo Wind Turbine Destruction. A sample post: “8.0 mph wind speed in Ocotillo at 10:00 pm, 12/03/12.”

Just one potential problem with that: Ground level wind measurements are practically meaningless when it comes to turbines whose tips will spin more than 400 feet above ground.

“There’s a reason wind turbines are put on a tower, way up in the air,” Pattern spokesman Matt Dallas told EarthTechling.

That reason is that the wind almost inevitably blows stronger farther above ground. As wind expert Paul Gipe writes in Wind Energy Basics, “Because obstructions near the ground disrupt the flow of the wind, wind speeds increase with height.” This difference between ground level wind and wind higher up is so important that a Midwest wind installer quoted by Gipe says the three biggest problems with small-scale wind projects are: “1. Too short a tower, 2. Too short a tower, and 3. Too short a tower.”

Says Dallas: “It’s nonsensical for our investors that we would build at a site that wasn’t a great wind resources. That’s why we did three years of meteorological studies on this site, and it’s why we are 100 percent confident that this project will deliver clean power that will be a benefit to everyone.”

A San Diego Union-Tribune story published earlier this week quoted a Pattern project manager who seemed to sound slightly less confident –  “In the end, we are taking a risk that there will be wind here, before people purchase it and we can sell it” – but reporter Morgan Lee said the statement wasn’t meant to imply that the company is uncertain of the wind resource.

“The point there was that Pattern has money riding on the site being a good wind resource,” so it wouldn’t have made sense to build there unless they believed the wind was adequate, Lee told EarthTechling. “Whether it is or isn’t is something that time will tell,” Lee said, “but Pattern did the studies and they seem to believe it is.”

Pattern said some of the turbines will begin feeding energy onto the Sunrise Powerlink this week and that before the end of the year, somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 of the 112 turbines will be in service, thus qualifying for the expiring production tax credit for wind.

Dec. 12, 2012, update: According to Pattern Energy, the Ocotillo wind power plant was not in commercial operation. “The turbines are in the testing phase and energization phase, so technicians are currently running a number of tests on them. We’ll likely make an announcement later this month once the project is commercially operational,” Pattern spokesman Matt Dallas told EarthTechling.

Jan 9, 2013, update: Pattern announced 94 turbines had been put into operation in December, and that the remaining 18 turbines will be installed this spring.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

    • Bill Pate

      This project is a false claim fraud. The wind resources are easily verfiable using actual project coordinates like -116.041,32.74270. At 80 meters of hub height the average wind speeds comport with Pattern’s admission in a loan application of only an average of 6.2 m/s winds or Class 2 — marginal.  Specifically in the Eastern half at lower elevations of 600 to 300 feet above sea level, the wind speeds were only around 5.65 m/s (Class 1– Poor).  Towards the West where very few turbines are actually located the winds at 1200 feet of elevation are better, around 7.0 m/s — Class 3.  The middle span of the project is around 6.0 to 6.5 (Class 2 to Class 3).  Again Pattern’s number was an average of 6.2 m/s across the eight mile site, which only amounts to a Class 2 average.  Pattern’s figures were purportedly derived from the met data of 7,000 hours provided to BLM, and we firmly believe Pattern selected the best data since the met masts have been up for over three years, and 7,000 hours doesn’t even equal a full calendar year. In the end this project is a shell game for private gain, and according to filings with the CPUC will afford SDGE full rate payer recovery when the shell corp Ocotillo Express LLC goes under in a few years.

    • http://www.facebook.com/mark.meech.7 Mark Meech

      The facts are his area just will not produce enough wind to make the power they claim. Besides it is not about the power it is only about the money. With out the tax credits, almost free land, and government funding this project is a financial looser.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jim.pelley.5 Jim Pelley

      These Siemens turbines are rated at 2.3 megawatts or 2,300
      kilowatts at maximum capacity which requires around 28 mph winds to produce
      this kind of power. The average wind speeds in Ocotillo are just over 10 mph,
      at 10 mph winds these turbines put out around 600 kilowatts, this is on the extreme
      low end of the duty cycle. According to the department of energy website this
      is considered to be class 2 wind speeds which are considered “Poor to Marginal”
      for development of an industrial scale wind project. Pattern states that they
      have done 3 years of testing on the MET towers. Simple math: 24 hours in a day
      times 365 days in a year = 8,760 hours of testing = 1 year. The MET towers were
      up for 3 years which = 8,760×3=26,280 hours of testing. Why then that Pattern only referenced 7,700 hours
      of MET wind speed data to come up with 10.7 mph average wind speeds in the
      final environmental impact study report? This isn’t even a full year; it’s only
      10.7 months, why didn’t they use the full 3 years of wind speed data? If they
      would have used the full 12 months for the wind speed study and included all
      days of full year which encompasses the full 4 seasons would it have been worse
      than 10.7 mph? We have done some “Ocotillo Myth Buster” testing to try to see
      if there are stronger winds at higher elevations in Ocotillo. When the wind is
      not blowing on the ground level we have released helium balloons and they go
      straight up. We have shot off model rockets that go over 500 feet high and
      deploy a parachute and they come straight down. Four months out of the year we
      get some winds that may generate some power on the low end of the duty cycle,
      that’s it. Eight months out of the year it’s hit or miss, maybe if a storm
      comes in we get some winds. This project would not exist if not for the
      taxpayer hand out and basically free land from BLM. I feel that this $600
      million dollar project will never pay for itself. I feel that ratepayers in San
      Diego will be seeing higher rates to make up for this loss. Bottom line, the
      little bit of power this project will generate does not justify the destruction
      of the cultural sensitive, beautiful land that cannot be undone.

      Concerned Ocotillo Resident Opposing this project.

      • http://www.facebook.com/petedanko Pete Danko

        Jim, thanks for your comments (and thank you Mark and Bill below, as well). Wind dynamics are so complex that even with your diligent efforts to try to figure out the Ocotillo resource, it’s difficult to say the data you present has great value. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. That just seems to be a reality of the situation. For instance, average speed is interesting, but it’s actually not the ultimate way to assess a site. You can have sites with the same average wind speed that will produce radically different amounts of power. As my go-to man Gipe notes, “Because power is a cubic function of wind speed, periods of strong winds contribute far more to annual energy production that would be indicated by the average speed alone. Thus it’s critical to know the distribution of wind speeds throughout the period…” The point being, our — yours, mine — ability to assess Ocotillo as a wind resource without extensive, reliable, professionally obtained data is very, very limited. But apart from all that, the overriding issue is that the developers of this project — the people who put money behind it — have an interest in it succeeding. Yes, there are factors that mitigate their risk, but to at least some degree everyone fares better here the more the wind blows. The PTC, for instance, is based on production…. Anyhow, if you’re right, I guess there might be an up side, right: less noise.

    • jmtcw

      Why is it that I just learned more about the project in the comments than the actual article? This is interesting, relevant … and wasn’t explored at all in the article.

      • http://www.facebook.com/petedanko Pete Danko

        Based on reading and talking to various expert sources on wind and wind turbines, I concluded that the information presented by the group is of little to no value in assessing the possible performance of the wind farm.