GONE WITH THE WIND: 25 wind turbines damaged; witness saw explosive blue light before Campo-area wind farm went dark
“I saw a huge flash of blue out on the side of the hill where the windmills were. It started in the middle and spread out in all directions. It lit up the whole hillside the white-out of a snowstorm."--Ken Daubach, ex-firefighter, who witnessed the power go down
By Miriam Raftery
February 10, 2010 (Campo) – Battered by a winter storm on December 7, all 25 wind turbines at the Kumeyaay Wind project on the Campo Indian Reservation shut down---and haven’t come back on line two months later.
At a January 28 public scoping meeting, Boulevard Planning Group Chair Donna Tisdale asked the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct a formal public health and safety investigation. The wind project was developed by Pattern Energy.
“All 75 blades from all 25 turbines were removed and only some of the FAA required lights are working,” Tisdale wrote. “There is speculation that the high winds flowing across the composite blades created an electrostatic discharge that then arced between turbines damaging the blades and the electrical system.”
Ken Daubach, a former firefighter, was driving home from work as a prison guard the night the damage occurred. “I was following a snow plough, very slow, doing maybe 5 to 7 miles per hour, heading westbound on I-8,” he told East County Magazine. “I saw a huge flash of blue out on the side of the hill where the windmills were. It started in the middle and spread out in all directions…It lit up the whole hillside in a white-out of a snowstorm…Then it was all black.“
Daubach and Tisdale express concern that such massive failure could pose danger to residents should it reoccur. The failure occurred when there was snow on the ground. But Daubach notes, “Had it been dry, I think we’d probably have had a fire.”
In written comments provided to ECM, Daubach stated that SDG&E had a power outage in the area the day of the storm. He wonders whether a power surge following an outage might have caused the blue flash that he saw. He said Emmerton confirmed that “while rerouting power, they had inadvertently been taken off-the-grid that day, too. He admitted that they have no idea what is wrong.”
Although an earlier news report speculated that the damage was caused by lightning, Daubach asid, “I didn’t hear any thunder.” According to the Union-Tribune, David Barnes, chief executive of Bluarc Management in Dallas, operator of the wind farm, has since acknowledged that no turbines were struck by lightning. “We’re mobilizing equipment and spare parts to the site,” Barnes told the Union-Tribune in a January 13 article, adding that workers are inspecting and repairing all 75 blades. He attributed high winds to the cracking, but has offered no public explanation of the flash seen by Daubach.
Daubach said he contacted Barnes in late January, and that it took considerable digging to locate contact information for the site operator. He says he also talked to a site manager, Neal Emmerton, and explained what he saw.
According to Daubach, he has also twice spoken with an engineer who works at the wind farm, whom he met into at a nearby gas station. “He said he was regenerating something inside at 10:30 that night—but his story changed; his original statement was that he was under the windmills at 10:30. Last time, he said he was just glad nobody got hurt. This was the worst possible failure, catastrophic failure…So what happened?”
In a written statement, Daubach noted that a controller for the wind farm said the manufacturer was “not being cooperative and that SDG&E had shut down the turbines numerous times due to putting in steel poles” and that “due to the insurance company and investors,” the company needed to “get the turbines up and running quickly.”
Barnes did not return calls from ECM. Campo Indians tribal chair Monique LaChappa also has not returned a phone message left yesterday. ECM will publish their comments if we receive responses.
The wind turbines are designed to stop spinning at wind speeds above 50 mph. Daubach estimated gusts of around 45 mph. “I can tell you it was moving my truck.” Asked how often winds that strong are felt in the area, he replied, “Too often. At least once a month."
But Andy Degroot, who lives about a mile and a half from the wind farm, told ECM that he has a wind indicator—and it measured 75 mph wind speeds the night of the storm. “That’s the highest we’ve recorded, and we’ve had that thing probably five years,” he said. He photographed the wind speed measurement on his cell phone.
Degroot confirmed that he did not hear any thunder on December 7th, either.
Degroot told ECM that he went up to the wind farm the day after the blades stopped turning to check the damage.
“I walked right up there and got underneath them. A lot of the blades were split. Chunks were torn out of them,” he said. “It was pretty severe damage,” he said, adding that he did not see any burn marks on blades. He took photos of the damage, which he has shared with ECM. “Then I got kicked out,” he recalled, adding that he did not see any no trespassing signs.
His photos showed severe damage, including one blade with one-third to one-half of its approximately 90-foot-length blade missing.
Photos also reveal what appears to be substantial oil leakage from machinery down the length of the massive tower. Pointing to the photo of an area where the substance was leaking from, he observed, “That’s the size of a two-car garage, approximately. They’re touting them as cheap, clean energy. They’re not that clean.”
Degroot said he did not observe any blades or portions of blades that had flown far enough afield to have damaged persons or property outside the wind farm, or on Interstate 8.
The night of the storm, something also happened to lights at the facility. “I’m looking at all 25 windmills right now,” he said in a phone interview. “We have one that’s closest to us that has a white strobe on it. It used to be red at night and now it stays white. When it’s hazy outside and it blinks, it’s a huge flash in the sky. After a while, it gets pretty annoying.” He said he’s talked to an employee who told him they are aware of the problem, but haven’t gotten around to fixing it.”
Tisdale revealed, “One wind farm employee told me that he cannot get permission to repair that light.
Degroot is worried that the catastrophe could reoccur. “I’m sure it could happen again because these are huge blades,” he said. “They’re like ninety-some feet long. I don’t know what they changed on this new group that’s going to be different than the old style.”
Others share that concern. The consequences of a wildfire started in this windy backcountry region are all-too-well known, as the Cedar, Witch and Harris fires have proven. Those fires charred hundreds of thousands of acres and cost many lives.
The Harris fire started in nearby Potrero, where 100-mph winds swiftly fanned flames that forced evacuations as far east as Chula Vista and killed several people. The Witch Fire, also in 2007, began in mountainous Ramona and forced evacuation all the way to the coast in Solana Beach. Together, those fires and others ignited during the same Santa Ana windy period caused half a million people to evacuate—more than during Hurricane Katrina. The 2003 Cedar Fire, at the time the worst in California history, killed 17 people.
Tisdale cites concern over electrical arcing from turbines that extends beyond Campo. “What danger does this type of static discharge represent, especially if turbines are placed on public lands in recreation areas, and adjacent to private properties? “ she asked in her request for an investigation.
She added, “How will the increased threat of fire and other damage from more turbines impact our insurance? Rates will like rise, and insurance will be denied to some homeowners,” Tisdale predicted. “It is already hard to get insurance in this high fire danger area.”
Update 2011: Over a year later, fallen blades and turbine parts litter the ground in Campo as litigation is ongoing over this catstrophic failure. See photo below.