By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Jim Pelley
November 21, 2016 (Ocotillo) – A 500-foot-tall wind turbine at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility collapsed this morning, spewing debris and three blades each weighing many tons across the desert floor.
ECM photographer Jim Pelley, an Ocotillo resident, says 30 minutes after the collapse, the other 111 turbines were still spinning and no one from Pattern Energy had arrived. Around an hour or more after the collapse, Pattern arrived and deenergized the entire project.
Pelley told East County Magazine that the ground was not saturated from rainfall and the foundation is intact, raising serious questions as to what caused the massive turbine to collapse and whether others could have a design or engineering flaw that could lead to similar failures. Winds were only 15 miles an hour or less during the three hours before the collapse. The tower bent into the wind, not away from it, and did not collapse at a joint in the three-piece tower, but in between.
Edie Harmon was outside her home five miles south of the wind farm around10:30 a.m. when she heard the turbine collapse. It sounded like “a massive explosion. I thought a military jet had crashed to the ground,“ she said in a phone interview with ECM.
When she drove home tonight, after the project was deenergized, she told ECM, "I didn’t see lighting on any of them. I sure hope we don’t have a low-flying Border Patrol plane.”
Harmon also voiced concerns over leakage of toxins into the ground and the aquifer below that provides the town’s drinking water, after such a major explosion.
Witnesses said the collapsed caused a loud boom and raised a cloud of dust. One witness told Pelley that blades were turning as the turbine collapsed and may have struck the tower.
Pelley, an aerospace engineer who has extensively documented this project since its inception, found that Pattern put larger blades than the towers were originall built to hold, in order to maximize production, replacing model 23-101 with 23-108. He speculated that bending back and forth under heavier blades, which are on all the turbines, may have caused the tower's central section to collapse.
While this turbine is in a remote location, others are located close to major roadways including Interstate 8, as well as homes, a school, and public trails on federal Bureau of Land Management property.
The website Ocotillo Wind Destruction has also posted this and other images, drawing posts from residents angry over the threat to public safety and lack of responsiveness thus far by pattern.
Parke Ewing, who has a turbine near his home, wrote, "Are they going to wait for someone to be killed before these unreliable monsters are decommissioned?" a reference to the fact that the project has failed to meet wind production capacity projections every year since it was built.
A 2014 award-winning ECM investigation, "Was it fraud?" exposed evidence suggesting the developer may have defrauded the federal government to secure wind production tax subsidies by falsifying a map to make the project appear to be 3,000 feet higher in altitude, at a sight with more wind than the actual location.
ECM has contacted Pattern Energy and left a message asking for information at the company’s La Jolla headquarters. We also called the BLM's Imperial County office, where staff was unaware of the collapse an hour after it occured. We contacted SDG&E, which responded that Sempra has been informed of the situation.