Renewed energy: Continuing education class gets inside look of wind farm

May 7, 2019

With renewable energy growing in the U.S., a class of continuing education students got an inside look at a company that is producing wind-generated energy near Idaho Falls.

Wind energy is expected to surpass all other forms of renewable energy this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewable fuels, including wind, solar and hydroelectric generation, are expected to produce 18 percent of U.S. electricity in 2019 and almost 20 percent in 2020.

Invenergy, an international wind, solar and natural gas company, with projects in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, will produce some of that energy at its Wolverine Creek wind turbine facility, about 6 miles east of Idaho Falls near Bone Road.

Idaho State University’s Friends for Learning, a continuing education program for people 50 and older, toured the facility Thursday.

Friends for Learning has hundreds of members, who typically learned about the program through word of mouth, said Mary Zacher, 62.

“They give tours like this, they do lectures at the university,” Zacher said. “People in the community come in and give lectures on history, health, just anything that anybody’s interested in. It gives (members) a great opportunity to meet others, along with keeping our brains active and getting educated.”

Melissa Nuttall, an administrative assistant for Invenergy, led the tour.

Nuttall answered questions from an engaged group of dozens of retired and semi-retired group members, who wondered how wind turbines are constructed, how much energy they produce and where that energy goes.

“We want to participate in community events and do good things for our neighbors,” she said.

Invenergy operates 43 of the 189 wind turbines in the hills east of Idaho Falls. It’s one of four companies with turbines in the area. Invenergy’s Wolverine Creek site opened in 2005.

The turbines’ blades are made of fiberglass and a lightweight wood. The three blades on each turbine are designed to catch wind in the same manor as airplane wings. A computer, which can track wind speeds, controls the blades. It stops the turbine when the wind is too slow or too fast and changes the blades’ direction, if necessary.

“During low wind speeds they’ll pitch into the wind to catch that lift, and during high wind they’ll pitch out and still spin anyway with the amount of wind that’s blowing,” Nuttall said.

The 1.5-megawatt turbines, including the 262-foot towers, cost about $2 million each and produce about $2,000 worth of energy every day. Invenergy’s entire Wolverine Creek site can generate about 65 megawatts.

By comparison, Idaho Falls Power’s hydroelectric turbines generate between 8 and 23 megawatts of power each. The majority of Idaho Falls’ electricity, managed by the municipal power authority, Idaho Falls Power, comes from hydropower plants. Idaho Falls does not get power from Invenergy.

Invenergy’s turbines are below average in size, compared to the rest of the wind energy industry. Some of the largest turbines, more than 500 feet tall that produce 8 megawatts of energy, are manufactured by companies such as Vestas and Siemens Gamesa. The bigger the turbine, the more energy it produces.

The energy produced by the Invenergy turbines is collected in a substation and sold to Rocky Mountain Power.

“It goes directly to Rocky Mountain Power, and it stays really local, here in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada,” Nuttall said. “It’s like a river; whatever we don’t use gets sent on down the line.”

Turbines are assembled and maintained using cranes. Also, there is a ladder, inside the tower, that goes all the way to the top.

Invenergy’s turbine towers have foundations about 10 feet deep and 10 feet across. They’re built on private land, leased from property-owners, who can farm or ranch on the land around the turbines.

“All of our sites are always on private property,” Nuttall said. “It’s up to the landowner if we can build on their property, and then we come up with an agreement for 30 years.”

The lifespan of a turbine is 30 years, with quarterly maintenance.

Zacher said the tour was educational, and she got a lot out of it.

“To find out how little they do produce and the cost of them ... that was good to know,” she said. “I think everyone was pleased to know that the power they do produce is kept local.”

Nuttall said Invenergy does tours at its site quite often, although typically they’re with grade school children.

“This is the third time we’ve had Friends for Learning up here,” she said. “They have really good questions. The kids just want to know how many people die.”