Contractors work to fix another problem with UMPI windmill

Posted Oct. 11, 2011, at 8 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2011, at 5:24 a.m.
The wind turbine at the University of Maine at Presque Isle looms over the soccer and baseball fields at the university in May 2010. UMPI officials met Tuesday, Oct. 11 with the general contractor who installed the 600-kilowatt wind turbine to try to determine why it has been useless much of the spring and summer.
Courtesy of UMPI
The wind turbine at the University of Maine at Presque Isle looms over the soccer and baseball fields at the university in May 2010. UMPI officials met Tuesday, Oct. 11 with the general contractor who installed the 600-kilowatt wind turbine to try to determine why it has been useless much of the spring and summer.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Officials from the University of Maine at Presque Isle met Tuesday afternoon with the general contractor who installed a 600-kilowatt wind turbine on campus to try to determine why it has been useless much of the spring and summer.

Don Zillman, president of the campus of roughly 1,600 students, said Tuesday that the contractor was called to diagnose why the 295-foot windmill shut down in mid-August and has not worked since. That shutdown came on the heels of a similar glitch that was resolved in July after the windmill had not been operational for about 70 days over the preceding seven months because of problems believed related to the turbine’s delicate sensor system.

The president said Tuesday that crews from the college’s general contractor, Lumus Construction Inc., came to the campus in late August to do routine maintenance on the turbine. The university partnered with Lumus, which has offices in Woburn, Mass., and Portland, on the $2 million project to install the turbine. Zillman said that crews shut down the turbine as part of the maintenance process and when they tried to start it up again, it would not run.

Diagnostic testing conducted last month revealed that a shaft in the nacelle had cracked. The nacelle facilitates blade movement and houses all of the generating components in the turbine, including the generator, gearbox, drive train and brake assembly.

The nacelle was manufactured in Chanai, India. Rather than wait for a part to be delivered from India, Zillman said that UMPI officials called on a local firm to construct a replacement part.

“If all goes well, that should get the windmill going later this week,” he said.

In May of 2009, UMPI became the first university campus in the state — and one of only a handful in New England — to install a midsized wind turbine to generate power.

The project was financed by UMPI’s internal savings and a $50,000 grant from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Campus officials said they anticipated that the turbine would produce about 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and save the institution more than $100,000 annually in electricity charges.

From July 1, 2009, to the end of March 2010, the university saw $85,000 in savings because of the windmill, according to figures provided by the university. The windmill generated 680,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity during the inaugural year.

Zillman said Tuesday that the university’s detailed contract requires that the general contractor have the turbine operational and ready to generate electricity when the wind is available 95 percent or more of the time. Since the start of 2011, however, that hasn’t happened.

The windmill should have saved slightly more than $100,000 in electricity costs, Zillman said, but with the shutdowns the turbine so far has generated only 580,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and saved an estimated $77,000.

“In our view, most of the cost of the repairs will be the general contractor’s responsibility,” said Zillman. “Right now, however, we just want to get this up and running. It is frustrating for us, because this is not new technology. Windmills like ours have been in operation in the U.S. and internationally for 35 years or more, and the shaft is not a part that you should have to replace every year or two.”

Zillman said that people who have always been against the installation of a turbine on campus continue to feel that way, but other than that, he hasn’t heard too many comments about the windmill problems.

“What I am hearing is that people want to see that windmill running, and it is a shame that it isn’t,” he said. “And we feel the same way. We had a great first year with this turbine with very few problems, so it is hard for us to sit and see all of these problems in year two.”

Because of contractual obligations and issues related to product warranties, Lumus is the only company that can maintain and repair the windmill under the warranty.

During the first year, the windmill was functional 96 percent of the time and had no major mechanical problems. In addition to lessening UMPI’s carbon footprint and serving as the centerpiece for several new energy-related courses on campus, the windmill is a training tool for students in the wind power technology program at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. Students in the program practice climbing the turbine and study its components when learning about repair and maintenance.

In order to be as transparent as possible, the university’s website features an online program that displays up-to-the-minute data points about UMPI’s turbine. But the recent problems have resulted in the loss of data about the operation of the turbine, so the university has been unable to post information related to wind speed and electricity generated.

Zillman said he hopes that the website problems will be resolved once the turbine is running again. If they can’t, the university will explore ways to continue to maintain it by manually posting windmill data once every few days.

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