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Harnessing the wild, wild wind

Its giant windmills remain still, but Smoky Hills Wind Farm already is generating economic activity in north-central Kansas. Between 200 and 250 workers are constructing the facility -- building roads, erecting turbines and assembling electrical systems that will collect and distribute the 100 megawatts of power that will be generated -- and about two-thirds of them have been hired locally.

Its giant windmills remain still, but Smoky Hills Wind Farm already is generating economic activity in north-central Kansas.

Between 200 and 250 workers are constructing the facility -- building roads, erecting turbines and assembling electrical systems that will collect and distribute the 100 megawatts of power that will be generated -- and about two-thirds of them have been hired locally.

Building wind farms requires specialized skills, and with the wind industry just beginning to catch its stride in the United States, qualified workers can be tough to find.

"It's quite difficult," said Glenn Melski, vice president and regional manager for Enel North America, which will own and operate Smoky Hills Wind Farm about 25 miles west of Salina. "It's not so much that the work itself is unique or highly specialized, but the experience factor comes into play to a great extent. You're talking about high-dollar items, and I think that, as an owner, you want to be confident the group you're hiring is experienced and can show some success from prior projects.

"You get a lot of contractors that will throw qualifications on the table or will basically qualify themselves as able to do the job, and when... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Its giant windmills remain still, but Smoky Hills Wind Farm already is generating economic activity in north-central Kansas.

Between 200 and 250 workers are constructing the facility -- building roads, erecting turbines and assembling electrical systems that will collect and distribute the 100 megawatts of power that will be generated -- and about two-thirds of them have been hired locally.

Building wind farms requires specialized skills, and with the wind industry just beginning to catch its stride in the United States, qualified workers can be tough to find.

"It's quite difficult," said Glenn Melski, vice president and regional manager for Enel North America, which will own and operate Smoky Hills Wind Farm about 25 miles west of Salina. "It's not so much that the work itself is unique or highly specialized, but the experience factor comes into play to a great extent. You're talking about high-dollar items, and I think that, as an owner, you want to be confident the group you're hiring is experienced and can show some success from prior projects.

"You get a lot of contractors that will throw qualifications on the table or will basically qualify themselves as able to do the job, and when you get into it, then you realize there's some layers that are more complex than you've thought of. It certainly has happened on certain jobs in the past."

For the Smoky Hills project, workers have been drawn from nearby Lincoln and Ellsworth as well as Salina, Melski said.

"I think we're very happy with the people we've got on this job," he said.

Wind farms generally are placed in remote areas, which can make it a challenge to find workers, said Michael Herseth, project engineer for general contractor Mortenson Construction of Minneapolis, Minn. But that hasn't been a problem at Smoky Hills, which broke ground in June and is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year.

"There's a lot of people in this area," Herseth said. "Maybe not always the skilled help we're looking for, and I don't want to make that sound demeaning in any way, it's just specialized work that we're doing out here, and it's not always easy to find people. We've had some really good help."

Windy conditions on wind projects can make already challenging work even more difficult, Herseth said.

"It's a challenge, because it's not your typical commercial project," he said. "A lot of people are trained for your typical building or that kind of thing. You're exposed to the elements a lot more working in the middle of these fields with the wind and dust and stuff. It's a little bit of a different working environment."

Winds at the facility average 21 mph, so gusts don't have to be too abnormally high before it becomes a hindrance to the construction project. So far, the wind has caused crews to have to adjust their activities more than 25 times, including some instances in which activities had to be halted.

"It's your best friend, once you're operational," Melski said of the wind. "Until then, it's your worst enemy."

Subcontractors on the job include APAC-Kansas of Salina, a civil contractor whose duties included construction of a gravel road system that connects the farm's 56 turbines. Other contractors include Denmark-based turbine manufacturer Vestas, which has a U.S. office in Oregon.

Workers are staying in various towns in the area, Melski said.

"It's a mix," he said. "Some are in Ellsworth. Some are trying to rent locally in Lincoln. Quite a few are in Salina, also."

Vestas, which is in charge of installing the turbines, brought 14 of its own employees and hired about 20 locally, project manager Pepe Ramirez said.

"We've got a good bunch of people here," Ramirez said. "So far, we don't have any complaints. So far, it's been great."

Once the facility opens sometime next spring, Vestas will be in charge of maintaining the structures for the next five to 10 years, Ramirez said. Many of the locally hired employees, who are required to take a course through Vestas, will be retained as part of the maintenance team, he said.

"Most of these guys are here for good," Ramirez said.

As owner of the facility, Enel will have about six full-time staff to operate it, said Jason Martinson, who will be in charge of the facility as operations supervisor.

"I'll hire them directly from here," said Martinson, who is being transplanted from his home state of Minnesota to oversee the operation.

Martinson said he was pleased to find out about a wind-energy technology program is being offered at Cloud County Community College in Concordia, which is only about an hour's drive from the wind farm.

"That's going to help with our employee pool," he said. "Trying to find individuals in this industry with any experience in wind is almost impossible. There's a huge demand for anybody with any experience in wind right now."

Opportunities also abound for businesses in Lincoln 13 miles north of the project, said Bob Crangle, a volunteer who has been involved with developing the wind project since 2002.

"There certainly has been a lot of activity in the city of Lincoln," Crangle said. "It's impacted to some extent the filling stations and restaurants and the quick shops. There's been interest in some of the real estate as people move into the area that are going to be permanently assigned (at the wind farm)."

Vicki Meier, co-owner of Lincoln Building Supply, said the wind farm was responsible for about $10,000 in business in the month of October.

"It sure has increased our sales," Meier said. "It can be anything from plywood pieces to marking pens to peanut oil to simple shop towels."

Crangle, a Lincoln attorney, said he sees future benefits as well.

"Over the long term, I anticipate it will increase the property values in the area of the wind farm itself," Crangle said. "I anticipate it will increase tourism, because there have already been people who got off (Interstate Highway 70) who had no other reason to get off I-70 but wanted to look at it and went into Lincoln to some of the stores in town. That will only intensify and be a continued impact."


n Reporter Darrin Stineman can be reached at 822¬­-1416 or by e-mail at dstineman@salina.com.


Source: http://www.saljournal.com/r...

NOV 25 2007
http://www.windaction.org/posts/12074-harnessing-the-wild-wild-wind
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