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Tower talk: Wind blows, testing goes

River Falls agreed last year to let Madison-based EcoEnergy install a 197-foot wind-test tower on a hill in the Whitetail Ridge Corporate Park. The company plans to gather wind-speed data through April next year to see if it warrants a permanent 400-foot turbine.

Alex DePillis, an EcoEnergy wind-monitoring engineer, said if the data pans out and the company installs a permanent wind turbine, it would generate enough electricity to power for a year about 350 homes or one of the city's big industrial businesses.

"The wind-generated electricity would be carried by the city's lines and used wherever it's needed at the time," said DePillis about the potential wind-generated power.

He said engineers will examine the test data beginning in about April next year. The process of deciding whether to install a permanent tower could take up to six months.

DePillis said the three main factors affecting that decision are wind power, cost of installation and the going price of electricity.

Other dynamics affect the decision, too.

For example, the go-ahead for a permanent tower could depend on how busy the big cranes are at the time; how much concrete and other materials cost; even the availability of wind-turbine components.

Sometimes the judgment also depends on if turbine manufacturers are keeping up with demand.

When asked how the data looks after six months, DePillis said, "I would describe the wind resource as medium -- neither good nor bad. Wind speed will combine with other factors to determine the feasibility of installing wind power at the site."

He said he's shared much information with the city's Powerful Choices leadership committee and with folks at UW-River Falls. Both groups are focused on reaching the high bar of sustainable energy goals and part of governor-designated initiatives going on now.

He told the local entities that an effective wind turbine would never go even 24 hours without generating energy, even during a weak-wind month such as August.

The idea being, DePillis said, "Even during that month, when you looked up the hill, you'd very likely see the blades turning, generating electricity for the city."

The engineer knows of no other towers in the region that are "tall enough to be meaningful" for purposes of comparison to River Falls' wind speed. Smaller towers and those people put up for residential use don't give scientists an idea if the area has enough wind speed for a high-production turbine.

If it proves feasible, a permanent turbine would stand nearly 400 feet tall, and River Falls would use the electricity it generated.

DePillis said the test tower requires little maintenance after it's installed. Crews perform a check right afterward then the tower produces data that tells engineers if it's operating correctly.

"Unless there are problems, no other maintenance is needed," he said.

So engineers wait, as do the local entities with ambitious renewable-energy and savings goals.

DePillis said after the test period ends, they'll look at the three main factors, evaluate the data, talk about costs and contracts and then decide if EcoEnergy will build the permanent tower.

He said, "In my experience, working together on a large goal takes a lot of time to coordinate and collaborate. The vision and the goal are in place, and just that is a lot more than you can say for many other communities in the state."

He said River Falls is a good partner, a forward-thinking municipality. He said the city's power supplier, Wisconsin Public Power, Inc., sees good potential in wind power because it's readily available right here in Wisconsin, it lowers the price risk associated with coal or natural gas, and it's clean.