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Beefing up Alberta WIND POWER with Blackspring Ridge

Building the largest wind farm in western Canada-EDF EN Canada's 300-MW Blackspring Ridge wind project-brought some challenges, including working with a significant network of collector lines from oil wells on the site, but EPC contractor Mortenson Constr

By Paul MacDonald

The Canadian province of Alberta is no newcomer to wind power. Well known for its traditional energy reserves of oil and gas (as well as its high quality beef), Alberta has been referred to as the "Texas of Canada". The province now has more than 15 operating wind farms, with a total capacity of more than 1,400 MW of wind power in operation.

The provincial numbers were recently increased in a big way with the completion of the 300-MW Blackspring Ridge wind farm in southwestern Alberta, a project owned by EDF EN Canada and energy company Enbridge Inc. Blackspring Ridge is now the largest wind project in western Canada and among the largest in all of Canada.

EDF EN Canada is a green energy pioneer and market leader in Canada with over 1,370 MW of wind and solar energy in varying stages of development, active construction, and operation. The $600 million Blackspring Ridge project represents the largest investment in wind energy in western Canada. At the time, it also represented the largest order to date for Vestas wind turbines in Canada; some 166 Vestas V100-1.8 MW wind turbines were used on the project.

The project had a short construction schedule-11 months from breaking ground to completion-but it came together well, thanks to significant pre-planning on the part of its owners and EPC contractor Mortenson Construction.

The company that developed Blackspring Ridge-and subsequently sold it to EDF EN Canada and Enbridge-Calgary-based Greengate Power, has been very active in recent years. It also developed the 150-MW Halkirk wind farm in Alberta. Renewable energy credits for both projects have been sold to California's Pacific Gas and Electric under a 20-year contract, which helped make the projects viable.

Greengate hired Mortenson early on in the Blackspring Ridge project, explained Brent Bergland, general manager for Mortenson, who said that when they were brought in, development activities were not complete.

"That's a position we prefer to be in," he added. "We feel we have a lot to offer our customers before all the ingredients are baked into a development."

There are various ways to design and execute wind projects, and with Mortenson's background of 140 wind projects and more than 15,000 MW of built wind power capacity, they have a solid background of experience on a variety of projects, he noted.

"We've done projects with one owner, multiple owners, different sized projects, different turbine manufacturers, throughout North America. When you couple all that experience together, we're able to help our customers by ensuring they have the most optimal wind power project possible."

If a project owner or developer is able to get the contractor involved in the early stages of a project, the best decisions can be made-and planned out-related to the road network, the erection of turbines, and routing electrical collection systems, he added. Specific to Blackspring Ridge, Bergland said Mortenson was able to achieve significant cost savings by optimizing the infrastructure layouts.

 
  

"A piece that was unique to the Blackspring Ridge project is that there were also restrictions on the infrastructure that went on the native grassland areas, so you really had to minimize the footprint impact there, in particular."

Consulting company Stantec carried out an environmental assessment of the project's impact on native prairie grasslands, and it developed a community-based land and resources management plan that supports the various interests and minimizes the impact on the land.

At the southern end of the project site-which totals about 100 square miles in southeastern Alberta-there is a significant network of oil gathering collector lines, for the various oil companies that are producing from wells on the site. The wind project essentially "cohabitates" with these energy companies, and during engineering and construction, Mortenson coordinated with all the existing buried oil transmission infrastructure-a significant task considering Blackspring Ridge required some 97 miles of collector lines.

Being involved early with the project was especially helpful in this regard, said Bergland.

"That's not something you investigate and plan out in a matter of weeks or a couple of months-you need to work on that for the better part of six to 12 months to get all the details worked out in dealing with the existing infrastructure before you actually go out and start construction."

In addition, of course, there is the coordination with the landowners on such a large project. "There was a significant number of landowners, and we did a lot of coordination and communication in areas such as how infrastructure was routed on their property.

"We take our relationships with the landowners very seriously-but we can't do it alone," says Bergland. "We need the developer alongside us, in managing land owner communications.

"It's imperative that you have people with experience with landowner relations, and all the details about the landowner leases, and at the same time be able to address real time their concerns about how construction activities might impact their crop operations or trucking operations or the movement of their livestock."

Bergland continues, "From our perspective, the EDF EN team is at the top in terms of having qualified, very experienced people to deal with landowners." Mortenson knows the company well. Although Blackspring Ridge is the first EDF EN Canada wind project to be constructed by Mortenson, it marks the 26th wind project to be built by Mortenson for the EDF EN Group in North America.

Some of the landowners were actually closely involved with the project, providing Mortenson with access to water for construction purposes or performing some of the civil work required with their own heavy equipment. "We had some very engaged landowners," said Bergland.

 
At the time, the Blackspring Ridge wind project represented the largest order to date for Vestas wind turbines in Canada; some 166 Vestas V100-1.8 MW wind turbines were used on the project. 
  

The 48,000-acre site, which is about 60 miles north of Alberta's boundary with Montana, is mostly farmland with canola and cattle operations. The site is rolling land-with some areas a bit more rolling than others.

"There were a few turbine locations that we classified as terrain challenged." There were some sites with access roads with grades of 10 percent or slightly higher.

"That creates some challenges," says Bergland. "But if you engineer it and execute it properly, it should be fine-and it was."

Unlike some other wind project sites, which can be somewhat jigsaw-puzzle-like in their sprawling land mass, Blackspring Ridge, at about 10 miles by 10 miles, was very contiguous.

"That was a big benefit for engineering and construction," noted Bergland. "We did not have broken up land parcels, which can make the construction and installation process inefficient.

"In fact, in my experience in the dozen wind projects I have been involved with in Canada, Blackspring Ridge has clearly been the most efficiently laid out from that standpoint."

Mortenson and its construction workers on site would be the envy of most other wind projects in this regard. The 300-MW project is made up of 166 Vestas V100-1.8 MW wind turbines-and they did not have to disassemble a single crane on site in erecting those turbines.

"The cranes were able to move freely through the entire Blackspring Ridge project," said Bergland. Contrast this with other projects, some as small as 15 turbines, where cranes might have to be disassembled as many as eight or nine times. "That has a big impact on your construction costs and efficiency."

As with any wind power project, just because you have the cranes to move, does not mean you are always able to move them; weather can, and does, get in the way.

Like most of Canada, and a good part of the U.S., this area of Alberta was hit by the Polar Vortex during construction in the winter of 2013/2014-and the vortex brought high winds and extremely cold temperatures. "We were smack dab in the middle of it," says Bergland.

"There's some irony in building wind projects," he added. "You are building wind farms in areas that are, well, windy. And you don't want the wind to blow when you are erecting turbines-it's always a challenge.

 
  

"You have to go into these projects knowing how unproductive things are going to be at certain times of year, due to bad weather."

There were times when they had to shut down construction because it was simply too cold or windy for people or equipment to work. "You just have to plan for it," says Bergland. "You can't go into a project thinking you are not going to be impacted by Mother Nature."

With winter weather-especially severe weather-planning is sometimes done on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis.

"We have a lot of experience with weather building wind farms, but we also have weather forecasting tools that we can utilize to get a good 24 or 48 hour look ahead in weather," says Bergland.

Weather conditions can change rapidly in certain locations, and Mortenson needs to be ready to take advantage of good weather windows to get work done. Conversely, if they know bad weather is ahead, they can plan ahead and re-schedule some work, at least as much as you can plan around Mother Nature, says Bergland.

Construction companies such as Mortenson have plenty of experience at getting the trades people they need for wind projects, but even they can run into challenges getting people in some areas-such as Alberta and perhaps North Dakota in the U.S., which is seeing a boom in shale oil development.

In Alberta, despite the drop in oil prices, trades people are in good demand in the northern part of the province, where multi-billion dollar oil sands mega projects operate, and several more are under construction.

Mortenson knew the situation going in. "Part of the reason for spending so much upfront time planning is you need to plan for engineering and procurement, but sourcing your craft labor is also very important. Being able to finish the Blackspring Ridge project on schedule in spite of the severe winter weather conditions we faced was actually a testament to the craft laborers we had working with us."

The skilled labor situation required resourcefulness.

"On certain parts of the project," Bergland explained, "we were self-performing some of the electrical work with our own electricians, people we had sourced in the area. That was a better solution for us than trying to subcontract some of that work out. So we had greater, direct control over our own craft labor on the Blackspring Ridge project. We feel strongly that doing that allows us to have a better safety culture, do high quality work, and hit the production targets we want to achieve."

And safety, he emphasizes, is a top priority for Mortenson. "We take great pride in our safety culture-but it doesn't just happen. You have to plan for it and staff for it. And when you are starting work with new partners, you have to take additional steps to make sure that everyone who is working on the project site is buying in and promoting the culture." The minute you have an individual or company that has not bought in, the safety culture and program can break down.

 
Like most of Canada, and a good part of the U.S., the area of Alberta where the Blackspring Ridge wind project is located was hit by the Polar Vortex during construction in the winter of 2013/2014—the vortex brought high winds and extremely cold temperatures. 
  

"We want everyone to succeed," explains Bergland. "If you find shortcomings in safety practices, it sometimes takes some extra time to re-tool efforts."

Like all of the major construction companies involved in wind projects, Mortenson faces the task of lining up good companies and suppliers to work with on each new job.

"It's a continual process," says Bergland. "We have people who are dedicated to building wind farms at Mortenson-people in the design phase, estimating, operations. And we leverage our many years of experience and have developed a set of criteria-operational, financial, safety, quality criteria, that we need to make sure all our partners adhere to."

As Bergland notes, you don't find the best people and companies by working behind a computer terminal. "That's part of it, but you need to get out into the communities. And we also utilize the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) annual conference and regional gatherings to talk with people and network with companies that we might want to hire on projects."

It can take months to assemble the right team to do the key work on a major wind project, he says.

Among the major suppliers on the Blackspring Ridge project was electrical equipment supplier HD Supply. The Crossing Company, of Nisku, Alberta, was in charge of the drilling below roads and pipelines.

As the turbine supplier, Vestas was part of the Blackspring Ridge wind project team. Vestas was able to deliver all the turbine components to a railhead near the city of Lethbridge, about 45 minutes from the project site. That was the staging area, with components deployed to the site as needed.

"I think having the staging area so close was one of the key aspects to the project going so well," says Bergland, who noted that with some projects, the components are transported using multiple forms of transportation, from multiple locations, and at different times. "I would say that what we had with Blackspring Ridge was pretty close to ideal."

There was a good road system in place to move the turbine components to the site, and once there, Mortenson built 35 kilometers of new access roads to the individual turbine sites.

The 11-month construction schedule was aggressive, but the project was completed on time and on budget. With such a tight timeline, there was a great deal of work going on at the site at points, says Bergland.

"When you are working on a large project like Blackspring Ridge with that kind of a timeline, you end up having a tremendous amount of major activities going on at the same time-you might be building roads, putting in turbine foundations, doing electrical work, installing the turbines, building the sub-station, all at the same time."

When a company has a 100-square-mile site, and you're building one of the largest wind farms in Canada with 166 turbines, there are undoubtedly challenges. "All these things will not be starting and finishing at the same time, and this creates a demand for supervisory oversight, especially on the safety and quality control systems."

That's hardly new to Mortenson, which has dozens of wind projects under its belt-and with Blackspring Ridge now complete, more projects are currently underway.

Bergland says the company had an active 2014 and is looking forward to a busy year in 2015, both in the U.S. and Canada, with a number of projects on the roster. They're ready to take on more, he says. "We've got the capacity, and we're always willing to take on more projects."

 


March/April 2015