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Wind project takes on wildfires, COVID

The Rattlesnake Flat Wind Project took on a challenging construction period that included COVID-19 and wildfires, and is now delivering clean power in Washington State.

By Paul MacDonald

There's that saying about good things come to those who wait&nmdash;and it could certainly apply to the folks who live in Washington State's Adams County, who saw the fruition of close to a decade's work, with the start-up late last year of the 160 MW Rattlesnake Flat Wind Project.

In 2019, utility Avista, through a request for proposals, selected to purchase power generated by Rattlesnake Flat Wind, a wind energy facility permitted and developed by renewable energy developer Clearway Energy Group. Avista Utilities is the company's operating division, and provides electric service to 388,000 customers in the region. Its service territory covers 30,000 square miles in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and parts of southern and eastern Oregon, with a population of 1.6 million.

"Recent market changes, including reductions in the cost of wind power facilities and tax incentives, have combined to make this an excellent time to acquire long-term output from a cost-effective wind resource, which has the added benefit of being located in our service territory," said Jason Thackston, Senior Vice President of Energy Resources for Avista, when the project was announced.

"We've been closely working with key stakeholders in Adams County, developing partnerships with landowners, businesses and local government to enable this project, and entering into this long term partnership with Avista was a very exciting next step," said Benjamin Fairbanks, Senior Director of Wind Development at Clearway.

Though it has more than 5 gigawatts of wind, solar, and energy storage assets in 25 states and a development pipeline across the U.S., the Rattlesnake Flat Wind project marked Clearway's first wind project in Washington State.

The wind farm is the largest renewable energy facility in Adams County with the capacity to generate enough renewable energy to power about 37,600 of Avista's customers' homes. Situated on approximately 20,000 acres near the town of Lind, Rattlesnake Flat Wind ties into Avista's electric system via Avista's Lind/Washtucna transmission line.

At the project's opening, Hilary Franz, Washington's Commissioner of Public Lands, noted the project was built using a Project Labor Agreement&nmdash;it was one of the first utility-scale renewable energy projects in the state to do so since the passage of the Clean Energy Transformation Act&nmdash;and created hundreds of good-paying, union jobs in Adams County.

"And, because this project is partially on public land, the revenue we generate from Clearway's lease will directly fund local government services and school construction while also helping diversify the county's economy," she added. "This project is a model for how we, working together, can strengthen our environment and our economy."

During construction, Rattlesnake Flat Wind created approximately 250 jobs, and 10 full time jobs will be sustained to operate and maintain the wind farm going forward. The project invested $12 million into the local economy and will invest a further $350,000 each year during operations. It will also contribute $1.5 million in property tax revenue in its first year of operation and an annual average of approximately $700,000 each year for the next 30 years.

 
  

Blattner Energy, Inc. led the construction of the project. Additional safety measures were put in place to keep site staff safe from COVID-19. Despite the challenges posed by the virus, the project was built on schedule.

Clearway Energy Group's Ben Fairbanks has been involved with the Rattlesnake Flat project through several different owners, including its originating company, First Wind. At the time, back in 2011, First Wind did the 105 MW Palouse Wind project for Avista, also in Washington State, which Fairbanks oversaw.

One of the companies that eventually owned rights to the project, NRG Energy, transferred the project to Clearway several years back, when NRG Energy sold off its renewables business. So, Fairbanks, now with Clearway, was reunited with the project, close to a decade later.

"As I moved companies in that time, so had the project moved companies," he says.

Part of the attraction of the Rattlesnake Flat Wind project to Avista is that it is within the utility's service territory, so it could generate power for the company without involving the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). The cost of the power generated by an Avista-owned project is more cost effective, as a result.

As with any Clearway wind power project, Fairbanks explained, they look for sites with good wind resources, access to transmission, good constructability, supportive land use and a good permitting environment&nmdash;and Rattlesnake Flat ticked those boxes.

"Adams County had also been very proactive, and passed one of the first wind energy ordinances in the State of Washington," said Fairbanks. The ordinance effectively respected the wishes of local residents, but was also developer-friendly. In fact, the county's Economic Development Council had installed some met towers, to help identify wind resources, for possible wind power projects.

Rattlesnake Flat reflects its name, in that the site is relatively flat. "It's locally known as a geographic feature or modest plateau, that is relatively flat, and just happens to be oriented perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction," says Fairbanks.

The land in the area is mostly used for growing wheat, with large family-owned farms, some of them a century old.

"We ended up working with approximately 25 landowners, which is probably a few more than you would think you would need. But we had over 10 miles to get to the point of interconnect. With the way the flat is oriented, and the property is divided on section lines, the turbine strings had to run diagonal so the project ended up involving more landowners." There was also some state land that was leased for the project.

 
 

Situated on approximately 20,000 acres near the town of Lind, Washington, Rattlesnake Flat Wind ties into Avista's electric system via Avista's Lind/Washtucna transmission line. The wind farm is the largest renewable energy facility in Adams County, with the capacity to generate enough renewable energy to power about 37,600 of Avista's customers' homes.

  

By the time the project actually moved ahead in 2020, the landowners were more than familiar with it, and wind power.

"By that point, they had been on a 10-year wind project development ride as the project changed hands," said Fairbanks. "But as Clearway came and started developing the project, we hosted a number of landowner meetings and have worked to be an active member of the community."

He reports that construction went quite smoothly with Rattlesnake Flat Wind, even though everyone involved, especially the EPC, Blattner Energy, dealt with COVID-19 protocols.

"It was very impressive how both Blattner, their subcontractors and the turbine supplier, Siemens Gamesa, handled COVID and enforced the protocols necessary to keep people safe and construction moving on time and on schedule. They both did a good job of keeping things moving forward&nmdash;and they took the protocols seriously."

Fairbanks noted that Blattner, too, was able to sign the Project Labor Agreement for Rattlesnake Flat Wind, which qualified the project as sales tax exempt under Washington's Clean Energy Transition Act. This approach also led to utilization of apprentice labor and an ultimate approval by Washington Labor and Industry as an approval apprenticeship program which yielded additional renewable energy credits for the project.

In terms of access to the site, located in southeastern Washington, the region offered good road connections. The area sits at the apex of I-90 and state highways 395 and 21. "So we had these major highway connections in three different directions," explained Fairbanks. Only a few road improvements were required to gain access to the site.

Blattner had an internal, on-site laydown yard, adjacent to the project substation and the O & M building. They also had a temporary laydown yard, adjacent to the BNSF rail yard, in the nearby community of Lind.

One challenge that came as a result of COVID was at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, 280 miles to the southwest. A majority of the turbine components were offloaded at the port, which was hit with labor shortages at times due to COVID.

 

In addition to having to deal with COVID-19, contractor Blattner Energy, Inc. and Clearway Energy Group had a further challenge in the form of the severe forest wildfires that hit Washington in 2020. They had down days because of smoke&nmdash;not weather. It was so smoky, construction workers could not see the tops of wind turbines.

 
  

"As a result, we saw a delay in components coming to the site," says Fairbanks. "Sometimes the tower components came to the site not necessarily in the order you would prefer to receive them." For example, ideally they would receive a base section, followed by the mid-section and upper tower components.

"So we just had to take whatever got offloaded at the port, and we wanted to take whatever we could get in order to keep crews on site busy. Sometimes, the turbine component we wanted was still on a ship, or delayed, and we were getting components for something that was three turbines down the string.

"This was really a logistical challenge, but it ultimately did not affect the overall schedule much and the teams. Clearway, Blattner and Siemens Gamesa all worked collaboratively and creatively to overcome it."

Fairbanks noted it involves resourcefulness on everyone's part when you are getting wind turbine components delivered out of sync. They sometimes made use of the laydown space at the railyard, moving components to the site when needed, rather than when they were delivered. "It wasn't perfect, but everyone rolled with the situation, and made it work."

Fairbanks notes that such situations are when a seasoned EPC and turbine supplier&nmdash;with Blattner and Siemens Gamesa&nmdash;really shine. Such experienced companies can shift to Plan B or Plan C, when Plan A is not available.

"I think this is part of the value of working with an EPC or turbine supplier that you have some experience with&nmdash;and we have had experience with both Blattner and Siemens Gamesa. There was familiarity on the teams on how to work together, and overcome the challenges."

A further challenge came in the form of the severe forest wildfires that hit the region in 2020. By September, wildfires had burned over 713,000 acres in Washington. They had down days because of smoke&nmdash;not weather.

"There were a number of wildfires around the project area, and throughout Avista's service territory-but there were no fires on the site itself," says Fairbanks.

There were a number of days when it was just too smoky to be outside and climbing turbines, says Fairbanks. "It was so smoky you could not see the tops of wind turbines, and you can't erect turbines in that environment, and you certainly can't hang blades.

"Usually the wind blows and the smoke disappears, but the Pacific Northwest was pretty inundated for smoke for most of last September, which was the heart of a lot of our turbine erection and commissioning season."

Again, as with the delivery challenges, the teams on the project adjusted, and kept the project moving ahead, as best they could, considering these unexpected events. As Fairbanks noted, when working out the scheduling for a wind project, you don't usually have to plan for a pandemic and a severe wildfire season.

Looking back to when he first started on the Rattlesnake Flat Wind project a decade ago, it's not surprising that Fairbanks has a sense of accomplishment in seeing it finally built, and operating.

"But I think it's particularly rewarding that the community has stuck with us, and continued to believe in the project," he says. "I like to think that we're kind of repaying that faith, in building Rattlesnake Flat Wind. I'm thankful for the communities' support and glad to see the project come together for them while at the same time being able to deliver a cost effective renewable energy project to Avista and its customers."

 


Q2 2021