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Going from gas to wind power

What used to be one of the top natural gas reducing areas in Texas is now home to one of the state's newest wind power projects, the 209 MW Reloj de Sol Wind Farm, that is building further on the state's leadership position in wind power.

By Paul MacDonald

What used to be one of the top natural gas producing areas in Texas is now home to one of the state's newest wind farms, a 209 megawatt (MW) project that in addition to delivering clean energy will also provide area landowners with a stable, weather-resistant cash crop through lease payments—with minimal impact on current land use.

This past May, EDP Renewables (EDPR), the world's fourth largest renewable energy producer, through its subsidiary EDP Renewables North America LLC (EDPR NA), started commercial operation of the Reloj del Sol Wind Farm. The wind farm is in Zapata County, in south Texas, about 45 miles south of Laredo, in the state's Rio Grande Plain area.

Reloj del Sol is the latest project in EDPR's growing energy portfolio in Texas; the company now has six operating wind farms in the state.? Collectively, EDPR's Texas portfolio now totals 1,089 MW in operating renewable energy capacity.

EDPR is committed to continuing to grow Texas's leadership in renewable energy and increasing the $1.5 billion it has already invested in the state. It is also currently constructing the 180 MW Wildcat Creek Wind Farm, in Cooke County, approximately 50 miles north of Dallas-Fort Worth.

And just as EDPR has been building Wildcat Creek Wind during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was able to carry out the Reloj del Sol project during COVID, thanks to the company's resourcefulness, and the committed efforts of its contractors and suppliers.

"Zapata County was one of the top natural gas producing counties in the state," explained David Neely, who was EDPR NA's Development Manager on the Reloj del Sol wind project. Production has dropped, but a lot of local residents still work in the energy industry, notably in the Eagle Ford Shale region. And now, some of the local residents have made the transition, and are working on a different kind of energy, at the wind project.

Neely explained that Reloj del Sol was a greenfield project for EDPR, and that the company started development work on it in 2015. He said that the project checked the boxes of what they look for in a potential wind farm.

"Like most of our wind projects, it's a mix of the transmission and grid situation, and the market demand for renewable power.

"At the start, we put in a request to study the transmission line, to ensure that what we see internally matches what the transmission operator sees as well, to support a new power generator.

"And usually in parallel with that, we're also taking efforts locally with the community to establish information about what kind of wind project could be developed, and finding out what support there is and what the local feel is for that kind of development, working with local leaders and developing relationships."

 
  

And even though there is a lot of wind power information data that is available these days at the click of a mouse, it's always important to get the met towers up to confirm that data, and get even more accurate wind data for modeling purposes, says Neely.

"Typically what we see is some landowners supporting the met towers and any other studies we might want to do, whether it is environmental or geotech," he said. "And if things start to really align, and the project starts to look like it has a fruitful future in terms of the market, transmission, local support and the landowners, then we really start to fill in the footprint even more."

One positive attribute that EDPR has seen with its six wind projects in the Lone Star State is the supportive business environment in Texas.

"Texas takes an approach that is developer-friendly, in general," says Neely. "They are very supportive of all their power sources. And they see the positives of renewables, not just from the aspect of it being clean energy and diversifying the mix of their power sources, but the jobs and tax dollars that wind projects bring."

In general, Texas is seen to be business-friendly.

The wind power industry has been showing exactly how it likes the support—for years, Texas has been the top producing wind state in the U.S. At the end of 2020, Texas had wind power capacity of 33,133 MW. In fact, if Texas were a country, it would rank #5 in the world in total wind energy generation.

Another positive for wind power is that Texas, pure and simple, has lots of land that harmonizes with wind projects. It has plenty of big, windy, open spaces.

In the case of the Reloj del Sol project, the land where the project is located is owned—for the most part—by families who have lived in this area of Texas for generations. People take a lot of pride in the land, and the fact that their families have owned the land for many decades, says Neely.

 
  Nordex supplied the 63 3.4 MW wind turbines on the Reloj del Sol project, which is in Zapata County, about 45 miles south of Laredo, in the Rio Grande Plain area of Texas. Transbiaga was a sub-contractor to Nordex, and it executed transport, erection and assembly services.
  

As with any EDPR NA project, he says there are lots of conversations that go on with landowners whose land they would lease. With Reloj del Sol, the landowners, with that long family connection, were perhaps extra sensitive to the land, and what type of development would take place with a wind farm.

"They wanted to make sure that what we bring harmonizes as much as possible what they are currently doing on the property." In many cases, hunting is the primary activity taking place on the heavily mesquite-covered acreages. Zapata County is considered by many to be one of the best places to hunt in the entire state. "The land is sometimes their business, and they want to know how a wind project will impact that business."

The region is characterized by some very well-kept ranches, and like Texas itself, the ranches are big—some as large as 6,000 acres. "You can drive for hours on one piece of property," says Neely.

The footprint of the turbines and the roads that connect them, can all be calculated. In the conversations, Neely explained to landowners that the impact of a wind project is minimal. "To put it into perspective, if they have 6,000 acres, it might have an impact on only 20 to 30 acres," he says.

On some of the wind projects EDPR NA develops, they can be dealing with upwards of a hundred landowners, each perhaps owning 80 or 160 acres. But because of the large land holdings in this part of Texas, Neely said they only had to deal with about 15 land owners. And their contact with the landowners was often casual, with meetings often scheduled in the local coffee shop,

Lozano's Country Store, which is owned by one of the landowners, Luis Lozano, in the nearby town of San Ygnacio. "Luis is there most of the time, and a lot of the local landowners will go for there for coffee, so it's a way to catch up with them, without interrupting their day."

But Neely notes he's happy to catch up with landowners wherever they like-and with other projects that has included riding with them in the cab of their combine on their farm, or in their pick-up. "Whatever fits with what they are doing," he says.

 
  

In terms of networking, and servicing the 63 3.4 MW wind turbines on the project, Neely noted that there are often road systems that have been put in place by energy companies in the area, to access wells and pipelines. But the use of these roads is often limited to the energy company, and the landowner.

"We found that it is just better that we work out a plan with the landowners to map out and establish our own roads," he says. "With Reloj del Sol, the roads form one big circle through the project-in one gate and out another." They were fortunate, he added, in that they had a state highway running through the middle of the project site.

Working on such a large project, supplier and contractor relationships are key.

Equix Infrastructure was the BOP contractor, and they did everything right up until turbine erection. Permian Energy Services was a sub-contractor for Equix.

Nordex was responsible for the turbines. Transbiaga was a sub-contractor to Nordex, and it executed transport, erection and assembly services.

Neely said that typically a number of factors will dictate the turbines EDPR NA will model for a particular wind project—such as the project size and wind profile. He notes that some turbines will work better with a certain type of project or wind profile. EDPR NA's development staff, such as himself, rely on EDPR NA's procurement and energy assessment personnel for direction on the types of turbine models to consider.

Pretty much everyone working on Reloj del Sol was impacted by the COVID-19 situation, from suppliers through to contractors. "It pretty much hit when development ended and construction was kicking off, so COVID was the biggest factor at driving the project schedule," says Neely.

"And when COVID hit, some of the turbines were enroute. Some were being shipped through Mexico, and there were ships docked, waiting to be unloaded. And the manufacturing of some other components was stopped for a while. The supply chain impact was the first thing you noticed."

There were still update meetings between EDPR NA and its contractors, but they involved fewer people, and were more virtual. Construction workers worked in smaller groups, with social distancing and other safety protocols put in place.

"I really feel that the company, the contractors and subs did a good job of working together, to deal with COVID," says Neely. "And we worked with the local health department to deal with the COVID situation, to quarantine and test, when required."

With the successful completion of Reloj del Sol, Neely has moved on to developing other wind projects, and EDPR is extremely busy these days. "But being busy is good," says Neely.

And with the number of wind projects being planned and on the go, there is more competition these days. That's just fine, says Neely. "There is a level of comradery in what we're doing—we're all shooting for the same goal: getting more clean energy on the grid." ?

 


Q3 2021