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Aviator Wind project takes flight

CMS Energy's 525 MW Aviator Wind project in Texas is now helping Facebook and McDonald's achieve their clean energy goals.

By Paul MacDonald

One of the largest wind power projects to come online in the U.S. in 2020 is now helping two icons of American business achieve their clean energy goals.

CMS Energy's 525 megawatt (MW) Aviator Wind project, located in Coke County, Texas, is helping to power one of the social media giants, with Facebook having a Power Purchase Agreement for 200 MW.

Facebook says it has now achieved its goal of becoming carbon neutral and is using 100 percent renewable energy, according to the company's most recent Sustainability Report. The company was the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S. in 2019.

The Aviator Wind project is also helping one of America's top fast food companies, as the Facebook PPA was quickly followed by the signing of a Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (VPPA) with McDonald's Corporation. This was McDonald's first ever, long term, large scale VPPA and will utilize 220 MW of the project.

McDonald's has also signed a long term VPPA with a solar project in Texas. It has also signed three other subsequent deals (two wind farms and one portfolio of solar projects) in Illinois, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Ohio.

So, how much renewable energy is that? Combined, McDonald's share of the five wind and solar projects will have a total capacity of 1130 megawatts. That's enough to power about 8,000 McDonald's restaurants. The solar panels alone would cover the surface area of New York's Central Park seven times.

But the largest project by far in that list is Aviator Wind, the largest single-phase, single site wind project in the U.S., and the largest single-phase wind project in ERCOT, which manages most of the electrical load in Texas. The project is located about 250 miles southwest of Dallas, in west central Texas.

The massive wind project was executed successfully in spite of the special challenges construction projects faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project, originally named Wind Tex Energy, was started by Dallas lawyer and wind power pioneer, Stephen DeWolf.

Sadly, DeWolf, an avid flyer, died in a flying accident in 2019. The project was re-named Aviator Wind, in his honor, as were two sub-stations, one named the Aviator Substation, and the other the DeWolf Substation.

 
  

DeWolf was proud of the fact that he developed more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy, representing about five percent of the total wind energy produced in the entire state of Texas.

The project was subsequently acquired by Apex Energy and then Ares Management, which in 2020 sold the project to CMS Energy, which owns and operates independent power plants throughout the U.S. Those in the industry are probably most familiar with the principal subsidiary of CMS Energy: Consumers Energy, Michigan's largest energy provider, which supplies natural gas and/or electricity to 6.8 million of the state's 10 million residents.

Raj Swaminathan, Vice-President, Business Development, of CMS Enterprises, explained that the company already had renewable energy projects in the MISO and PJM regional transmission jurisdictions, and was looking to add to that, with a project within ERCOT. CMS Enterprises is a subsidiary of CMS Energy.

With the Aviator Wind acquisition, CMS Enterprises now owns and operates 11 independent power plants with more than 1,800 MW of generation in the U.S.

"We had looked at several wind projects within ERCOT, but had not found the right one for us. But Aviator Wind seemed like an interesting project, given its size and its customers."

They started talking with Ares Management in early 2020, and closed the deal—and then COVID happened.

"It was in initial construction by the time we bought it from Ares, and we took it through the rest of construction," says Swaminathan.

Fagen, Inc. was the BOP EPC for the wind farm, which consists of 136 GE-116, 2.72 MW wind turbines, all at 90-meter hub heights, and 55 GE-127, 2.82 MW wind turbines, all at 89-meter hub heights. Apex Energy, which oversaw development of the project, also has the long term contract to operate the project.

The Aviator Wind project had a number of positive factors going for it, says Swaminathan, including that it is located in Texas, which is known as a power and energy friendly state. "The attraction was also a combination of friendly locals, supportive landowners, friendly permitting and, of course, the high wind resource—the wind resource (net capacity factor) on the Aviator Wind site is in the 40 percent range, which makes the project very economic."

 
 

With its massive size-525 MW and 191 wind turbines on 50,000 acres of land—Aviator Wind perhaps represents the textbook example for achieving economies of scale on a wind power project.

  

The 50,000-acre project site involves about 55 landowners, some with large landholdings, others with smaller landholdings. Many have had the land in their families for generations, and as such, have a great vested interest in any development on land that is often considered a family legacy. "There is a lot of attachment to their land," says Swaminathan. The land is mostly used for grazing.

The site is located in the northwest part of the Edwards Plateau, a geographic region located at the crossroads of Central, South and West Texas.

Once construction on the project was underway, Swaminathan said, regular update/planning meetings were held between all the major players in the project, and these were most often virtual meetings, due to COVID.

"With a project this size, it takes quite a bit of planning and work," he noted, and as with any major construction project, not everything always goes according to plan—meaning all parties involved have to be resourceful.

"Mother Nature can step in with unexpected rain or high winds—but of course we are building the project in this area because of the good wind. Weather can often dictate the construction schedule, and CMS and its partners are very safety conscious."

With such a big site, there was a significant amount of access roads to be built, and a lot of equipment to move over those access roads. And with large wind turbine components, and cranes to move across those roads, rainy weather can easily slow things down—and affect the construction schedule.

 

There were some supply chain challenges with the Aviator Wind project, with equipment coming from outside the U.S., and it was on and off as to what was allowed to come in. But all the parties involved in the project worked hard, and got the project done on time.

 
  

"We had a few things to deal with during construction, but everything worked out well, in spite of the weather, and especially COVID. We had continuous interaction with Apex, Fagen and GE, which all had key roles to play." A number of sub-contractors and other component suppliers were also very plugged into the communication process.

"We ran into a lot of rain at one point, and of course we had to limit the number of people working together because of COVID regulations. That increased the complexity of the project—but it meant people were safe." Safety was paramount for everyone involved with the project, he added.

Buffers were built into the schedule to account for weather, and were expanded to include any changes that were required to deal with revised working conditions due to COVID. "I'd say that we were on target for a budget and project of this size," says Swaminathan.

While the different parties involved on such large wind construction projects normally work closely together, COVID added a layer of safety measures to any project—and ramped up the need for close co-ordination by everyone involved. And as the seriousness of COVID evolved, so too did work regulations evolve, and increase, for construction projects.

"There were challenges at the site level in terms of how we were able to work, isolating teams, working in groups, and people getting the appropriate protection with masks and equipment," said Swaminathan.

Then there were supply chain challenges. "We had situations where equipment was coming from outside the U.S., and it was on and off as to what was allowed to come in. I think managing all that within the scope of the project took a lot on everyone's part, but we worked hard and got the project done on time."

With its massive size—525 MW and 191 wind turbines on 50,000 acres of land—Aviator Wind perhaps represents the textbook example for achieving economies of scale.

"We saw quite a bit of economies of scale, starting with the equipment orders, to the prep work for construction, to the design, the construction and the operation of the project," said Swaminathan. "While a large project increases the complexity, you certainly do see the benefits of economies of scale.

"With wind projects in particular, economies of scale kind of kick in at around 100 MW and larger. We're seeing more and more wind projects these days of 150 MW, 200 MW-and 525 MW with Aviator Wind, in one phase, is certainly up there."

Swaminathan said this is the largest wind power project he has worked on-and that there is perhaps a special sense of pride on everyone's part in having successfully completed such a large project during COVID.

"Everyone really had to sharpen their skills and be on top of their game, but the team pulled together and did a great job to keep things on track," he says.

 


Q4 2021