Setting a high bar for wind projects
The Clearway Energy Group sets a high bar for its wind power projects when it comes to creating solid working relationships with the communities it operates in, such as in West Virginia.
By Diane Mettler
This past February, Clearway Energy Group flipped the switch on the Black Rock wind
farm, its latest wind project, in West Virginia, making Clearway the largest owner of wind farms in the state.
With a little over 50 percent of its operating assets in wind power, Clearway invested nearly half-a-billion dollars in the state in 2021 alone. Contracted under long-term power purchase agreements with both Toyota Motors North America and AEP Energy Partners, the new Black Rock wind farm brings West Virginia’s Grant and Mineral counties more jobs—and 15 percent more renewable power to the state.
In addition to the 115 MW Black Rock project, the other two Clearway-managed wind farms in West Virginia are Mount Storm and Pinnacle, all within a 20-mile radius of Black Rock. Recently-acquired Mount Storm has been operating since 2008 and is the largest in the state at 264 MW. The Pinnacle site, which has been online since 2012, was recently repowered by Clearway.
“We are thrilled to be among the first movers in wind energy in West Virginia,” says Dan Hendrick, the head of external affairs for the eastern region of Clearway. “There is a lot of demand in this particular part of the world from customers like Toyota Motors North America and AEP Energy. Plus, the energy markets in West Virginia are good and favorable for renewables. And they’ve got good wind—an obvious essential.”
The Black Rock project included 23 Siemens-Gamesa SG 5.0-145 wind turbines on 107.5-meter tall towers. “These are really state-of-the-art turbines,” says Hendrick. “They are the most modern turbines in the state and in the region—they’re powerful machines and very efficient.”
There were challenges during construction due to the pandemic and gaps in the supply chain. A number of parts of the project took longer than Clearway would have liked, Hendrick says. It was not one large event or construction obstacle, but rather, several little things—such as equipment delays and delivery issues—that added up throughout the course of the project, he says.
|Clearway Energy Group recently flipped the switch on the Black Rock wind farm, its latest wind project, in West Virginia, making Clearway the largest owner of wind farms in the state.|
Getting all the various elements to the site, the construction, and moving a wind power project to operation, is really a complex operation, he said. “And when you are in the middle of a pandemic, communication is not as smooth as it might normally be,” says Hendrick. “We knew it would be more complicated in 2021 to build anything, so we created some wiggle room in our scheduling and we met our construction schedule.”
Hendrick is proud of the team’s efforts. “You name it, we experienced it,” he said. But they were able to overcome the obstacles. Construction was completed in the fall of 2021, with full commissioning finalized in February of this year.
It has been Clearway’s policy to hire local contractors to the greatest extent possible and Black Rock, which was built by joint venture Bechtel/Reed & Reed, was responsible for procuring the labor and equipment, engineering, and constructing the wind farm. During construction, Clearway was able to hire 200 local individuals, and later hired 20 full-time employees for project operations and maintenance.
“We built the projects under a labor agreement with the West Virginia State Building Construction Trades, and worked with five different unions: the iron workers, the laborers, the electricians, the millwrights, and the operating engineers,” says Hendrick.
|With a little over 50 percent of its operating assets in wind power, Clearway Energy invested nearly half-a-billion dollars in West Virginia in 2021 alone. Clearway has several more projects in the planning stages in West Virginia.|
“Anything that was sourced out, we tried to make sure that local contractors got those jobs. We hired many individuals directly through our joint venture, and then there were those who we subcontracted through other firms. But again, always with an eye towards local labor.”
To ensure a smoothly-managed project from the start, Clearway brought some of the more senior employees from the nearby Pinnacle and Mount Storm farms to help train and oversee the new employees. The employees were hired in the fall and had the advantage of being trained before the project became operational, enabling them to hit the ground running.
The good thing about having two other wind farms nearby is they could actively train Black Rock personnel, who, in turn, became part of the Clearway family, Hendrick says.
With a concentration of assets in the state, Clearway plans to have centralized equipment, different functions at different sites, and training. Clearway has several more projects in the planning stages in West Virginia and the state is excited to see more businesses like Toyota make the state their home base. Hendrick sees this as a plus for West Virginia, which has lost a lot of population over time. Hendrick says: “The tax base is shrinking in a lot of these local communities, and a project like this can really help.”
|Contracted under long term power purchase agreements with both Toyota Motors North America and AEP Energy Partners, the new Black Rock wind farm brings West Virginia’s Grant and Mineral counties more jobs—and 15 percent more renewable power to the state.|
Clearway has established a long-term partnership with the local community college, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College. “The Black Rock wind farm has actually adopted the college as sort of a partner,” says Hendrick. “We have an apprenticeship program with them that we’re finalizing right now, and we hired about half the graduating class of wind techs to go and work at the wind farm. They are all local young men in their early twenties to mid-twenties; folks who live in the community, work in the community, went to college in the community. It’s a perfect example of how Clearway likes to interact with the community. It’s great to have that next generation that we’re working with.”
Clearway strives to be a good neighbor and is supporting the community surrounding their projects and the company. “We go the extra mile,” says Hendrick.
The partnership with the community college is one example of that. Another example is Clearway’s policy to establish a non-profit community benefit fund set up at a project’s location. In the case of Black Rock, the Black Rock Community Benefit Fund will contribute $133,000 to local nonprofits in 2022, and $50,000 every year going forward.
“We set up the fund so we could contribute to local charities,” says Hendrick. “We nominate a committee of local residents to decide which charities deserve those dollars because they are the people that know where funds are most needed. It’s those kinds of efforts that really underscore the desire for us to be long term with these projects and with our communities.”
Hendrick adds: “What I’ve learned about this particular project and working in West Virginia is the more you embrace the local community, the more that they embrace you. That is so critical for our long-term success. People have, and maybe rightly so, some skepticism of a new business that sets up and makes all kinds of promises. One of the things I do is help make sure we deliver on those promises and make sure that local residents know about it.”
To Hendrick, the best part of his job is being able to demonstrably live up to the promises his company makes. “I think increasingly the leaders of renewable energy companies understand that the more we are responsive to community needs up front and show over the long-term that we’re investing—that we’re good partners for the community—the lower your risks are of running into problems that will cost time and money.
“When we build a new project in the area, we will now be able to point to a whole base of support that we’ve got from the existing county commissions, and from local labor.”
Hendrick says the company is seeking to replicate its success at Black Rock at other sites and share that success with the skeptics. “Now we can tell them, ‘We hired your graduates, we hired your women and men to construct the farm, we’re paying the taxes.’ It really helps to have that long-term view. Just understanding and aligning with the state to be helpful makes so much sense.”
Hendrick takes pride in the company and its mission to push against Climate Change in a manner that helps all those involved with a project. “Every day, I’m so impressed with the caliber of my colleagues and the leadership to the company,” he says. “These are smart people, sophisticated people, dedicated people. And then you layer on this awareness that what we do on a daily basis has helped transition our country to cleaner sources of power. It really makes it very easy to get up to go to work every day.”
In terms of going forward with wind power, Hendrick predicts the next wave of development across the country will be repowerings. “Some of these older wind farms have been operating for quite some time. The equipment is older and less efficient because the technology was different back then. Now with the new equipment, farms are able to be much more efficient and capture much more renewable power.”
In the meantime, Clearway will enjoy being a good neighbor in West Virginia and providing opportunities for rural communities.