Reinventing the Windmill: When Wind Turbines Fall Down

Fenner, NY – During the dark hours of the early morning two day's after Christmas last year, T-18, a multi-ton steel wind turbine in Fenner, New York was spinning, just like any other turbine anywhere else. And then suddenly, it wasn't.

"The turbine had fallen to the ground," said Hank Sennott, director of external affairs with Enel North America. The company owns the Fenner wind farm, in the rolling hills between Syracuse and Utica.

It used to be a 20 turbine farm, but now there are only 19 after T-18 crashed to the ground last year.

"It had snapped out of its base. If you want to think of it as a mushroom on a mushroom stem, it was like the stem was snapped out of the mushroom. The turbine didn't break, it didn't shatter, it just fell out of the foundation," said Sennott.

Trying to figure out why T-18 did what it did has investigators perplexed. Sennott said, to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever seen this type of turbine collapse before.

"There's no incident, study or report that we can refer to and say, well gee, the last time this occurred, this was the problem,' that would give us a base to start with. There's nothing," said Sennott.

He says they've ruled out things like shoddy construction, inappropriate materials, and how the turbine was designed.

"We're still looking at historic load to see if that was a factor. Geography might be a factor in terms of location of the turbine and the way the wind has blown on it over the course of 10 years," said Sennott.

Nobody was injured in the turbine collapse. And Fenner Town Supervisor Russell Cary said that's because his town took specific precautions.

Part of that planning was to pay a lot of attention to where each structure was set up, that way it was set back from falling on a house or road.

"We took a lot longer than anybody else would have, because we were being careful, because it was our town, our commitment, and our common sense," said Cary.

Local governments are ultimately responsible for regulating the safety of wind projects with mechanisms like zoning laws.

I contacted an alphabet soup of state agencies that could regulate wind power, NYISO, the NYPSC, NYPA, and the DEC. They all say they're not responsible for safety.

Same with The Federal Government. They're only concerned with federal land and offshore projects.

Fenner Supervisor Cary says that's fine with him. "I think they would fumble all over it. I don't think anybody takes care of you or protects you like you do," said Cary.

Protecting Fenner was important to Cary because when Enel North America built the wind farm 10 years ago, it was a totally a new concept in the U.S. Because of that Cary says they brought in outside help to build it right.

"There was a lot of outside consultants. There was a lot of engineers. There was a lot of history brought in from other wind farms, just like we've added history to future farms," said Cary.

Fenner New York was able to spend a lot of time and energy making sure that their wind farm would be safe. But not every community will do that.

Grant Reeher, with the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said that inconsistency is just how it works in the United States.

"Many state and local governments aren't up to the task of doing these kinds of jobs. Some are and some aren't. And it various across the country and it various from local communities across the state," said Reeher.

Having a national standard rather than those various state and local laws, would help solve problems quicker according to Hank Sennott with energy company Enel North America, because everyone would be on the same page.

"Without a national standard, in the renewable energy business you continually - if you're in 25 states, you're playing with 25 sets of rules," said Sennott.

Creating a robust energy policy is on hold in congress, so energy companies like Enel will have to wait for a single set of rules.

In the meantime, Sennott says the company hopes to have a final report out soon to determine the cause of T-18's collapse.