Just over an hour’s drive north of the Welsh capital, rises the plateau of Pen y Cymoedd, Welsh for “Head of the Valleys.”
In March 2017, 76 turbines, each 145 metres high, must be ready to start generating electricity Therefore, work continues at a rapid pace – 12 hours a day, six days a week – to complete the job in time.
“It’s been a long and bumpy ride, the last two years have been really tough. I am lucky to have such a great team who have put in such effort,” says Will Wason, who is in charge of the 400 million pound (approximately 500 million euros) project.
Many obstacles in the way
It is almost a miracle that the project has managed to get as far as it has. Problems were encountered from the very outset, as the ground conditions in many parts of the area proved worse than expected. Therefore, large quantities of imported stone had to be purchased and transported to the site from local quarries.
Then, when digging for the access tracks and foundations began, the risk of rainwater becoming polluted by the sediment produced by the construction work arose. The team has had a constant battle to install and maintain mitigation measures to protect the numerous streams and even a drinking water reservoir in the valley below. Due to a combination of geology and hydrology issues, the site intended for the transformer station proved to be unsuitable, so the installations had to be quickly redesigned and moved. And this winter, the weather intermittently stopped the gigantic trucks transporting the turbine towers and rotor blades – in total almost 700 abnormal load convoys will need to be made. Every deviation from the plan has its consequences in a project of this scale.
Tower installation starts
The foundations for the turbines have been laid, each one cast from 600 cubic metres of concrete. The work has moved to the next phase: the installation of the lowest two sections of the towers.
Rob Davies, an Installation Foreman from the turbine supplier Siemens, supervises the day’s lifting. The weather is grey and bitingly cold. Only yesterday, the work had to stop due to stormy winds yet again.
“Ever heard of summer, the season of the year? Here in Wales, it’s a whole day long,” he says drily.
He ought to know; he is from the area. That is also true for most of those working on the site. So far 600 Welsh jobs have been supported through the construction project. This is welcome in an area where children are growing up with a risk of becoming the third generation to be unemployed in their family. The area has still not recovered from the closure of the coal mines in the 1960s and 1970s, when thousands of workers were made redundant.
New dawn for the valleys?
Today, tourism is a growing source of income for people in the valleys surrounding Pen y Cymoedd. The Afan Valley attracts mountain bike enthusiasts from all over the world to its more than 200 kilometres of cycle paths, for instance. The most recent cycle path “Blade” was funded by Vattenfall.
“The contribution the wind farm has already made to the valley has been outstanding. Life is being pumped into the area and our business continues to thrive,” says Louise Davies, who runs the Afan Lodge guest accommodation with restaurant, employing 15 local people.
“Also, property prices are beginning to increase, with people purchasing property as holiday homes or choosing the Afan Valley as their preferred place to retire.”
Naturally, not everyone in the area has been in favour of the wind farm. And in Glyncorrwg, the village closest to the wind farm, an action group was formed. Even so, the protests have been few compared to other land-based wind projects.
“We sent out 36,000 information letters to households in the surrounding area when we were in the pre-planning phase and only eleven letters of objection were sent in to the local authorities hosting the wind farm,” recalls Emily Faull, Project Communicator. Together with her colleagues, she has been working to inform local residents about the project for a long time, reporting on any activities which might impact people’s everyday lives, such as when long convoys cause delays on the roads.
Local initiatives funded
Vattenfall is also setting up a community fund to support various initiatives in the area. Each year, 1.8 million pounds (approximately 2.2 million euros) will be reserved for local projects during the lifetime of the wind farm, which will be at least 20 years.
David Rees, the Labour Party Assembly Member for the Aberavon constituency at the Welsh Assembly, acknowledges that this fund provides large investment in local communities. Its distribution across the valleys will help tackle many challenges facing those communities in difficult financial times.
“There is great potential in developing an improved tourism, transport and community service,” he says. “If the Community Interest Company managing the fund considers the impact of such issues on local communities, the outcomes will be of great benefit to the people of the area.”
Back at the wind farm, traffic is stopped to let through three trailers carrying rotor blades through to be delivered to a turbine location. The blades are 55 metres long and each trailer seems almost endless. The last ten metres reveal a serrated edge along the blade that gives it a dinosaur look. They are in fact called dino tails, an invention by Siemens that improves efficiency by counteracting the backwash that otherwise occurs when the blade shears through the wind. The eleven-tonne rotor blades are made of fibreglass in factories in Denmark and Canada and are cast in a single piece, another aspect that is unique to Siemens. In addition, the turbine drives the generator directly, without a gearbox, which reduces the need for maintenance.
“We had initially planned more turbines here, but we removed eight turbines during the planning phase following feedback from various stakeholders. However, by optimising the choice of turbine types across the site we’ve been able to maintain the overall output of the wind farm,” says Chris Ranner, who is in charge of the turbine supply contract of Vattenfall’s project and is among those who have been on the project since it started over ten years ago.
Storm? No problem!
The wind farm is big. It takes two and a half hours to drive from one end to the other. And the wind does not blow equally across the area. That is why two types of turbines are used, with rotor diameters of 113 metres and 108 metres.
The smaller one is used where the wind is more turbulent and the wind speed somewhat higher. And unlike older wind farms, these state-of-the-art turbines can withstand really high winds.
“Conventional turbines are shut down if the wind blows faster than 25 metres per second. Ours can generate power even if the wind reaches speeds of more than 30 metres per second,” says Ranner.
During the construction period, however, the weather poses a continual problem and keeps Emma Metcalfe busy full-time. As Commercial Manager, she manages contracts from a commercial perspective and is involved in determining who carries financial responsibility for any delays.
“This area has its own microclimate; yesterday morning it rained, at lunchtime it was sunny, then we had snow in the afternoon, and strong winds on top of that. For future projects, we have learnt to consider even more carefully how to apportion the weather risk, whether we or our subcontractors should pay any costs incurred due to the weather. As things stand, it depends on whether the problem is high winds or snow, for example,” says Metcalfe.
Inventive methods save money
Pen y Cymoedd is enormous for an onshore wind project and corresponds to at least four “standard” ones. Despite all the obstacles, the project is both on schedule and within budget.
“The team has done a fantastic job,” says Wason. “The project has been super challenging from every perspective, and the team has had to continually find new solutions to the problems that we have encountered along the way. For example, in order to save both time and money, the team worked to shift the entire wind turbine installation from a ‘single blade lift’ methodology to a ‘full rotor lift’ methodology. This meant renegotiating with landowners, turbine contractors and our civil contractors. A vast effort, but well worth it.”
This summer, the first turbines will start exporting power to the national grid, and everything indicates the project will be completely ready before the deadline at the end of March next year. “I’ve just come from a meeting with the Operations and Maintenance department which will be taking over the wind farm once it is operational,” says Wason. ”To have reached this point is a sign that we are approaching our goal, and makes it worthwhile to have endured all the pain along the way.”
Vattenfall aims to be the leader in wind power in northern Europe. The company wants to more than double its rate of expansion, from the current 200-300 MW/year to 400-600 MW/year between 2018 and 2020. This means doubling its wind capacity to a total of 4 GW.
To reach its expansion target, Vattenfall is taking part in several tender processes for offshore wind power in the Netherlands and Denmark. Another approach is acquiring projects thet either have permits already in place or are close to getting such permits.
Currently Vattenfall has wind farms in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Vattenfall is now looking into new markets such as Norway, Poland and France.
Almost all Vattenfall’s investments in new energy production are planned for renewables, and mainly wind. This year and next, SEK 14 billion (approximately 1.5 billion euros) are being invested in renewables.
Wind operations accounted for 3.2 per cent of Vattenfall’s electrical power production in 2015, but as much as 7.2 per cent of the underlying operating profit. This profit share should increase in future.
The costs of building wind power are decreasing continuously. Today, it is cheaper to build onshore wind capacity per generated megawatt-hour than any other source of energy. And that excludes any alleviations through subsidies.
In order to finance its wind capacity, Vattenfall will continue to enter into part-ownership.
The European system of subsidies for wind power often yields a predictable and relatively high return on capital for a long period of time, usually 20 years or more.
Vattenfall’s size and experience in large wind projects offers economies of scale in purchasing and the knowledge of how to run projects in the most efficient way
The systems used to subsidise wind power are quite diverse. Most countries in northern Europe prefer auction procedures In Sweden (and Norway), an electricity certificate that can be sold at the day price is awarded for every megawatt-hour of renewable energy generated.