It is beginning to snow in Colorado while nearly 1,000 miles to the east in Indiana, wind gusts of almost hurricane-force are predicted. In North Texas, thunderstorms and lightning are starting to brew. Every kind of weather condition from heat, to snow, to hail, to tornadoes, can have an impact on a wind farm and are carefully watched at BP Wind Energy’s Remote Operations Center (ROC) in Houston. Situated on one of the top floors of a downtown office building, the staffers at the ROC provide support and monitoring to the company’s 14 operated wind farms across eight states in the United States. The dominating feature of the ROC is a wall-sized display showing in precise detail how each wind facility is operating. The screens depict wind speed, electrical production, and numerous other data points that give the operators a real-time picture of each wind farm. Another large screen presents the weather across the continental U.S. Ryan Blaine, lead operator, explains how the information that flows to the ROC is used. “For example, the operator sees the signal pop up from Flat Ridge 2 (in Kansas) on the board, and we get an audible alarm,” he says. “Sometimes we have to contact the site to send someone out there to drive along the power lines to see if they are down and what caused the breaker to open. It could be a snake, a rodent or a bird that got into the substation and caused the breaker to trip. Everything has to be inspected to determine the cause.”
BP Wind Across America
BP’s wind sites are located in California, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Hawaii (nine) and those facilities are monitored and supported 24 hours a day, every day of the week by on-site staff in Houston’s ROC. “These BP Wind farms provide a reliable source of electricity to consumers across America,” said Laura Folse, chief executive officer BP Wind Energy. “And, the wind farms show BP’s commitment to a safe and diverse energy mix.” The ROC is the central brain of BP Wind Energy’s operations across the U.S. During normal working hours, operators at individual wind farms monitor and manage each site. At night, on weekends and during holidays, operators at the ROC manage the wind farms. If the ROC receives an alert during these hours, an on-call technician or other staffer is dispatched to the farm to take care of the issue. The monitoring systems of the ROC capture critical and variable factors, such as turbine availability, power generation capacity, market pricing, wind speed and weather. An alarm system immediately notifies ROC operators of any potential equipment problems occurring at the sites. “This comprehensive view and the ability to control individual turbines allow us at the ROC to play a significant role in managing our wind operations,” says Blaine. “This facility helps us manage risk and maintain compliance with regulatory agencies around voltage control and electrical power supply. It also helps keep staff in the field safe in their often geographically remote locations by providing them real-time weather information.”
Wild West Texas and Sherbino
Geographically remote would be an apt description for the Sherbino wind farm in Pecos County some 30 miles from the nearest sizable town, Fort Stockton, Texas. Operational since late 2011, the 58 turbines are spread across 20,000 acres of semi-arid scrub and grassland that is the natural home to a variety of wildlife that includes everything from rattlesnakes to mountain lions. “It is out in the middle of the Texas countryside,” says Manny Dominguez, facility manager. “If you want to go to town to do anything it is not easy, it is a 35 minute drive.” Dominguez says in addition to the remoteness, extreme weather that includes heat, tornadoes, hail and snow, as well as dangerous wildlife can pose daily challenges for the team. “People who come here from Houston or from out of state have a hard time adjusting because it is so desolate,” he says. “If you don’t like to drive, you are in a world of hurt.” Dominguez drives about 50 miles from his home in the town of McCamey to the Sherbino office where 14 contractors and three BP Wind Energy employees work. They start every day with stretching exercise to make sure everyone is loose and warmed up before heading out to make the first tower climb of the morning. The nacelles that house the generating machinery and other equipment can only be reached by a person scaling a ladder inside the tower. Some towers are equipped with small lifts that are used for carrying tools and other equipment to the top of the tower.
Exercise is followed by a meeting to discuss what happened at the site the night before and then talk about the maintenance and other work that needs to be performed that day. The meeting also includes a vital weather forecast with an emphasis on approaching storms that might bring lightning. “We need to know if we are going to get lightning strikes and which direction they are coming from,” he says. “If lightning gets within a certain distance of the site, then we need to get the guys out of the field.” Dominguez describes the quick-forming storms as “popcorn thunderstorms,” because they just pop up in a matter of minutes. “We programmed everyone’s phones with weather alerts so when a lightning strike occurs within 30 miles, it automatically tells them to call us.” Dominguez says the turbines are grounded so lightning does not pose a serious threat, but lightning strikes can damage blades and power surges can knock out electronics and communications. In addition to dangers from the sky, workers have to be very careful of where they set foot on the rocky soil. “We have the western diamondback rattlesnakes which you can see pretty well, but the rock rattlers are only about 12 to 14 inches long and their colour is identical to the dirt,” he says. “So if you are not paying attention and just walking around you might step on one.”
Dominguez says all safety talks always include reminders to workers to remain vigilant about their surroundings. “We also tell them to watch where you put your tool bag,” he says. “In the mornings it can be cool so the rattlesnakes will get on top of the pedestal of the pad mount because it is warm.” While the harsh weather and the remoteness of the site are issues everyone has to contend with, there is a beauty to the wide-open spaces of Sherbino. “It can be very peaceful out here,” says Annette Andersen, the facility’s deputy facility manager who has worked there about a year. “At one of the turbine sites, you can look out across the valley floor and see a vineyard.” “I absolutely love this job, I like working at the wind farm and being near the action of making electricity.” She said an interesting aspect of working at Sherbino is having to deal with the unexpected. “One day a contractor told us he saw a bobcat chasing a sheep” she says. “We are not only concerned with the turbines but we also manage the relationship with the landowner.” Andersen said they called the landowner who brought his dogs and ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) and searched for the bobcat to kill it. “Those are the kinds of things I never thought I would deal with before I came here.”