Friday, November 09, 2012


The wind farms just outside Valier and then further north along the High Line are part of a complex infrastructure that affects even our household refrigerators.  When I’ve asked about it in the past, I’ve been stone-walled, scolded, and told I was a busybody, but it seemed clear to me that more than the high-voltage transmission lines had to be involved.  We always had “dirty” electricity: spikes and blips big enough to turn off my radio.  Sometimes blackouts for a while, though that usually had to do with storms or someone slamming a vehicle into a power pole.  The “third leg” of the town street lights sometimes went out, dimming them.

Now my Glacier Reporter newspaper of November 7, 2012, Number 45, USPS 885-100 finally tells the story.  Glacier Electric Cooperative serves Glacier County which is basically the Blackfeet Reservation just to the north of me.  Valier is served by Northwestern Energy which is headquartered in South Dakota.  The wind farms are owned by foreign countries, mostly Ireland.

Power problems explained by Glacier Electric
By Virginia Harman
GEC Manager of Conservation Services

Last Friday, Nov. 2, all Glacier Electric Cooperative members experienced power quality problems from approximately 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.

Many members called to report flickering lights, problems with appliances and other noticeable power quality problems. As soon as the problems started to occur, GEC operations staff and engineer, Josh Dellinger, began to look into the source of the problem. It was determined almost immediately that the issue was voltage fluctuation and that it was caused by a generation source, outside of the GEC system.

“The voltage fluctuations started about 9:30 a.m.,” stated Dellinger. “We immediately contacted NaturEner who tried to stabilize voltage by changing settings at their voltage controllers, but that did not work.”  GEC then requested NaturEner take all wind projects offline to see if that would stop the severe voltage fluctuations that our entire system, Shelby and Valier were all experiencing. NaturEner took Glacier Wind 1 and Glacier Wind 2 projects (both located south of Highway 2 between Cut Bank and Shelby) offline, but they refused to take Rim Rock off line due to the costs associated with start-up and shut-down. “NaturEner was confident that Rim Rock was not the problem. However, it was obvious to me that the problem had to be from generation and the Rim Rock project was the only possible cause,” stated Dellinger. However, NaturEner continued to assert that Rim Rock was not causing the fluctuations and would not disconnect. NorthWestern Energy was asked to intervene and disconnect Rim Rock from the system, but they were reluctant to do so, even though their customers in Valier were experiencing similar voltage fluctuations. It appears that their monitoring system was not capturing the fluctuations.

NaturEner brought Glacier Wind 1 back online around 12:28 p.m., which finally stopped the voltage fluctuations, but stabilized the voltage too high. Due to the high voltage, NorthWestern Energy tripped breakers at their Glacier Wind Switchyard at approx. 12:36 p.m. This action disconnected Glacier Wind 1 and the Rim Rock project. Once these projects were both disconnected our system wide voltage stabilized at a normal level. “Judging from this sequence of events, there had to be a problem with the Rim Rock project and fluctuations could have been stopped much sooner had Rim Rock been disconnected when we first requested it,” explained Dellinger.

This week Glacier Electric will be meeting with NaturEner, Northwestern Energy and Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) to discuss the recent voltage fluctuations and establish a plan for future outages that would affect the Northwestern Energy path to Great Falls or the WAPA path to Great Falls. The procedures established during these meetings will be incorporated into a revised operating guide for the NaturEner projects.

People living in Montana soon learn not to take for granted any of the communal supply systems:  water, electricity, gas, and now Internet service.  Gas is the most reliable, which is why I have it for heat, but I notice a lot of work being done at the regulation station just east of Valier and wonder what it’s about.  Sometimes it seems as though my heat is fluctuating, but I have a wood stove in the event of total collapse over a long period of time.

I’m most likely to complain about Internet interdictions, for obvious reasons, and recently had a miserable problem with my DSL line that took weeks of keeping records and communicating with the 3 Rivers trouble-shooter.  In the beginning I was shouting and stamping my feet, but after a while we both got absorbed in trying to figure out the problem.  In the end it was a techie from someplace else who had the answer.  (DSL is related to voltage.)  Whatever it was, we fixed it.

My computer sometimes goes through periods of malfunction that I took to be viruses or blamed on the long-distance relay system having to work around forest fires and floods.  Now I’m thinking it might have something to do with the voltage errors imposed by the wind farms.  At the moment the computer is behaving just lovely, but there have been periods, esp. in the wee smalls (I often post at 2AM or 3AM) when I could hardly get it to start up properly.

Government regulation of such infrastructure as power is a nice idea -- I think we should try it.  There ARE rules and standards, but enforcing them -- even if you can figure out what has gone wrong -- is pretty tough when the corporations have more money than the governments and when the headquarters are far far away from the actual operations.  It doesn’t help when things like voltage regulation are so highly technical that they are mysterious.  It doesn’t help when government is so polarized and adversarial that no consensus can form.  My mail today included a warning that Northwestern Energy wants to raise its rates.

Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that humans live on an active planet that does things we don’t like, with such force that we can’t resist -- only rebuild.  But in this small Montana town we already have that sharply in mind.  We are always a little surprised to turn on the radio or reach for the newspaper and find that it’s there.  

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

There is a broad swathe of wind farms here in the West Coachella Valley of California, tapping on prevailing winds through Banning Pass. The image of them against a desert mountain range or sky has become a trademark of the area. Seeing them on the horizon after a 100-mile trek from LA is always welcoming. Yet I understand that the energy generated is sold out of state. They are a foreign presence after all.