Portland General Electric plans to overhaul its flagship wind farm to address known maintenance problems and safety concerns exposed in an August investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The utility’s proposed fixes follow years of apparent inaction and come amid new scrutiny from state regulators who previously either ignored or did not recognize the scope of problems at the aging facility in the Columbia River Gorge.
PGE temporarily shuttered its Biglow Canyon wind farm last year after a massive blade from one of its towering turbines broke loose, launching the length of a football field and landing in a wheat field where workers had been delivering fertilizer hours earlier.
The newsroom’s investigation found the seemingly isolated blade incident was part of a wider set of maintenance problems and equipment failures that include regular oil leaks, transformer failures and fires, and plummeting equipment from overhead towers that can reach 90 mph when falling.
The Oregon Department of Energy launched a formal review in September at the request of a landowner prominently featured in the newsroom’s investigation, according to a newly released inspection report dated Dec. 22.
While PGE immediately reported the launched blade, regulators appeared unaware of other problems, according to records obtained by the newsroom.
PGE “did us wrong and have not been transparent (obviously),” Sarah Esterson, a senior policy adviser at the agency, told a team member in an online messaging system Sept. 1.
Yet the agency bears some responsibility. Its annual inspections of Biglow Canyon appeared to be little more than check-the-box exercises that found PGE in compliance with all site conditions, despite obvious visual evidence of problems to anyone touring the facility. Those inspections did not include interviews with landowners or farmers who live and work in proximity to the project and had been complaining to the company for years about inoperative and heavily soiled turbines and seemingly inadequate maintenance.
Once the state received a formal complaint, regulators didn’t inspect Biglow Canyon until Nov. 3. Records show the visit corroborated the newsroom’s findings that turbines are leaking oil and objects such as hatch doors fall from machines, with regulators including photos of the problems in their report.
Officials determined that falling items are a potential violation of PGE’s operating permit with the state. But they gave PGE a month to submit a corrective action plan that addresses what is causing parts to fall and what it’s doing to minimize the likelihood of recurrence. Regulators are still evaluating whether the oil leaks constitute a violation.
Meanwhile, the official cause of the February blade launch remains unclear, although PGE previously said a preliminary investigation indicated loose or damaged bolts may have diminished the needed clamping force between the blade and its hub. State officials won’t release documentation submitted by PGE about the incident, citing a provision in state law that grants temporary secrecy if requested by the utility pending potential legal action.
Industry research suggests that damaged blade bolts due to stress and metal fatigue is a frequent cause of turbine failure. The newsroom’s investigation found that in the year prior to the blade throw, PGE found broken blade bolts on four turbines but kept them running while it awaited spare parts. The company said that can be within manufacturers’ specifications. During inspections after the blade throw, maintenance reports for the project show the company found broken blade bolts on another half dozen turbines.
The Department of Energy has not fined PGE nor officially cited it for violating its operating permit. Jennifer Kalez, a spokesperson for the agency, said the goal of the compliance program is to ensure all facilities follow the rules outlined in operating permits.
Kalez said the agency has only once needed to issue a violation notice to resolve an issue — in that case to an ethanol plant that repeatedly failed to submit required annual reports to the agency. It has never had to impose civil penalties to do so, she said.
Kalez said the agency has beefed up it compliance program, is conducting more inspections of the facilities it regulates and is working with PGE to address issues at Biglow Canyon. But landowner Kathryn McCullough said she’s frustrated by the agency’s unwillingness to cite or fine the utility and has no confidence the state is up to its regulatory responsibility.
“They’ve been coming out here for 10 years and they never even looked up. They didn’t know the towers were leaking,” said McCullough, whose husband, Kevin, farms under about half of Biglow Canyon’s turbines, including the one that lost its blade.
“It tells me we’re spending a lot of a money for a regulatory agency that has no teeth,” she added. “They’re not really a regulatory agency in my opinion. They just provide suggestions.”
PGE, which opened the first phase of its $1 billion Biglow Canyon wind farm in 2007, has long known about falling items and oil leaks, but did not consider them reportable violations of state rules, or in the case of the oil leaks, worthy of immediate retrofits to fix the problem. In fact, the utility cut its spending on maintenance and operations at the aging wind farm by 40% between 2013 and 2021 and projected another reduction last year.
PGE has now promised to replace or repair core components in the project’s 217 turbines by 2035.
Some of the work has been fast-tracked. PGE managers told inspectors the utility ordered 59 hydraulic actuators, the control that adjusts the rotor blades on the turbine hubs, which are apparently the source of some of the oil leaks. As a temporary fix, the company also has a contract to replace oil socks around the base of the turbines and remove and replace oil-spattered gravel, records show.
PGE declined to say what it has budgeted for the sweeping overhaul, but the components it has pledged to replace or repair are some of the most expensive in the machines. The cost will likely be borne by the ratepayers of Oregon’s largest electricity provider.
Unlike the owners of other aging wind farms, PGE is not planning to “repower” the turbines — replacing their tops with more efficient technology to increase their efficiency and output — which could qualify the upgrades for a new round of federal production tax credits that would significantly offset the costs. PGE said that decision was based on its assessment of the assets and equipment at Biglow Canyon.
Instead, the utility said the first phase of the project over the next six years would rebuild 76 Vestas V82 turbines that originally became operational in 2007. That will involve repairing or replacing their generators, gearboxes, the hydraulic systems that control their rotor blades, and transformers that regulate their electrical output, as needed, the utility said. Phase two and three of the rebuild will be an 11-year project starting in 2024, replacing or repairing similar equipment on an additional 141 Siemens turbines that became operational in 2009 and 2010.
Allison Dobscha, a PGE spokesperson, said in an email that the utility is also shifting its maintenance program to “a time-based maintenance model, with a regular schedule of proactive maintenance activities.”
“These investments will allow the project to continue safe and reliable performance at the plant, reducing the risk of outages or declining availability,” Dobscha said.
She declined to say if or how long the rebuild will extend the life of the wind farm. Turbines typically last between 20 and 25 years, and according to the Oregon Public Utility Commission, those at Biglow Canyon have a remaining life of 17 years for accounting purposes.
If the investments don’t significantly extend the life of the project, that could be problematic as the company seeks to recover the cost from ratepayers, according to Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, a ratepayer advocacy group. He said PGE could include some of the investments in the resource plan it is slated to file this year with the Oregon Public Utility Commission, and any rate increase would ultimately be subject to a prudency review by the commission.
“Without the (production tax credits), they’re spending an awful lot of money on a facility that doesn’t have the best results historically,” Jenks said. “If they aren’t doing something that extends the life, it becomes harder and harder to justify major maintenance.
“We’ll take a hard look at it,” he added. “My instinct is that may not be a very good investment, but I haven’t seen any numbers.”
Biglow Canyon’s energy output has never lived up to PGE’s original projections, and the newsroom’s investigation found that the availability of its Vestas turbines to produce energy has declined precipitously in recent years and the project’s rate of energy production was below neighboring wind farms of comparable age. Turbine downtime cuts into energy generation and the production-based lease payments landowners such as the McCulloughs receive for allowing the turbines on their property. It also reduces revenue from production tax credits that flow to eligible projects during their first 10 years of operation, and in PGE’s case, were credited to ratepayers.
Problems at Biglow Canyon continue. The utility has filed two reports with regulators since late August regarding a needle valve and hatch doors found near bases of three turbines. As recently as December, PGE informed landowners that 26 of its Siemens turbines were down due to a fault in a collector line, and that another two transformers had failed while crews were attempting to isolate the fault.
PGE said it has begun testing to diagnose the problem, and turbines will resume operation once repairs are complete.
Meanwhile, PGE’s action plan to prevent items from falling off its turbines is due to the state later this month. Regulators in November also issued new guidance to large wind farm operators statewide specifying what types of safety incidents must be reported, including falling items or projectiles from wind turbines.
McCullough said she and other landowners are encouraged that PGE plans to address Biglow’s problems, and they have seen more recent maintenance activity at the site than ever before.
But she said their relationship with the utility had become adversarial after years of seeming inaction, and they’ll need to see results before a sense of partnership can be re-established.
“At least they have a plan,” she said.
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