The Five Common Mistakes Made by New Developers – And How to Avoid Them

These errors can rob owners and operators of time and money.

Wind farm development is a complex business. As a project progresses through the various stages of development, there are many opportunities for mistakes that can seriously affect the final outcome of the project. The typical phases of wind farm development include prospecting, land securing, wind resource assessment, interconnection and transmission studies, wind farm design, permitting, power purchase agreements, financing, procurement, and construction and operations.

Wind farm development is a complex business. As a project progresses through the various stages of development, there are many opportunities for mistakes that can seriously affect the final outcome of the project. The typical phases of wind farm development include prospecting, land securing, wind resource assessment, interconnection and transmission studies, wind farm design, permitting, power purchase agreements, financing, procurement, and construction and operations.

To avoid conflicts, be aware of the following:

Poor site selection.

Some of the biggest mistakes are made in the early stages and are difficult to overcome as the project progresses. Poor site selection is something that we see too often with new developers. Sites can be chosen for the wrong reasons or without sufficient due diligence prior to making the choice. Typical problems that arise from poor site selection include landowner issues, poor wind resource, the lack of access to transmission or no capacity on existing lines, the lack of an off-taker for the power, constructability issues and fatal permitting issues. All of these problems can be avoided by engaging a qualified consulting engineering firm in the earliest stages of the project. The basics of site prospecting involve finding a site that has good wind speeds, access to transmission, a potential off-taker for the power and accessibility. Secondary issues include population density, the number of landowners involved, potential permitting problems, constructability and other nearby wind farms that may adversely impact the site.

Inadequate wind measurement campaigns.

Many first-time developers underestimate the importance and complexity of conducting a proper wind measurement campaign. This mistake may not become apparent until much later in the project when the developer discovers that the project is not financeable due to the substandard wind measurements and documentation. At this point, the developer has lost precious time and is set back at least one year to re-conduct a proper measurement campaign, not to mention the wasted funds. A financeable wind measurement campaign involves proper selection of measurement locations, proper measurement heights, selection of the right instrumentation, maintenance of the equipment, a high degree of data recovery and thorough documentation.

In simple terrain, where the site is mostly agricultural land with minimal trees, it is typical that meteorological (met) masts be distributed so that no turbine will be located more than two kilometers from a met mast once the wind farm is designed. As the terrain becomes more complex with steeper slopes and more surface roughness in the form of structures or trees, the two-kilometer rule of thumb no longer applies, and it becomes more important to place the met masts in locations that accurately capture the flow that the turbines will ultimately be exposed to.

As wind turbines get taller and blades get longer, it becomes more important to measure wind speeds at the hub height of the turbine, as well as within the vertical profile of the swept area of the blades. Failure to obtain the necessary wind measurements could jeopardize the ability to get the wind turbines certified for the site.

The selection of instruments is extremely important. Trying to save a few dollars by using less expensive, lower-quality instruments will result in lower data quality and higher uncertainty in the wind regime, which can lead to significantly higher financing costs, many times more than the small amount saved on instrumentation.

If the wind farm site is located in a cold-weather region, it is advisable to have some heated instruments on the met tower. This helps to avoid lost data due to icing and also helps to give some measure of the amount of icing losses to expect by comparing the iced anemometer with the heated one.

The wind measurement campaign must be thoroughly documented and the met towers meticulously installed. Installation details, such as tower location, mounting heights, boom directions, instrument models, serial numbers, calibration coefficients and site photographs, are all necessary so that an independent engineer can verify the wind regime and energy projections prior to financial closing.

Underestimating the local power market.

Finding out in the later stages of the project that there is no buyer for the output of the wind farm does actually happen from time to time. This can happen for a number of reasons, including political changes that affect the market, interconnection or transmission issues preventing access to the market and unrealistic expectations regarding the anticipated power pricing. Anticipating transmission upgrades while securing land leases can lead to a situation in which the developer ends up making land lease payments into the future while having to cancel the project. Proper due diligence in the early stages can help to avoid these situations. Opening up a dialogue early on with the local utility that you intend to sell the power to is always a good idea. It’s also important to research the local infrastructure, proposed upgrades to transmission systems and substations, and long-range planning for large transmission projects and system operators planning for that region. New off-taker opportunities in the private sector are also providing wind energy developers with additional options for moving power beyond the traditional utility marketplaces.

Wind Farm Construction
Wind Farm Construction
Underestimating local opposition.

Having strong local connections and local support is the best way to anticipate and avoid opposition that may threaten the securing of the necessary permits. It is vitally important to engage local political figures and municipal agencies, as well as local financial institutions and large landowners who might have influence on other landowners. Understanding the local issues and concerns and getting out in front of them proactively can make all the difference. Permitting bodies also tend to look more favorably upon projects that have greater local support and participation. Having an approach to partnering with local landowners and municipalities as opposed to “taking over” will benefit all in the long run. It is also beneficial to employ and utilize locals as much as possible at the early stages to avoid any surprises and conflicts for both sides.

Not recognizing a fatal permitting flaw.

Permitting can be a very expensive part of the project. A fatal flaw that may jeopardize the project must be found as early as possible. Engaging an environmental consulting firm early on to conduct a fatal flaw analysis is essential. There are constantly changing issues with bats, eagles, migratory flyways, endangered species and more. Federal Aviation Administration rules and restrictions can also eliminate a substantial amount of property from the developable area. There may be impacts to aviation, defense or weather radar stations that restrict the turbine locations. Permitting requirements vary from state to state, as well as from county to county within a state, so there are many opportunities for a project to get caught up in an issue.

Some first-time developers make their initial entry into the wind development business by acquiring an existing project in some stage of development that may have been successfully permitted in the past only to find that regulations have changed and the project is no longer in compliance and must be redesigned and go through a lengthy permitting phase all over again.

Many first-time wind developers come from some other business development sector and are familiar with the development process from their industry. They understand the various development phases as they relate to their industry but fail to recognize the subtle differences that exist with wind development. We have found in our experience that those subtle differences can be the source of many avoidable issues.

As my father used to say, “Don’t go into a business you don’t understand.” If you do decide to get into the wind development business, find a qualified wind engineering consultant before you get too far into your project.

This article was published in the May 2016 issue of North American WindPower magazine