Encinitas students tour Palm Springs wind farm


Sixth-grade students at Encinitas Country Day School had a rare opportunity to learn about renewable wind energy last week when they took a field trip to a Palm Springs wind farm.

The students visited the site of Project Wagner, a duo of Vestas V90 wind turbines owned by San Diego-based BayWa r.e. Wind, LLC.

Two BayWa employees, Assistant Office Manager Ezaree Doroliat and Elliot Thorbrogger, drove from San Diego to host the experience. BayWa has multiple projects in the United States, including locations in New Mexico, Texas, and Project Wagner in Palm Springs.

For the students from Mr. Decking and Mrs. McBride’s classes, who have been learning about renewable and non-renewable energy since November, visiting the turbines was an exciting way to see the future of local wind energy in action. As a gift for BayWa, the students brought artworks depicting a wind farm. Field trips to local energy suppliers are an annual tradition for Mr. Decking’s class, which visited the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station before it was closed.

The Project Wagner turbines are among the tallest and most sophisticated models in the Palm Springs area, and have been in place since 2012. They have a blade diameter of 90 meters, close to the length of a football field, and stand 80 meters tall at the hub where the blades meet. The class promptly used this information to work out the area and circumference of the path that they carve through the air.

Standing in the shadow of a turbine, the students listened to BayWa’s Asset Manager Elliot Thorbrogger describe how the turbines work. The newest turbines being used in the area, the Vestas V90 models are self-regulating. Using a sophisticated system of sensors and computer monitoring, they can start up when wind speeds are optimal and shut down when wind speeds exceed safe levels below 25 meters per second.

When the anemometer that monitors wind speed and direction detects feasible wind speeds, the turbine rotor yaws into the wind. The turbine’s three blades can be individually pitched at angles up to a rotation of 90 degrees to optimize power output. A gearbox steps up the revolutions per minute of the rotor shaft to sufficiently high rpms to drive the generator, which then produces enough power to push to the grid.

When operating at peak capacity, the duo generate 6MW, enough power in one hour to supply 100 homes for one month. For Elliot, his involvement in wind energy is particularly satisfying. “It’s something that you can hang your hat up at the end of the day and be happy about.”

While the students discussed questions like what is wind, and why the Coachella Valley is a good location for windy conditions, smaller groups toured inside the turbine towers. They were met by Vestas technicians Curtis Holt and Jaber Sulieman, who discussed the construction and maintenance of the turbines.

Though staggeringly large and weighing approximately 30 tons, one turbine can be erected in only five or six days with a full team. Their yearly service takes two to three technicians a full week. To enter the turbine tower, you climb a flight of metal stairs and step through a curved door, then look up to a small circle of sky at the peak. Beside a metal service ladder with a climb assist safety system, a black cable as thick as your wrist carries up to 30,000 volts underground to feed the grid.

Though wind power and the renewable energy sector have attracted controversy, the trip gave the students the chance to observe firsthand and to form their own opinions. They compared the power generated by the duo of turbines to the 20,000 MW/hr capacity of San Onofre, and conceded that wind power seems less efficient than other forms of energy. However, there are tradeoffs that the students were also aware of. Many of them had the opinion that in the long run, renewable energy is better for the environment than non-renewable resources.

Comments from the students included “Our world is so delicate, we have to be very selective with the types of energy we use,” and “It seems ridiculous that we aren’t able to use more wind energy than we currently are.” One student stated, “We have to make a choice between what we value more, our economy or our environment.”

Several students said that the experience made them consider how different types of energy resources create an impact on our world. Many class members found the wind farm visit prompted them to think about the limited extent of our natural resources, and to ponder what values we should have about energy production in the future.

Though opinions on our energy future differ, the class members all shared the thrill of getting close to these massive turbines, and of climbing inside them.

All the students of Mr. Decking and Mrs. McBride’s classes would like to extend their deep appreciation to Ezaree, Elliot, Curtis and Jaber, for their generosity with their time and knowledge.