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Veterans Affairs wind turbine, built for $2.3 million, stands dormant

By   /   March 19, 2014  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward  | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — A  $2.3 million federal stimulus project at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Cloud is giving green energy initiatives a bad name.

A 600-kilowatt wind turbine — some 245 foot tall — stands on the wintry VA grounds, frozen in time and temperature, essentially inoperable for the past 1 1/2 years. No one is working to fix it, though many attempts were made to repair the turbine, once billed as a model green energy project.

“The St. Cloud VA is a hospital, and our focus is on our patients and we like to think that we treat our veterans very well here,” said Barry Venable, a public affairs officer for the VA in St. Cloud. “We’re embarrassed that this turbine does not operate as advertised.”

That’s quite the about-face from the buildup in December 2009 over the announcement of the central Minnesota turbine, the lone Department of Veterans Affairs project included in the White House document touting President Obama’s executive order for federal agencies to lead the way on renewable energy.

“Throughout the Federal Government, agencies are already leading by example toward building a clean energy economy. This document outlines some examples of projects, many of which leverage Recovery Act funding, that will drive long-term savings, build local market capacity, and create new private-sector clean energy jobs,” states an administration document called “E.O. 13514: Agencies Leading by Example.”

Today, critics call the solo St. Cloud wind turbine a leading example of something else — the failure of federal stimulus spending to deliver on renewable energy initiatives.

“It’s another example of stimulus money going after bad projects that make no economic sense. The VA in St. Cloud shouldn’t be in the electricity business,” said Peter Nelson, director of public policy at the Center of the American Experiment. “We already have utilities in Minnesota who are in the utilities business who know the best areas in Minnesota for setting up wind turbines and know how to maintain them.”

Studies done before construction suggested St. Cloud’s winds could produce up to 16 percent of the VA hospital’s electrical needs, potentially saving about $100,000 on the government’s annual utility bill. The facility consumes 1.3 million kilowatt hours of power, at a cost of $1.1 million per year.

Without an operational turbine,  however, the St. Cloud medical facility will never do its part to reach the administration’s goal for federal agencies to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

NO GO: The Department of Veterans Affairs $2.3 million wind turbine in St. Cloud, Minn., has essentially stood idle for more than 18 months, officials say.

“The fact of the matter is this machine has not performed as hoped at all. It has a terrible record,” Venable said.

Unlike some wind farms in Minnesota, temperature extremes do not appear to be a factor in the turbine’s problems. Name just about anything else, however, and it’s gone wrong at some point since the completion of construction in April 2011, officials say.

The VA’s lengthy fix-it list includes the hydraulic system, electrical system, the main gear box and number other parts over the past three years. A Massachusetts-based contractor installed and has overseen maintenance on the turbine, which was made in India.

“The turbine really hasn’t been online since August 2012; we’ve been at repair since,” said Venable of the St. Cloud VA. “That’s when the fault with the gearbox was discovered, and so then they went about getting the gearbox repaired. Since that time there have really been no significant periods of operation.”

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org

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Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.