SHERIDAN — Even without the presence of wind turbines whirring through the Sheridan County skies, local companies play a part in the wind energy market. Entities like Vacutech help wind companies reach the end goal — wind turbines. Those turbines, though, have yet to appear in Sheridan’s skyline.
Vestas, a strictly wind energy company out of Colorado, ran into an issue while drilling holes into its large, fiberglass turbine blades. The shavings piled up around the hole while drilling and burned up the drill bits.
The company reached out to Vacutech for help in creating a system to alleviate the problem. Vacutech started the project in late 2016 and delivered the first system in 2016. The vacuum system extracts excess shavings as Vestas utilizes the drill bit helping to prevent overheating and burning out. Vacutech built four and installed them on Colorado turbines, with more scheduled for creation and implementation.
“We built the vacuum system specifically designed for their needs and installed it, and it’s working really well,” said Vacutech chief financial officer Don Parrott. The systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Parrott estimated, and are powered by a 150 horsepower electric motor on the turbine that develops the vacuum.
Parrott said Vacutech never specifically made the wind industry its target market but continues to benefit from the project by providing a job for a few of Vacutech’s 150 employees.
“The wind industry contributes to jobs in Sheridan indirectly by our vacuum systems that we’ve built,” Parrott said. “…we are happy to continue to do it for them or any company with similar challenges.”
Vacutech, even through its indirect association with the wind energy industry, proves one of the most involved companies in Sheridan County. L&H Industrial re-sleeved a main shaft for a wind turbine but completed it out of its Gillette office, not Sheridan.
Dick Anderson Construction runs a branch in Sheridan but works primarily with the wind energy industry out of its six Montana offices. Vice president of Dick Anderson Construction, Allan Frankl, said the renewable energy concept remains a difficult discussion in Montana. Two barriers stand out for the lack of growth in the industry in his experience: transmission of power and power purchase agreements.
Frankl said the infrastructure needed to transfer the energy from wind farms to utility companies is not there and remains difficult with areas of limited population. Power purchase agreements are hard to obtain due to the lack of commitment from utility companies. The skepticism, Frankl believes, derives from the continued newness of renewable energies and the unreliability of the power source in comparison to coal.
“(Utility companies are) trying to figure out how to best balance it because renewable energies aren’t a consistent power,” Frankl said. “You can’t just push a button and know it’s going to produce X amount of power whenever you want it. The wind has to blow and the sun has to shine, and that’s not as predictable.”
Frankl personally experienced utility companies speaking against proposed wind legislation in the last three Montana legislative sessions and sees no change on the matter in the immediate future.
“In the last legislative session, there was actually legislation that made it even more difficult and more prohibitive for renewable energy developers,” Frankl said. “It’s not getting any better, at least in the short term.”
A forum at the University of Wyoming in October presented the different aspects contributing to Wyoming’s future in wind energy, showing movement in the conversation within the state about the potential of growth in the industry.
Mark Gordon, Wyoming state treasurer, noted in opening comments at the forum a need to balance the energy resources available in Wyoming, as well as utilizing advancing technology.
“There’s no question that Wyoming’s wind portfolio will be meaningful to the nation,” Gordon said. “It is also increasingly clear that our energy future must be diverse. Ideally, the advent of a new industry should complement rather than threaten another.”
The city of Sheridan approved K-Coe ISOM and Community Power Group to complete the Renewable Energy Assessment study for $60,530, funded by a Business Ready Community Grant of $44,000 and a match of $16,530 from the city’s plannings general fund. The study will assess renewable energy opportunities for business recruitment in Sheridan.