September - December 2007
Power and poisons

Harnessing the wind

BANGUI, ILOCOS NORTE — They’re tall and white, and silhouetted against the backdrop of blue sea and green mountain, the tri-blade windmills of this remote coastal town up north can be an impressive sight. Indeed, in the last few years, people from various places flock to the base of the wind farm or to a view deck that offers a panoramic view of some of the 15 giant structures. Local and foreign tourists have taken thousands of pictures of the windmills, with many of the photos landing in personal online blogs. One such brag shot shows the windmills providing a backdrop to a smiling young lady in mid-leap, the shutter catching her off ground, arms outstretched. It is a pose that some have been seen trying to duplicate while visiting the site.

BANGUI’s windmills. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

But as the blades turn to face where the wind blows the strongest, one is reminded that the windmills aren’t there as whimsical adornments to the local landscape. They actually provide as much as 40 percent of the power needed by the entire province of Ilocos Norte, which has a population of 600,000.

The concept of expanding the use of alternative energy has been the battle cry of many politicians since the time of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, who was a loyal son of Ilocos. And in this era of heightened environmental consciousness and the global drive to develop and use “green” power, windmills are on top of the pile of choices. They do not cause pollution, require no fuel, do not create greenhouse gases, and produce no waste. Each kilowatt-hour produced by the Bangui wind farm is also seven centavos cheaper than fossil-fuel power. In 2006 alone, NorthWind Power Development Corporation, the Manila-based company that runs the farm, reported a P70-million annual savings passed on to consumers in the form of cheaper power rates.

Yet even today, there has been little development in this sector. The wind farm of Bangui, which began operating in 2005, is the first — and only — one of its kind in the country, as well as in Southeast Asia. There is no course on windmill technology in the Philippines. Two of the farm’s engineers had to be sent to Denmark for a three-week training to learn the mechanics of maintaining the windmills.

At least, though, it may be precisely this lack of information about windmills that motivates the curious and the picture-snappers to visit Bangui in droves. It also helps that NorthWind keeps an open-door policy for tourists who have loads of questions.

Standing 70 meters above ground and arranged in an arc spanning a total of nine kilometers straddling nine barangays, the windmills are difficult to miss, even by those who are several kilometers away. Tourists who flock to the beach initially unaware of the windmills’ presence see the structures from afar and then make it a point to include it in their itinerary.

“There are days we have as many as three groups visiting us,” says NorthWind plant manager Dino Tiatco. To the many laymen who keep on pestering them with questions, he and his staff of five are Windmills 101 teachers. Students visit the substation as part of their field trips. Participants of conventions held nearby drop by, and even balikbayans come to ogle at the windmills, take pictures, and ask questions.

WINDMILLS HAVE been around since ancient times. Historians claim it may have first come in use in what was then called Persia (modern-day Iran) as early as 500-900 A.D., mainly to grind grain or pump water. And that idea may have come from especially wise people who, a thousand years before windmills were used to grind grain, came to understand the concept of aerodynamic lift and used it in sailboats.

The windmills of today generate power by capturing the wind’s kinetic energy and converting it to electricity through the use of a generator. The northern part of the Philippines is considered a rich source of wind energy, since it is farthest from the equator, where wind is usually weak. Experts actually consult a wind atlas to determine which area has the most potential for a wind farm.

In Bangui, erecting the windmills was among the last and shortest step involved in the long process of the project. It began in 1999, when NorthWind was formed by Danish and Filipino engineers and investors. NorthWind set up meteorological towers in Bangui and collected data about wind behavior in the area. The group, led by Danish businessman Niels Jacobsen, then worked to secure loans and permits for the project. The wind farm was built under the build-operate-and-own scheme, via a $40-million loan from the Danish Development Agency (DANIDA).

Bangui’s windmills are an indicator of how small the world has become. The towers were assembled in Vietnam, the rotors in the United Kingdom, the nacelles — the part that holds the blades — in Denmark. Local workers constructed the bases.

NorthWind built two wharves to accommodate the landing of the gigantic windmill parts. But the waves of Bangui’s coastline were so rough it took NorthWind five months — from October 2004 to February 2005 — before it was finally able to offload all the equipment at the site. The project sailed smoothly from then on, as it took the company just two months to install the windmills and lay the cables connecting them to the Ilocos Norte Electric Cooperative (INEC) grid. On May 8, 2005, NorthWind began delivering power to INEC. Thus began the operation of the Bangui wind farm.

The 15 windmills are assigned numbers, with number one the closest to the substation. “We’ve thought of giving them names,” says Tiatco, “but we agreed it would cause jealousy among us boys if we start using the names of our wives or girlfriends in referring to the windmills.”

The locals have been so pleased with their windmills and point them out proudly to tourists, both local and foreign. Some enterprising minds have also begun to sell t-shirts proclaiming Bangui’s power-producing pride and joy.

“In Europe, people are tired of seeing windmills because we see them everywhere,” says a British tourist. “But here, they talk about (them) with so much pride I just have to see them.”

This dissonance in appreciation can be gleaned from the fact that Europe is one region that is most extensive in its use of windmills. It is estimated that the region has 25,000 wind farms.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) reports that in 1992, the global installed capacity of wind farms was at 2,500 megawatts. It rose to 40,000 megawatts in 2003, at an annual growth rate of 30 percent. In 2006, the figure had reached 48,000 megawatts. Almost a third of this capacity was installed in Europe alone — although wind power still makes up just three percent of Europe’s energy requirement.

IT SEEMS having many windmills could have some drawbacks. “I’d be driving with this nice view of the beach and I’d see a turbine here and a turbine there, destroying the view,” laments one European tourist here.

[photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

It may not only be the sheer number of windmills that could be considered by some as an eyesore. The size of windmill rotors has also grown by as much as 12 times its size the past three decades, giving them the dimensions of Godzilla. In the 1980s, most rotors in use had a diameter of 15 meters, able to generate 50 kilowatts. In 2003, there were rotors as long as 124 meters, generating as much as 5,000 kilowatts. Turbines built offshore have larger generators and rotors, says the EWEA. Despite their size, however, the wind turbines of today have very low mechanical noise.

While First-World residents may have grown tired of seeing windmills everywhere, tourists and Bangui locals relish the sight of this town’s 15 silent giants, each of which has a relatively modest 41-meter rotor. After all, they sit on a beach that was mostly desolate, save for a handful of houses on the road leading to the site. And when their arms rotate, that means additional power for Ilocos Norte; according to NorthWind, the windmills can produce as much as 74,482 megawatt hours per year.

“The residents like the windmills so much that the vendor in public market refused to make me pay for the hangers I was buying when I moved here,” says Tiatco, who is from Pampanga. To this day, he is sometimes still offered vegetables for free.

Such hospitality could perhaps be traced partly to the fact that NorthWind also provides employment, tapping locals for some work required for the upkeep of the substation and cables. The odd jobs it offers are obviously better alternatives to the backbreaking work of collecting pebbles at the seashore, a Bangui enterprise that fetches locals P50 for every sack.

Local real estate values are also up, as the coming of tourists has begun to generate business, albeit small-scale. The sprinkling of houses along the dirt road leading up to the windmills have bottles of soda ready for thirsty travelers. Another seemingly tentative entrepreneur has laid out two bunches of garlic on a fence with a small “for sale” sign.

“The windmills also made students want to study seriously,” says Tiatco. He adds with a chuckle, “They want to replace me.” While NorthWind has a policy of giving Bangui residents first crack at jobs available at the substation, the company has had to “import” engineers from other towns of Ilocos Norte, as well as from Isabela and Mindoro.

NorthWind collects an average of P30 million to P40 million every month from INEC. But as part of its social-responsibility program, the firm sets aside a centavo for every kilowatt hour it produces for the host community. It also offers a three-percent discount if INEC is able to pay within 10 days after receiving its bill.

THE WIND, however, does not always blow well for the windmills. During our hot summer months, power production is at its lowest because there is not enough wind to turn the blades. At zero to 3.5 meters per second wind speed, the windmills generate no electricity. But production peaks during stormy months, when the wind of storms up to signal number two are well absorbed by the blades.

The windmills shut down automatically, though, when the wind reaches the maximum of 25 meters per second or 90 kilometers per hour. Also, storms do not necessarily guarantee the turning of the blades. Last week, for example, the wind farm generated much activity during Typhoon Hanna. With the entry of Typhoon Ineng, however, Bangui found itself buffeted by two storms that sucked out air. “It created a vacuum in our area,” says Tiatco. “The windmills were not moving.”

This is one weakness that for now, rules out full dependence on non-fossil sources of power. Or at least on wind power. “Only God knows how much (energy) will be generated today or tomorrow,” admits Tiatco.

In the olden days, windmills had to be physically oriented so each faced the wind. Today computers do most of the work, requiring minimal human intervention (mostly when a cog malfunctions) to operate and maintain the windmills. The windmills of Bangui, like their European cousins, can on their own face the wind where it is strongest. The system is highly computerized that an engineer in Denmark, home base of the windmill manufacturer Vestas, can control the giants of Bangui.

“The blades are the most high-tech part of the wind turbines,” says Tiatco. The blades are made of wood, carbon fiber, and fiberglass, making them light in weight but strong enough to absorb wind power even during storms. The blades tilt to an awkward angle, looking much like a dead starfish, when something breaks down. Each tower has a four-meter wide base, wide enough to accommodate men and equipment and a ladder leading up to the tip of the windmill if human hands are needed to fix a mechanical problem.

Bangui folk also use the windmills as shelter from the sun as they wait for fishermen to arrive with their catch. For the more adventurous lovers wanting privacy, the windmills have also proven to be an effective buffer from prying eyes, since most parts of that particular stretch of the beach are deserted most of the time.

For now, the towers are all gleaming white. Some visitors in the past, however, had been unable to resist writing on the base of some of the windmills. Some of these have thus been painted over after visits by vandals, resulting in slightly different shades of white, as the original special paints used to inhibit rusting because of the salt in the air are not available locally. When the time comes for another fresh coat of paint, the chore would be like painting several buildings, and a contraption such like a crane to carry painters up would have to be used.

NorthWind has begun constructing five additional windmills in Bangui, to begin operating in June next year, upgrading the wind farm’s power generation to 33 megawatts. But this Ilocos Norte town may be losing its monopoly on wind-power use in the country. NorthWind has begun to gather wind data in nearby Cagayan province, for another possible wind farm there. Batanes is being eyed as yet another site. (A windmill project by the Philippine National Oil Company in Burgos, another Ilocos Norte town, was scheduled to be finished in 2003, but so far remains incomplete.)

In the meantime, Northwind is gearing up for more inquisitive tourists in Bangui, where it will soon open a visitor’s center, complete with a cafeteria, conference hall, and gift shop. But Tiatco, who has become adept at handling questions from the most peculiar to scientific, says he and his handful of engineers will still be around, ready with answers that, well, will not be blowing in the wind.