It was the start of our 4-day adventure to the middle of Washington state. I got serious questions of what I was thinking when I rattled off the names of the places I was going: Ellensburg, Leavenworth, and Winthrop (I was lucky if anyone had even heard of the last town). But I never let judgment stop me from doing what I want to do.
The first day of my trip started out stressful. I was already leaving an hour late and I had a 5-hour drive ahead of me, with a deadline of a 2 pm tour. I shifted some things around while in route to Ellensburg and was still able to hit all my stops without missing a beat.
With my rearranged schedule in hand, my first stop of the day was the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Center. Don’t judge it by its name it is way more awesome than it sounds.
So what is this wind and solar place you ask? Well, Washington is a windy place across the flat central lands. So what do you do when you have a lot of wind? Build wind farms of course!
I have always been fascinated by the windmills that you see along the highway, how big they are and how they work. After researching things to do in Ellensburg the Wild Horse Wind tour was the #1 thing to do near Ellensburg. #1 – I couldn’t pass that up!
I arrived about 10 minutes before the final 2 pm tour of the day. Only one other car was in the parking lot and I feared it was most likely the worker who was managing the information desk. As I approached the building two minivans roared into the parking lot, opened their doors and children spilled out everywhere. It appeared I would not be going on the tour alone.
I outfitted myself with a provided hard hat and some safety glasses for the tour. I had also read prior to my arrival that closed toes shoes were a requirement for the tour and had on the necessary shoes. Fear not if you forget your closed toed shoes they have some quite “fashionable” shoes to borrow if you happen to need them.
Taylor, our guide lead us around the exterior of the building giving us the general information about the wind farm. I most likely had my mouth gaping open as I was trying to process all the information he was rattling off.
There are 149 windmills on the farm. The cost of one windmill is $3 million dollars USD (don’t worry I’ll do the math for you). This wind farm alone had $447 million dollars USD worth of windmills on it. The Puget Sound Energy, the company who owns these windmills, has 3 locations in Washington state. All sites have about the same amount of windmills and all 3 have plans on expansion.
As you can see it is costly and the majority of the money comes from private funding. A few small government grants have been given to them but obviously, nothing that quite covers the extensive cost.
The size of a single windmill is overwhelming large. It takes 8 semi trucks to carry all the parts of one windmill. Then another 16 truckloads of cement to get the windmill into the ground. A 747 airplane from wingtip to wingtip can fit completely inside the diameter of the windmill blades. Are you getting a sense of how big they are? Because I can (and will) go on. With blades totally extended the windmill stands at 351 feet tall (107 meters) and weighs in at 223 tons.
As I was driving out to the wind farm I had noticed some of the windmills were not moving. Taylor informed us that in order to preserve the windmills they periodically shut off to reduce the wear and tear on them. The windmills have a lifespan of around 25 years, which is a good amount of time however it takes around 7 to 13 years just to pay one-off (it all depends on the wind of course).
Atop the windmill, there are two sensors that look small but are actually 6 feet tall (1.82 meters). One senses wind speed and one senses wind direction. I had never noticed the windmills moving around but it makes sense now, these sensors are positioning the blades all the time to maximize the energy production.
After the windmill has found the wind the next step is changing the direction of the blades to take as much advantage of the wind as possible. Electricity will start being made at a wind speed of 9 miles per hour (14.4 kph) . 31 mph (49.8 kph) is the optimal speed for energy production and the windmills will shut off at a constant wind speed of 56 miles per hour (90.1 kph). Taylor said the highest wind speed on record at this wind farm was 117 mph (188.2 kpm). This wind farm makes up to 273 megawatts of electricity which powers about 70,000 to 80,000 homes.
We walked fully around the visitors center and learned about the less impressive solar panels and saw a windmill blade on display (it was dropped a 1 foot (0.3 meters) off the ground while in transit and was deemed not structurally usable)
Taylor gave us a little background on the Gold Leed certified visitor center made of all recycled components along with rock trim made from rocks that were displaced while the farm and building were being constructed. The building is also equipped with free charging stations for your electric car while you visit the wind farm. You are also awarded priority parking for your electric car in the parking lot. Energy conservation is taken seriously here!
I was not sure what more we could learn about the wind farm but then Taylor said something that I had been hoping for but figured it would never be an option, “OK let’s go inside the windmill”.
I was filled with excitement as I had always wanted to see what was inside these windmills. This turbine was not outfitted with an elevator, however, most of the turbines have elevators, not for the workers but to carry their supplies or tools. Apparently climbing the ladder is quicker and the preferred choice of the workers. It does have a weight balance to take off some of your weight load as you climb the 351 feet (107 meters) to the top. After checking out the inside we all filed out and walked back to the visitor center. My tour was complete and I was totally ecstatic with what I had learned.
If you would like to visit the Wild Horse and Solar Center they can be found at 25901 Vantage Highway, about 17 miles east of Ellensburg. They are open 7 days a week from 9 am to 5:30 pm April 1st to November 30th. Although I did give you a lot of information above I highly recommend the tour. It is truly amazing and not to be missed. If you are unable to take the tour there is a rest area on I-90 east of Vantage where you can see a pretty up-close view of the windmills.