75 turbines lead the wind parade

It’s spinning enough energy to power the equivalent of 120,000 homes. It was the first wind-farm project signed after restoration of the renewable energy target (RET) in 2015. Its 75 GE 3.2-103 turbines add up to 240MW, making it the third-largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. And June 27 marks the official opening celebration for Ararat Wind Farm (AWF), which has already been feeding electricity into the grid for months.

Success looks shiny in the rear-view mirror, but finishing the wind farm on time and on budget required gale-force collaboration. The same weather patterns on the Great Dividing Range that drive AWF’s impressive energy output at times becalmed the civil works and put the project behind schedule. The $450 million wind farm, located about 200km west of Melbourne, was constructed in a joint venture between GE and Downer, and financed by RES, GE, Partners Group and OPTrust.

Ararat Wind Farm
Construction of the Ararat Wind Farm began in September 2015.

The sheep and wheat farming district had been whacked by years of drought, but during the wind farm’s construction, Murphy’s Law decreed that when it rained, it poured. And poured. “Downer’s been building wind farms in Australia for more than 15 years, and this project has been one of the toughest, particularly because of the significant amount of rainfall we got during construction,” says Anthony Johnston, Downer’s executive general manager of strategy and development.

“For the bulk of the civil works—the roads, laying the turbine foundations and erecting them—they got a lot of rain,” says GE Renewable Energy project manager Brad Gray (who came aboard after the deluge). “That slowed down the project quite significantly, and there was concern about how to reign that in.”

With the rain came some winds that were unusually high—even for a prime wind-farm site—and slightly delayed the erection of some of the towers and placement of the 50m-long, nine-tonne turbine blades. And that was right when the construction crew was working to keep up with the two giant cranes being moved around the park, a complex shuffle.

On Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, the first blade to arrive in Ararat was waylaid at the regional city’s Kokoda Park for a community celebration. 

Downer’s project director for wind Abraham Azzam recalls having one crane moved to sit on a turbine hardstand just to allow another to get past on the narrow access roads. Think rail-yard shunting, only with 600-tonne mechanical giraffes and no guiding tracks. These cranes are high-priced hires, so keeping to schedule was vital, as was staying within the approved infrastructure zone. “The logistics became a primary focus,” says Azzam.

All the construction partners speak frankly about the rain and wind delays blowing out the schedule, a stressful situation on such a high-value project, and with potential penalties. But rather than retreating to their corners, they went shoulder-to-shoulder. Sums up Anthony Johnston: “GE, Downer and RES really came together and focused on the project outcome as opposed to the barriers.”

“It was a pleasure to work on a project where you go to your partner, and they come to your aid, and you go to the client, and they support you,” adds Downer’s Azzam. “Everything was laid on the table, there was no hidden agenda, and without that kind of relationship you would never have got that project delivered the way it was delivered.”

Justin Howes, RES
Justin Howes, construction manager for RES, photographed on the Ararat Wind Farm start in the early stages of construction. Photo: Jane Nicholls

“Ararat had some steep and rocky terrain, and has been a challenge, but it looks spectacular,” says Justin Howes, construction manager for RES, AWF’s founding developer. “It’s been a remarkable achievement by the many people involved, and a real personal privilege to have been involved. The project came online with both the transmission line and completion of the turbines slightly ahead of schedule and right on budget.”

While the rain bogged down the construction schedule, for drought-affected local farmers, says GE’s site manager Ben Deer, “it was welcome, for sure”. All the same adds Deer, a country boy from Cowell in South Australia: “It got a bit too wet even for them … it pushed harvest back a bit.”

Deer is now the long-term service manager and has moved east with his young family, living close to the farm and running a crew of eight service technicians, two field technicians and an administrator to look after the health and welfare of those 75 turbines.

“We have full control of the machines remotely,” explains Deer, who’s backed up by an offshore remote operations centre around-the-clock. “We can dial right down into every input and every control unit of the turbines.” There’s a stream of shared learnings flowing constantly among Deer and his engineering counterparts across GE’s installed base of onshore wind farms in more than 80 countries, already generating more than 60GW and growing fast. “We get a better understanding of what we need to do in certain conditions to maximise parameters, and park optimisation is a process we go through for the life of the wind farm.”

Ararat turbines
Turbines on the rise at Ararat Wind Farm.

Contributing to the local community is also core to AWF’s operations. An economic impact analysis report commissioned by RES found that, over 25 years, the farm will stimulate the local economy to the tune of $44.5 million, a combination of local spending from employees and financial returns to landowners. That figure includes the AWF community fund, which will contribute $2.7 million towards environmental initiatives and cultural activities.

“Beginning with the project development, RES has played a pivotal role in construction management of Ararat Wind Farm,” says Matt Rebbeck, chief operating officer for RES Australia. “We’ve enjoyed numerous opportunities to engage with the community to share the benefits a project of this magnitude brings to the area, and we’re very proud to have created such a significant project.”

The 16-month construction—ultimately completed ahead of time—generated around 600 jobs, and now 51 full-time-equivalent jobs will support AWF’s operation and maintenance.

“This project was announced the day after the RET was set at 33,000 GWh—two years later we now have a fully operational 240MW wind farm,” says Geoff Culbert, CEO and president of GE Australia and New Zealand. “This is what industry can deliver with stable policy. It is living proof that certainty drives investment, with flow-on positive effects for regional economies.”


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