The planned relocation of a wind turbine manufacturer to Whitehall that has been years in the making has community leaders hopeful for economic benefits to the area beyond jobs with the manufacturer.
LGT Sustainable Energy Systems relocated to Sunlight Business Park in Whitehall from a research and development facility in Lolo about a year ago. Tom Harrington, Jefferson Local Development Corporation co-manager, said he has been working with LGT-SES for about five years to encourage them to move.
“We actually looked at potential wind development down here before they came in the picture,” he said. “We did some anemometer testing just to validate that we had a good wind site, and it did prove out to be a good wind resource here.”
When LGT-SES executives saw the Jefferson County wind data, it piqued their interest, he said.
Tim Blake with LGT-SES said his company was drawn to Montana based on a recommendation from an old friend who grew up in Dillon. LGT-SES had set up in Lolo initially because of the limited options it found when looking for a building that fit their needs.
In contrast, Whitehall has everything they could want — from some of the best wind conditions in the country to geothermal heat, which can be used to help with the hydrogen production the company anticipates its technology can support. If things go as planned, Whitehall could serve as not only a proving ground for their technology, but as an example for the world of what is possible, Blake said.
LGT-SES projects that its new turbine will be more efficient than existing turbines and, combined with its unique energy storage system, able to provide energy on demand.
Blake said that design of its system began with the credit crisis around the end of the last decade. Up to then, he had worked on race cars for such major manufacturers as Lexus. During the global economic crisis, there wasn’t much work in the automotive industry, so he took a project in Wales, United Kingdom, working on the gearboxes in wind turbines owned by the government.
The deeper he got into the problem, the more Blake realized that what they really needed to do was start over from scratch.
From that came LGT-SES’ current design, which he said can both produce more energy and do it with lower production costs than traditional turbines.
The system uses a ducted turbine to increase the wind speed as it flows over the blades. This is not a new idea, Blake said; his company has just been the first to figure out a way to actually make it work.
The turbines can also move independently, reacting both to wind direction and height to provide optimal power production, he said. The telescoping towers — possible because they don’t have the weight of a generator or gear box at the top of the tower— allow the turbines to be lowered to ground level for maintenance.
The concept has many unique features. Using hydraulics, they are able to avoid some limitations of a traditional turbine, Blake said.
Traditional turbines can only have one optimal speed for energy production because they power a generator directly. They may not produce “anything meaningful” until the wind reaches around 12 miles per hour, and even then the turbine has to overcome the resistance of the gears as the blades get up to speed, he said.
The LGT-SES turbine’s variable hydraulic pumps allow for graduated production, similar to the efficiency allowed by car gears, but in reverse, with the resistance — and power production — increasing as the wind speed increases. Between that and the ducting, their turbines are able to produce power at wind speeds as low as 3 miles per hour.
Additionally, since torque adjusts to the incoming wind, the turbine can produce twice as much power just by going from a 30 mile per hour wind to a 40 mile per hour wind, he said. It can also continue to operate in much higher wind speeds than traditional turbines.
Beyond those benefits, the system is also modular, Blake said. This allows various forms of energy storage, from using the turbines to pump air into tanks — later using the pressure as needed to power loads — to running generators on the ground to produce electricity, to even using the power to produce hydrogen from water.
And, that water doesn’t have to start clean, Blake said. Though it would have to be filtered dependant on what’s in it, the concept behind the hydrogen production came from interest in finding something to do with polluted water sources, such as left over from mining activities.
The hydrogen production can also be done on small enough of a scale, it’s possible a single turbine could be set up in a remote location — such as a ranch or farm — and produce hydrogen to be used to power equipment similarly to how natural gas is now used, he said.
It has taken several years to get the turbines and storage systems from concept to reality, Blake said, expressing some frustration with how slow the process has been.Much of that has been working out financing and dealing with red tape, and red tape is part of what drew them to move development from the UK to the U.S. in the first place, he said. Though both countries have the same international standards they follow with wind turbines, the U.S. — especially Montana — puts considerably less bureaucratic weight on the development of new energy technologies, he said.
Montana also showed its support in 2015, when it awarded LGT-SES a Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grant of $547,500 to support research and development and the creation of 73 jobs.
However, the company did not use the grant “when it became obvious that the development was going to take longer than planned before we could reach production,” Blake said, noting that “we never actually received the funds to physically return” because the money was dependent on creating jobs.
“The jobs will not be created until after the testing and certification phase has been completed in Whitehall,” he said. “This is expected to be finished by late 2020.”
After lining up financing with an Irish investor over the summer, LGT-SES is now planning to move forward, Blake said. If all goes well, it could have operational turbines in place by March.
Currently, it is just waiting for tooling and dies to be completed so it can begin manufacturing the turbine, he said.
And while LGT-SES wants to have Whitehall be their primary production plant — as well as a showcase for the potential of the technology — Blake said the company anticipates exporting turbines back to Europe.
Harrington said having the capability of on-site energy storage could provide the opportunity to make use of the wind power locally.
Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said that though LGT-SES does not plan to create a wind farm as part of its operation, it has expressed interest in helping to develop a wind farm for the benefit of the community, including other businesses that move into the Sunlight Business Park.
“Our intent is to produce the energy to benefit the business park,” Wortman said, adding that it could possibly be produced at a lower cost than currently available.
Because Whitehall doesn’t have the means to offer many incentives for businesses to locate there, being able to provide low-cost power could be a way to entice them to come, Harrington said.