Monster equipment needed for taller turbines west of Lincoln

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[July 25, 2020] 

Take a road trip on Route 10 west between Lincoln and New Holland, look south, and you will see the latest wind farm in Logan County rising out of the prairie.

This wind farm is called Sugar Creek One.

One done, many to go at Sugar Creek Wind Farm.

Some of the towers have been completed. Their large 250 foot blades, still for the moment, but waiting to catch the first wind hundreds of feet above the ground when the farm goes online.

The ‘little’ crane is used to assemble the giant of the prairie.

Other towers are in the process of construction with several hundred feet waiting for another section to be stacked atop them. Next to each unfinished tower is the one essential element of wind farm construction, a giant crane that will lift the section into place, top the tower with the nacelle, and then place the blades in position.

Wind farms are like all major construction projects, in that they require many elements to come together to produce the end product, a jigsaw puzzle on a massive scale.

The cranes are one of those elements, and up close they are almost too huge for the mind to wrap around. The cranes at Sugar Creek weigh 11,000 metric tons each.

The cranes on the Sugar Creek project come from a company in North Carolina. They are built by a company in Germany.

While each element of the wind farm requires machinery to build it, that machinery is controlled by a skilled operator. The cranes at Sugar Creek were somewhere else in the country before they came to Logan County.

Jerry Kitson of the Buckner Crane Company is the person responsible for moving the giants from project to project. “It takes forty-one flatbed trucks to move one of these cranes from one construction project to another. The treads alone are so massive that it takes two trucks to carry each of them,” he said. Once onsite, Kitson also is in charge of assembling the crane. “We use a smaller crane to assemble the big crane. Once all of the parts are here, we can put it together in about a day and a half,” he said.

Once operational, a skilled crane operator sits in the “cockpit” to operate it. The word cockpit is apt because it looks like the flight deck of an airliner.

[to top of second column]

This is the “cockpit” of the crane with three multi-function screens that the operator uses to control the giant.

The crane has three real-time cameras on it so that the operator can monitor every part.

Chad Johnson from Springfield is one of the Sugar Creek crane operators. He has been doing this work since 1990. “I am a member of the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators,” he said.

Even though he is a member of the local union, his certification allows him to go anywhere in the country where his skills are needed.

And what does Johnson have at his fingertips in the control cab? His three panels tell him what the wind speed is at the top of the boom, how many feet of boom there are poking into the sky, how much weight is on the boom, how the custom built engine is operating. By the way, once wind speed exceeds twenty-eight miles per hour, the crane is shut down.

Johnson has access to three cameras showing a real time view of vital parts of the crane that he can’t see from his controls. He can “walk” the crane from one wind tower to another at .85 miles per hour. Each track on the crane has two motors to drive it, as well as the motor for the crane itself. Chad can have his hands full.

The cranes at Sugar Creek are the third largest that the German crane company Liebherr makes. It is almost too much to think about what the next two larger sizes look like. At $11,000,000 each, every person connected to the crane has to be topnotch. Buckner Cranes even has three of these giants at the Kennedy Space Center helping with the Space X project.

The Sugar Creek Wind Farm turbines are the latest generation. They reach higher than others previously built in the county capturing the precious river of wind that turns the blades. The crane boom is over four hundred feet in height, while the wind tower is just short of that. “The next generation of wind towers will be even taller,” said Kitson. “As we gain altitude, winds get stronger and are more consistent,” he said.

Taller towers will mean taller cranes.

Drive west and watch the towers being pieced together, watch the delicate dance of a giant machine with the operator moving a small joy stick carefully stacking one tower section with precision on top of another. It is an amazing sight.

[Curtis Fox]

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