Ill wind: Farmers find problems with wind power generators

February 20, 2012 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

READLYN, Iowa¬†— Green energy has some Northeast Iowa farmers
seeing red. Not with the concept, but with a wind energy
company.

More than a dozen grain and livestock producers who purchased
wind turbines to cut energy costs and help the environment have had
nothing but problems. The company that sold the turbines — Earth
Linked Energy Solutions of Story City — is teetering on the brink
of bankruptcy. Customers say the turbines cost far more than
they’ve saved.

Attempts to reach Earth Linked owners Laura Royal and Nate Ante
were unsuccessful.

The windmills, according to some owners, are beset with
mechanical problems and often sit idle — sometimes for months at
a time. Other Earth Linked customers say turbines aren’t as
productive as company officials led them to believe. One producer
said Earth Linked promised government aid to help pay for the
project that never materialized.

Earth Linked customers recently joined forces to keep others
from suffering the same fate. Seven turbine owners met at Ron
Strottman’s dairy farm near Readlyn in mid-December. Roger Bockes,
who owns a troubled turbine at a hog operation near Grundy Center,
is in contact with about a dozen fellow Earth Linked customers.

While turbine owners are still positive about wind energy —
many area projects are successful, including some sold by Earth
Linked — they urge people to be cautious as the industry evolves.
Owners and industry experts suggest potential turbine buyers
thoroughly research companies and seek advice from reliable
experts, especially advisers without a financial stake in the
decision.

Janice Martins of rural Fairbank, who attended Strottman’s
meeting, said her Earth Linked turbine is a mechanical nightmare
and rarely turns.

“I think wind energy is a good thing … but we need to educate
people on what’s going on,” said Martins, who farms with her
husband Doug. “Earth Linked is the problem.”

Earth Linked won’t fulfill warranty obligations or return calls,
customers say.

The company’s toll-free number is disconnected. Former employees
said Earth Linked subcontracted with other businesses to rebuild
turbines and supply electronics and software.

A happy ending for Earth Linked customers isn’t likely,
according to Bruce Thomsen, an Urbandale accountant appointed
receiver of the company in August by Polk County District
Court.

A lawsuit between Laura Royal and Ante is ongoing, and Royal
asked Thomsen be appointed.

Earth Linked — along with subsidiaries Earth Linked Wind
Solutions, Earth Linked Growth Grants and E.L.E.S. Construction and
Maintenance — essentially ceased operations in August as funds
dried up and employees were let go, said Thomsen. He’s basically in
control of the company.

Many local Earth Linked customers stay in touch with
Thomsen.

“I tried to take care of people. (But) with no employees and
cash accounts pretty much dried up,” Thomsen said, there’s not much
he can do.

Thomsen conducted a financial analysis of Earth Linked and its
subsidiaries. He declined to detail his findings. He’s waiting on
direction from the court, which could include bankruptcy
proceedings.

Troubled turbines

Multiple Earth Linked customers said they’ve experienced
problems. Some feel they were misled by Earth Linked salesman Jeff
Royal, Lisa Royal’s husband.

Jeff Royal denies the allegation. Though he feels sorry for past
customers having trouble with turbines, Jeff Royal said he was
simply the salesman and Ante should make things right.

Janice and Doug Martins purchased a remanufactured Windmatic 65
kilowatt turbine for about $240,000 from Jeff Royal in January
2010. Government stimulus and grant money paid for about half the
project. The Martins obtained a loan for the balance.

Jeff Royal claims he doesn’t remember dealing with the Martins.
His signature is on the sales contract.

The Martins want to eliminate or put a big dent in monthly
electric bills averaging $380 to $600 a month for their cattle and
grain operation. When Earth Linked came calling — the company
sold about 50 turbines in eastern Iowa, according to a former
employee — the couple thought wind power was the answer.

According to financial and production estimates prepared by Jeff
Royal, whose name is on the document, the project’s payback was
calculated at 4.2 years. The average annual income and savings was
pegged at nearly $19,000.

“That I can’t comment on. I didn’t prepare any of that,” Jeff
Royal said.

During windy months, Janice said Royal assured her and her
husband that electric production would exceed use and generate
income.

“Everything sounded great. We need power to dry grain … so we
signed up,” Janice said.

What the couple got, she said, was bad equipment and
estimates.

“Everything you can imagine went wrong,” Janice added.

The Martins’ turbine went online in August 2010, ran for 13 days
and broke down. It’s run 53 days in the past year. Janice said the
most it reduced their electric bill in a month was $73. And they
still have annual payments of $20,000 for the turbine loan and $950
for insurance.

The Martins and turbine experts say faulty electronics and
control equipment caused a myriad of problems, like brake issues,
twisted cables and a generator blowout. Dozens of attempts to
repair the turbine by Earth Linked failed, Janice said. Last
August, she said the company quit helping all together.

“It was just misrepresented,” Janice said. “I hope people don’t
get a bad taste in their mouth from wind energy. We just worked
with a bad company.”

Talk Inc., a wind energy company based in Sauk Centre, Minn., is
in the process of repairing the Martins’ turbine at the couple’s
expense.

Strottman bought two turbines — a 65 kw Windmatic and a 33 kw
Aeroman — from Earth Linked two years ago to drastically cut his
monthly $1,700 electric bill. He owns a 250-head dairy.

The project cost $410,000. Strottman received $123,000 in
government economic stimulus funds and he got a loan for the
balance.

The dairy farmer makes $3,700 monthly payments on the machines
that currently sit idle. Since Earth Linked won’t honor warranties
on the machines, Strottman said he’s hesitant to fork over more
money to repair bad electronics, a burned out generator and solve
electricity conversion issues.

“The bleeding has to stop some time,” Strottman said.

Strottman said Jeff Royal promised him a sizable government
grant would also offset the cost, which wasn’t approved. Plus,
Strottman said he was never told phase converters would be needed.
Strottman’s turbines produce three-phase power but his farm uses
single-phase electricity.

“If they did, I would have said, ‘no thanks,’” Strottman
said.

Jeff Royal declined to comment on Strottman’s allegations.

However, Royal, who owns Earth Linked Wind Solutions of Kansas,
a separate company from his wife and Ante’s venture, feels bad for
his former customers. He thinks Earth Linked Energy Solutions
should continue to help.

“I think they should. … Nate (Ante) should fix everything,” he
said, while claiming no financial liability.

A call to Ante’s cell phone for comment wasn’t returned. Jeff
Royal also provided a number for his wife’s attorney, Brad Beaman,
who didn’t respond to an interview request.

Other local Earth Linked Energy Solutions customers report
similar problems as the Martins and Strottman.

Rick Rottinghaus of rural Waterloo spent $316,000 on a 100 kw
turbine, about half paid by taxpayers. It has run only two months
out of the last 15, plagued with electronic and mechanical
problems.

Rottinghaus billed Earth Linked $35,000 for repairs that haven’t
worked and lost production. It was never paid, he said.

Talk Inc. owner Adam Suelflow inspected Rottinghaus’ turbine on
Feb. 10 and will repair the machine.

“I still believe in wind energy,” Rottinghaus said. “I’m trying
to figure out how much I’m willing to stick into half a dead
horse.”

What to look for

Despite problems experienced by some Northeast Iowa turbine
owners, industry experts say investing in small wind energy systems
can pay off. The Iowa Wind Energy Association provides helpful tips
for success.

Harold Prior, executive director of the association, said Earth
Linked Energy Solutions did give the industry a “black eye.”
However, he said there are many reputable companies selling and
maintaining machines.

“Buyers have to be very cautious with whom they get involved
with. That’s what we’re trying to get across … because there’s
tremendous potential for the industry,” Prior said.

According to Prior, potential turbine buyers should:

Understand projects are complicated and hire quality
consultants.

Study net electricity metering requirements.

Seek advice if a project is economically feasible.

Thoroughly research companies, insist on references from
customers.

Steve Boevers of rural Readlyn is relatively happy with the 65
kw Vesta turbine he purchased from Earth Linked Energy Solutions 2
1/2 years ago — the first sold by the company in the area, he
said. There’s been no mechanical problems so far.

“I’m one of the few lucky ones,” Boevers said. “It’s not putting
out the kilowatts as promised, but enough that it should pay for
itself in under 10 years.”

Much more than originally claimed by Earth Linked, he said.

A family member who bought from Earth Linked is satisfied as
well, Boevers said. The grain and hog farmer is contemplating
buying another turbine to power a hog site near Fredericka.

For local turbines not running or operating efficiently,
Suelflow said they can be fixed. Prior described Talk Inc. as a
“shining star” in the industry.

Suelflow, a turbine technician, said about 20 Earth Linked
customers have contacted him about repairing their machines.
Several are operating with no problems, he said.

The primary problem is faulty controllers, Suelflow said, which
caused other malfunctions. He’s repairing machines with Talk
equipment.

“Word spread like wildfire. We want machines to run, they do
work,” Suelflow said.

But at a cost. In some cases, former Earth Linked customers may
have to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

For the Martins, it’s either do that or waste more than $100,000
already invested. Suelflow estimated the Martins’ payback will be
eight to 10 years, including the extra repair bills.

“I think Talk will be our savior,” Janice Martins said.

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