Small turbines finding niche as larger projects slow
CAPITAL REGION Look up toward the hills from Thruway Exit 26 and Tracy Lamanec’s wind turbine may come into view.
The slender, 130-foot lattice can be hidden among the collection of communication towers perched on the ridge overlooking the hamlet of Pattersonville. Depending on the angle of sunlight, the 11-foot-long rotors quietly generating energy off Crawford Road are hard to spot.
“When the sun is hitting it, you can see a little flicker up there,” the homeowner said. “But without binoculars you’re not going to see what it is on that tower.”
The wind turbine Lamanec had constructed last month is the tallest in Rotterdam and located near where Reunion Power once considered locating more than a dozen industrial turbines. Samples from a 197-foot-tall test tower built by the Vermont-based company determined there was enough strong wind to generate power. Lamanec has been familiar with that wind after nearly five decades of living on the ridge.
“We used to curse the wind because it bothered us in just about everything we wanted to do,” he said
Lamanec leased the property to Reunion for its tower for several years, until the company backed out. The sluggish national economy and a drop in energy prices ultimately doomed the prospective wind farm, but started Lamanec thinking about a project of his own.
Last spring, several friends put him contact with Hudson Valley Wind Energy, a Columbia County-based company specializing in building small wind turbines. The company sells a 10-kilowatt turbine that can all but eliminate the cost of energy for a home or businesses owner.
The Bergey Excel turbine can generate up to 15,000 kilowatts per year when operating in ideal conditions, which is about 5,000 kilowatts more than many homes consume annually. The turbines have a life expectancy of about 50 years and are promoted as generally maintenance free, meaning they can be a source of free renewable energy for decades.
“If you have really good wind, you’ll have no electric bill for 50 years,” said Douglas Passeri, the company’s Hudson Valley Wind Energy owner.
Interest in smaller turbines is growing in the Capital Region at a time when talk of developing commercial wind farms has waned. Passeri said his company is erecting about one residential turbine a month and has gotten hundreds of calls from people hoping to cut or at least stabilize their energy costs.
“They’re absolutely taking off right now,” he said of the residential turbines. “It's definitely the way of the future.”
Carol Murphy, the executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, nonprofit dedicated to promoting clean and efficient energy sources, agreed. She said consumers are starting to see the advantages of investing in small-scale wind generation for the savings they’ll achieve.
“People are becoming more interested and more aware that they can save a lot on their energy bill with these turbines,” she said. “Every time the wind blows, that’s like a fuel delivery.”
In contrast, Murphy said there seems to be less talk about developing larger wind projects in the area compared to several years ago, when several energy companies were courting Capital Region communities. In 2006, a Orion Energy and the Tamarack Group proposed locating 60 wind turbines on rural land running along the border of Mohawk and Palatine in Montgomery County.
Shell Wind Energy was scouting rural Albany County for places to develop up to 50 turbines in 2008. Around the same time, Reunion was scouting land in Schoharie County.
The prospect of these projects spurred a rash of local legislation regulating the placement of wind turbines in many rural communities. But the combination of market forces, residential opposition and the decline in the economy has slowed the development.
“It’s been a tough sell,” acknowledged Doug Greene, the senior planner for Montgomery County’s Department of Economic Development and Planning.
Murphy said there still seems to be some interest in large projects, perhaps along the Helderberg Ridge in Albany County or on Gore Mountain in Warren County. But negative public reactions and soon-to-expire federal tax credits for large wind projects have combined to slow development.
“It’s really put a chill on the market place,” she said.
Smaller turbines are a different story, making them an easier sell in communities.
Turbines like the Bergey Excel have smaller blades than the industrial-sized turbines, which can be more than 100 feet long. They produce far less noise, Passeri said; the turbines emit about 56 decibels at their base, about the same as a refrigerator compressor.
Turbines like the one Lamanec purchased generate energy that is then transmitted back into the grid, meaning the wind power he’s harnessing is stored miles away from his home. With so-called net metering, the amount of energy generated by the tower is tallied and subtracted from Lamanec’s electrical usage. If he creates more power than he uses, he will receive a credit.
“If you make the investment and put a wind turbine on your property you spin the meter backward and you get a credit,” Murphy said.
Net metering doesn’t allow people to remove themselves from the grid, but it substantially reduces the cost of wind power because customers don’t need to purchase a battery to store the energy, which would add substantially to the $78,000 cost of building a Bergey Excel turbine.
This cost can also be further reduced with a grant through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which covers up to 50 percent of the project, depending on how much energy it produces. And a federal energy tax credit can knock an additional 30 percent off the cost, Passeri said.
Of course, the residential turbines aren’t for everyone and they’re not without some issues. Passeri said the towers need to be built at an elevation of at least 1,000 feet above sea level for them to be effective, meaning they usually need to be built on a mountain top or ridge.
The growing prevalence of the small towers could also mean a number of communities will need to revisit the laws they passed for larger wind projects. For instance, the wind energy ordinance Rotterdam passed in 2008 proved to be overkill for the small turbine Lamanec installed on Yantapuchaberg Ridge.
The law set the maximum turbine height for large wind turbine developments at 500 feet and prohibits any of the blades from extending lower than 30 feet from the ground. Smaller turbines were limited to 200 feet, with blades no less than 15 feet from the ground.
“We had to waive certain sections of the provision because it was most definitely overkill,” town Planner Peter Comenzo said, explaining the legislation’s writers never envisioned a wind turbine with blades as small as the Bergey Excel turbine. He said other parts simply don’t make sense for small turbines, even as they are defined in the law.
“We really need to tweak it,” he said.
For now, the town and Lamanec will see how the smaller towers pan out. In a sense, Lamanec said he’s the test subject for small turbines, which could one day dot the higher elevations throughout the Capital Region.
“I’m kind of the guinea pig for the area,” he said.