Six additional giant windmills will start sprouting from a brownfield along Lake Erie, possibly within the next few weeks, and they are expected to produce even more renewable energy from the toxic former Bethlehem Steel property by early 2012.
The new turbines will join the eight windmills that dramatically altered vistas of the Lake Erie shoreline when they began operating in Lackawanna in 2007.
Site preparation started last week for the new windmills, which will be identical to the other turbines, each one capable of cranking out 2.5 megawatts per hour – enough electricity to power up to 700 households.
The massive turbines stand 410 feet tall, more than twice the height of Niagara Falls and second in height only to HSBC Center for a structure in Western New York.
Four of the new windmills will be located in the Town of Hamburg, to the south of the original turbines, along the same plane. The other two turbines will be in Lackawanna, one to the south of the first windmills and one to the north.
The expansion of the nation’s first urban wind farm signals another milestone for the $40 million project in that First Wind, the private company that owns and operates the turbines, is increasing its investment.
The new turbines are estimated to cost another $25 million to $30 million.
“It’s one of the projects we’re most proud of,” said First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne. “Since it went online in 2007, it has been successful.”
The wind energy industry nationwide grew by 15 percent in 2010, with 5,116 megawatts of new wind power being installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wind power across the country now makes up 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity mix. Coal power plants still provide the bulk of the nation’s electricity.
Lamontagne would not comment on whether the Lackawanna wind farm, called Steel Winds, has turned a profit yet, although he did say that the significant upfront costs for such projects typically take seven to eight years to recoup.
The site has been a strong source of wind, meeting company expectations, he said.
“Aside from times when the project has been down for repairs, the project has been producing energy at a steady clip – at about the rate we expected when the project was developed. We’ve been pleased with its performance to date,” said Lamontagne.
The wind farm attracted nationwide attention and became a point of pride among many residents in Lackawanna, the old industrial city to the south of Buffalo that has experienced a steady decline since Bethlehem Steel closed its 1,600-acre site on Route 5 in 1983.
“In my eyes, the windmills are one of the very few plusses that have happened in Western New York in the past few years,” said Lackawanna Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr. “It’s very positive for Western New York. So many people relate to those windmills – the size, the magnificence of them when they’re turning.”
Potential remains high
The potential for even more wind farming across the state, including in Western New York, remains high. Turbines currently online in New York account for 1,349 megawatts, but the National Renewable Energy Lab has found that as much as 25,781 megawatts could be generated from wind in New York, enough to provide more than half the state’s electricity needs.
In addition to clean power, the Steel Winds project is pumping revenue into the city’s coffers. First Wind, which is based in Newton, Mass., and has other wind farms in Hawaii, Utah and Maine, agreed to hand over at least $100,000 per year until 2022, as payments in lieu of taxes for the eight turbines.
Four of the new turbines will bring with them another PILOT of at least $100,000 for the next 15 years to be split among the Town of Hamburg, the Frontier School District and Erie County.
The City of Lackawanna also will split an additional $50,000 PILOT with the county and the Lackawanna School District.
First Wind is receiving generous tax breaks by building on the Bethlehem Steel site, but the company entered into the PILOT deals as a way to manage future costs.
“It provides for us and for the folks who finance the projects’ tax certainty,” said Lamontagne.
First Wind executives originally envisioned beginning construction of Steel Winds II in late 2010, and huge turbine blades have been at the site since last December.
The remaining components are scheduled to be delivered in September.
The wind farm has had some struggles.
Shortly after the turbines went online in 2007, a problem with the gearboxes forced them to be shut down for repairs.
A lightning strike earlier this year took some of the turbines offline again for a couple of months, said Lamontagne.
Technical problems are to be expected in any windmill project, he added.
Excited for new phase
Company officials were excited to move ahead with a new phase of the project and confident that past problems with the turbines have been resolved, said Lamontagne.
In July, the turbines were available to produce energy from wind more than 98 percent of the time, Lamontagne pointed out.
“They’re running great now,” he said.
Construction of the new windmills will include further cleanup of the former Superfund toxic waste site, involving approximately 30 acres of new, clean soil cover and revegetation of the site.
“Typically it takes a few months. We hope to have this project up and running in early 2012,” said Lamontagne.
When all 14 turbines are running, they will be able to deliver enough power in a year for as many as 15,000 homes, without creating any air or water emissions.
Less carbon dioxide
By comparison, the use of fossil fuels to provide the same amount of energy would spew about 23,000 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, First Wind officials said.
While First Wind officials said in 2007 that they would consider building as many as 19 additional windmills, the company now has no definite plans to construct more turbines beyond the six that are in the works, Lamontagne said.
To achieve better energy security and electricity price stability, the U.S Department of Energy has suggested that, by 2030, at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity should be generated via wind power.
In 2010, turbines in the United States had a capacity of 40,181 megawatts, enough to supply electricity to more than 10 million homes, according to the wind energy association.