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Thruway Authority seeks energy answers in the wind

The same winds that make Buffalo winters so brutal will be generating power for the New York State Thruway Authority soon.

Those “Lake Effect” blasts will power turbines the authority plans to build to generate some electricity. The five that are planned, with construction beginning next year, would generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity combined, the authority says.

That will help power the Buffalo offices of the Thruway Authority. But how will that help us on this end of the state, where the Thruway system includes interstates 287 and 95, not to mention the Tappan Zee Bridge?

Well, it won’t help us directly. But it will help the agency’s bottom line, as well as “basically making a greener Thruway,” said authority spokeswoman Betsy Feldstein. “And that’s what we hope to do.”

The agency is also working with the New York Power Authority to convert the Thruway Authority’s headquarters building from electricity to natural gas, while upgrading heating and cooling systems. That project, slated for next year, is expected to cut the energy used by 2.6 kilowatts, saving $280,000 a year.

Wind farms go where the reliable wind is, often along waterfronts and on high elevations.

“Unfortunately it’s not always where the load is, but you have to go where the resource is,” said Todd Olinsky-Paul, spokesman for the Pace Energy and Climate Center, a non-profit organization attached to the university’s law school.

Many of New York’s wind farms are in the western end of the state, he said. Other areas might have the wind, but might be poor sites for other reasons, including the potential for public opposition. As an example, Olinsky-Paul said ridge lines in the Adirondacks might offer the wind.

“I imagine there would be a lot of resistance to that sort of a project in a park,” he said.

The Thruway’s turbines will rise no higher than 150 feet, Feldstein said. They’ll be built in towns hugging Lake Erie – Dunkirk, Evans, Hanover and Ripley.

Up to $4.8 million has been approved for the project, Feldstein said. The design is expected to cost about $500,000; how much it will take to build them is not known.

When they’re finished, they are expected to provide about a third of the power used by the Buffalo Division, where the annual electrical bill is $1.2 million, Feldstein said.

A quick calculation shows then that they would save roughly $400,000 a year, and it would take about 12 years for the turbines to pay for themselves. But as Feldstein pointed out, the cost could come in lower, and energy costs could be higher by the time they’re built. They won’t know the real savings until the turbines are spinning, she said.

The plan reminded me of another approach that has been tried: Setting turbines by highways themselves, using the wind from passing cars and trucks to power them. But a couple of energy experts I spoke with had not heard about them.

Olinsky-Paul said he had seen other proposals for alternate energy sources in transportation, including an idea to use the braking power of subway cars to create energy, similar to the way some hybrid cars work.

Feldstein said engineers for the Thruway Authority have not looked at the turbines-on-the-highway idea.

“The Thruway Authority has not had the opportunity to evaluate this emerging technology and determine its practicality, safety and cost effectiveness for use along the New York State Thruway Authority.”