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Reno windmills not living up to manufacturers’ claims

Nearly two years after Reno started installing energy-producing windmills at city facilities from downtown to Stead, some have proven to be better at generating electricity than others despite claims made by manufacturers.

The city’s seven windmills have so far saved Reno $2,785 in energy costs after generating 25,319 kilowatt-hours of electricity. The windmills were installed between April and October 2010 and cost about $1 million out of a $2.1 million federal energy grant given to the city that was part of the stimulus package approved by Congress in February 2009.

That’s according to data available on Reno’s new “open government” website that tracks the amount of power each windmill generates and the average wind speed from each day.

The most successful of Reno’s six operational windmills is located at the city’s water sewer facility in Stead. It features two white blades and has generated 11 megawatt-hours over the last 365 days with an average wind speed of 2.3 miles per hour. Before it was constructed in October 2010, it was expected to generate 10.5 megawatt-hours, according to its Scotland-based manufacturer, Gaia-Wind.

The windmills in downtown Reno, including the two on top of City Hall, have fallen far behind with the amount of electricity they were originally billed to produce.

For example, the windmill located on the eastern side of City Hall produced 129 kilowatt-hours over the last 365 days, though its manufacturer, Michigan-based Cascade Engineering Inc., said it would produce 750 kilowatt-hours in a year.

“The vendor looked at it and suggested if we installed them higher, we’d get better wind output from them,” said Jason Geddes, Reno’s environmental services administrator. “That’s not what their literature advertised in the beginning. We’re finding we’re getting turbulence from city hall itself.”

Geddes said city staff is talking to the manufacturer about moving the windmills to a better spot on top of the 16-story building.

The two vertical windmills on top of the downtown Parking Gallery also have lagged in wind energy production. One of the installations, which looks like a double helix, has produced just 33.4 kilowatt hours since it was installed in September 2010, even though its manufacturer, Venger Wind, promised it would produce 1,100 kilowatt-hours a year.

Geddes said the problem is lower-than-expected wind speeds in downtown Reno – about 1.3 miles per hour on average at the parking garage – compared to windier areas closer to the Sierra and canyons.

Another windmill located at the Stead water treatment facility managed to produce nearly 8.7 megawatt-hours in a year (down from an anticipated 10.5 megawatt-hours) before it was shut down last October for repairs. It’s expected to be operational again in May.

“The turbines that we have installed up in Stead at the wastewater plant have been two of most successful turbines we’ve had and two of the most productive in the state in terms of what they produce,” Geddes said.

The windmills are part of the city’s larger, $20 million renewable energy effort, funded by $4.7 million grants and rebates, as well as $15.3 million in renewable energy-related bonds that will be paid off using cost savings from the project over the next 15 years.

So far, the city has reduced its energy consumption by about 45 percent and is saving about $1.1 million in energy costs a year, largely from retrofitting buildings with efficient light bulbs and other cost-saving measures. In February, the city finished work on nine solar installations that are expected to save up $3 million in energy costs over the next 20 years, or $150,000 a year, and generate up to 18 percent of the government’s electricity.

While Reno’s windmill demonstration has generated less power and resulted in a mixed bag of results, Geddes said they were intended to give the city a chance to experiment with different designs and areas in the Truckee Meadows to see which are the best fit for wind-energy production.

And while the windmill numbers are lackluster compared to other portions of the project, such as solar panels and retrofitted buildings, Geddes said Reno’s green-energy efforts have earned the city national attention from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Time and USA Today, as well as the National Resource Defense Council in 2010 naming Reno one of the top 22 “Smarter” cities in the country when it comes to renewable energy.