From base to blade tip, the Bayonne, NJ, wind turbine stretches nearly 400 feet into the sky. It towers over the city’s aging waterfront and stands almost 100 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty a few miles away. Surrounded by grimy oil tanks and a dusty concrete plant, the sleek, modern turbine looks like a visitor from the future.
When the wind blows, the turbine produces up to 1.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600 homes. Its supporters hope this facility points the way to a clean-energy future, when wind and solar power will eliminate the carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity plants powered by coal and natural gas.
It’s unusual to see large wind turbines in urban areas. Even in rural areas, people living near wind-power facilities often complain about noise or the “flicker” caused when blades intermittently block the sun. But Bayonne residents who live close to the tower don’t seem to mind it a bit.
“I’m right down the block from it,” says Greg Gerba. “I’ve never had a problem with it.”
For Bayonne city officials, the turbine has been a source of both pride and headaches. “We’ve had our issues,” admits the city’s director of municipal services, Tim Boyle.
Supporters of “Green New Deal” policies – including leading Democratic presidential contenders – advocate rapidly phasing out the use of fossil fuels to produce electricity. And many states, including New York and New Jersey, are already implementing programs to “decarbonize” the power grid and to rely heavily on wind and solar power instead.
If more wind and solar power are coming, it makes sense to find the most cost-effective approaches to building these facilities. Bayonne’s somewhat rocky experience with wind power may hold some lessons.
The project began in the gloomy days of the Great Recession. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which aimed to jump-start the economy by pouring $840 billion into energy infrastructure and other projects. Obama said he wanted “shovel-ready” projects that could ramp up quickly.
Across the country, political leaders scrambled to come up with proposals that would be eligible for the sudden shower of federal dollars. Jon Corzine, New Jersey’s governor at the time, “wanted a green-energy project,” recalls Boyle. Soon, wheels were turning to build a wind turbine on the grounds of a Bayonne wastewater facility.
In theory, the plan made a lot of sense. “Water plants and the like are great places for turbines because of their high electrical load,” says renewable energy analyst Paul Gipe. Building a turbine right where the power is needed eliminates the losses that occur when electricity travels over long distances.
The location chosen for the turbine is in a low-rise industrial zone, though the nearest houses are just a few hundred feet away. Engineers determined that noise from the system wouldn’t be detectable above background noise and that the blades’ shadows would almost never fall over nearby homes.
However, Bayonne soon learned that it isn’t easy to build complex infrastructure projects in a matter of months. (It turns out “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects,” Obama later admitted.) “At the time, there were no ordinances concerning wind turbines in urban areas,” recalls John Armstrong, a structural engineer with the firm hired by the city to manage the project. So construction was delayed while regulatory agencies hashed out new rules.
Then, the project’s US-based turbine supplier pulled out. Bayonne turned to Leitner-Poma, a company best known for building ski lifts and tramways. (The company operates the Roosevelt Island Tramway.) Though Leitner-Poma’s US headquarters are in Colorado, its wind turbines are built partly in Italy, which meant the project was now in violation of the stimulus bill’s “buy American” clause. More delays ensued as the city petitioned for an exception to the rule. The project’s price tag was set at $5.6 million, of which the federal government would pay roughly $4.7 million. The state of New Jersey also promised to kick in $866,000.
Not surprisingly, the Great Recession was long over by the time workers broke ground on the project. More costs and delays piled up during construction.
Still, hopes were high when the turbine’s blades finally started turning in June 2012. Electricity from the system would power two wastewater pumping stations, helping save the city about $175,000 a year in electricity costs.
When the turbine cranked out more juice than the pumps demanded, that would be sold back to the power utility, earning rebates for the city. It was estimated that the project could save Bayonne $7 million over 25 years. For a city that had long struggled economically, that was good news.
“It seemed to cheer people up,” recalls Armstrong. “People saw it as something nice and clean and bright.” And the turbine delivered as promised, helping cut the city’s electricity bill dramatically.
But then, trouble hit. The turbine broke down in June 2015, and repairs dragged on for months.
“It’s very proprietary technology,” Boyle says. “You can’t just call up Joe Mechanic to work on it.”
Each month that the turbine was out of service cost the city more than $25,000 in lost electricity savings and rebates. Worse, the unit was no longer under warranty.
“We were terrified we were going to get stuck with the full cost of the repairs,” Boyle recalls. (Leitner-Poma did not respond to several calls seeking comment.)
By the time the turbine was back in service the following March, repair costs had ballooned to more than $800,000. The city’s insurance only paid about half. “It was an expensive repair,” Boyle says. “But you don’t walk away from a $5 million asset.”
Within a few months, a new problem emerged. This time the culprit was the brake that keeps the enormous rotor from spinning uncontrollably in high winds.
“Bayonne’s energy saving wind turbine stops working again,” ran the headline in the local paper. This time repairs only took a month, but the tower’s image as a high-tech marvel was further tarnished. Papers started calling it the “on-again, off-again wind turbine.” “Stop saving us money with this thing,” read an online comment on one article. “We can’t afford it anymore.”
Today, Bayonne’s wind turbine is operating smoothly. With seven years’ experience under their belts, officials express mixed feelings about the project overall. “Any time there’s an opportunity to pursue sustainability, I think it should be pursued,” Boyle says. “However, we have been disappointed in the cost of maintenance and repairs.”
When the turbine is running properly, it produces about $325,000 worth of electricity per year, Boyle reports. But the system requires roughly $100,000 per year in maintenance. So the city winds up pocketing about $225,000 per year in electricity savings and rebates.
That’s a significant sum, though not a very impressive return on the initial investment. (Of course, since Bayonne didn’t have to pay most of the turbine’s cost, the project is an economic windfall from the city’s perspective.)
Wind-energy analyst Gipe says wind projects should be able to pay back their costs within 10 years. At the current rate of return it will take nearly 25 years to pay back the Bayonne turbine’s initial price tag of over $5.6 million. And that’s not including the repair bills.
Still, it’s not quite fair to judge the Bayonne project by the standards of newer facilities. “This project forged the way for wind turbines in urban areas,” Armstrong says. “Yes, it was relatively expensive, but it was only expensive because it was first.”
The Bayonne wind turbine was just one of many projects under the Obama stimulus program that yielded somewhat mixed results. The lesson here might be that rushed, top-down spending programs are not the best way to make infrastructure investments. (Green New Deal proponents should take note.) Many alternative-energy supporters instead advocate incentives that encourage private companies to develop wind and solar facilities, rather than direct government grants to individual projects.
Private companies have more expertise in dealing with problems like those encountered by Bayonne’s beleaguered public-works officials. And companies with large fleets of turbines can manage costs better than a city agency operating a single tower.
Then there’s the question of impact. On paper, it would take more than 50 such turbines to supply all the electricity needs of Bayonne’s 67,000 residents. One windmill may not be an eyesore, but where would the other 49 go? And, since the wind only blows briskly about a third of the time, wind power always needs to be backed up by a more reliable source, such as natural gas or nuclear power. So, while wind can make a contribution, it can’t replace fossil fuels alone.
And some critics warn that wind power can create its own environmental problems: Aside from noise and visual impacts, US wind turbines kill over 140,000 birds each year. Happily, there have been no reports of bird fatalities at the Bayonne site.
In the end, Bayonne could have done worse with its pioneering wind facility. “I think it is going pretty well, overall,” says Armstrong, who is no longer involved with the project.
While it hasn’t saved as much money as anticipated, it remains a financial plus for the city. And, by helping replace electricity made from fossil fuels, it significantly reduces the city’s carbon footprint.
Far from complaining, most neighbors have embraced the turbine as a symbol of Bayonne’s progress. “I don’t see it as an eyesore,” says Mark Scrudato, a manager at the nearby Broadway Diner. “It’s almost like a monument.”
“I don’t want to bad-mouth wind power just because we had a bad experience,” Boyle concludes. “Anything that’s sustainable is worth the effort.”
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