Feb. 8 2012 12:00 AM

Micro-turbines may soon harness the hot air at City Hall


They come in sets of three cylinders about 3 feet tall and swirl like barber poles or washing machine agitators. They can be stacked or lined up like Legos on roofs, ledges and other high places.

Unlike the towering three-bladed windmills Don Quixote mistook for giants, vertical micro-turbines nestle modestly into urban areas, converting modest winds into modest amounts of energy.

In his State of the City address Jan. 30, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said the city was working with an Indiana manufacturer to put micro-turbines on city buildings as the first in “a series of small-scale green energy technologies” to be piloted here.

The mayor’s spokesman, Randy Hannan, said it would be the first municipal installation of micro-turbines in the nation.

“We are working through the scope of the project, cost and site location,” Hannan said. The administration hopes to have the turbines in place by summer.

Mark Clevey, consumer education and renewable energy program manager at the state of Michigan’s energy office, called it a “smart play.”

“We have an asset — roof space,” Clevey said. “There’s buildings all over Lansing that can handle them. The bottom line is, get ‘em up there, on the city’s tallest buildings, as high as you can.”

There’s an ample supply of wind in Lansing, and not just from the state House chambers, City Council and the mayor’s office. Micro-turbines, designed to catch winds as low as 4 or 5 miles per hour, are a way for cities to fish for energy right off the side of the boat.

“You can’t put a nuclear generator or an oil refinery on top of City Hall,” Clevey said. “You can’t drill a hole in City Hall and take oil or uranium out. But you can put up solar panels and wind turbines.”

Windstream approached the city about a year ago, attracted by the Board of Water and Light’s renewable energy initiatives, which Clevey called “among the best in the state.” A pitch from Windstream CEO Dan Bates impressed Bernero and his staff. 

At about $1,200 to $1,500 for each three-turbine unit, micro-turbines are cheaper than Quixote’s giants, and not just because they’re micro. “It’s a much simpler device,” Clevey said. “The stress on them from wind buffeting and vibration is much lower.”

Installation is also cheap. “You don’t have to dig a hole and put up a tower,” Clevey said.

The city plans to use part of its $1.2 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, or EECBG, from the federal government, to pay for the turbines.

Compared to the horizon-spanning wind farms going up across the country, micro-turbines are the energy equivalent of a backyard chicken pen, but the industry is growing fast. According to Pike Research, the global small wind market will billow from $203 million in revenue in 2009 to $412 million in 2013. There are over a dozen micro-turbine manufacturers in the United States, using a variety of designs.

Most windy spaces are in the middle of nowhere, and it’s costly to move energy from rural wind farms to cities.

“The Holy Grail for renewable energy is to figure out how to bring it to places where people are,” Clevey said. 

“The reason people are looking at urban wind is because the cost of putting the system up is much lower.”

Until last month, WindStream, founded in 2008, ran its micro-turbines in small pilot programs that generated more promotion than production. In November 2011, 30 WindStream turbines started twirling under the west scoreboard at the Buffalo Bills’ windy Ralph Wilson Stadium. The American Embassy in Finland also sports a set.

But in the past two years, WindStream tapped into an emerging market in rural, off-grid corners of the world where a little free power can make a big difference. WindStream’s first big contract was with a Brazilian distributor, for 10,000 units, and it’s sealing a deal with Ghana for 30,000 more. Mexico is the newest big client.

On Jan. 26, WindStream micro-turbines, under the trade name of TurboMill, went into large-scale production mode, rolling off the assembly line at a factory in North Vernon in southeast Indiana.

The most conspicuous micro-turbines in Michigan are about 10 times larger than the ones proposed for Lansing. On Earth Day 2010, six 30-foot-tall Windspire vertical units, made in Manistee, Mich., were installed at the Rogell Drive entrance to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and a parking lot on Eureka Road.

Airport communications director Michael Conway called it a “demonstration project” that is generating “some” energy. The turbines help power parking lot lights and an illuminated sign.

“Will it pay for itself in the next few years? Probably not,” Conway said.

WindStream’s Bates claims a three-year return on investment for his TurboMills, but Clevey said the numbers are bound to be “site specific.”

“It’s not like building a natural gas plant,” Clevey said. “Location is key. You’re not going to get nice clean wind speeds in the city.”

Clevey recommended that the city do careful wind mapping, from a “credible” source, before it selects the sites. Hannan said the studies will soon be under way.

Clevey is working on a lot of renewable energy products throughout the state, including a bio-generator at the Detroit Zoo that will run on camel dung and food scraps, and he said they all come down to the same cost-benefit analysis.

“It’s not rocket science,” Clevey said. “We brought in an engineer, they are taking samples of the poop, looking at the energy content and volume of the poop. Once we have that, and we know how long it takes to convert the poop into energy, we run the numbers.”

Hannan said the city will work with the Lansing Board of Water & Light to see how the turbines perform and evaluate their potential to beef up the city’s renewable energy portfolio in the long term. Private partners, including downtown businesses, may also be brought into the Lansing deal.

Clevey finds Lansing is “in an ideal position to do more green energy,” in part because BWL is owned by the city.

“A community that has a municipal utility has control over its energy future,” Clevey said. “Wyandotte is putting up wind farms around the city. It can be done, and it’s a lot easier if you have a municipal utility, you have the legal authority.”

Clevey and Hannan both expressed the hope that “early adopter” initiatives like Lansing’s micro-turbines will help spark a new round of interest and investment in renewable energy in the business and residential sectors. They might not be giants, but the twirling turbines downtown will send a message that Lansing is hip to renewable energy, even if the return on investment proves to be marginal.

“They’re going to look cool, you’re going to see them moving,” Clevey said.

“We like the idea of being a laboratory for new and promising ideas,” Hannan said. “We want to be leaders in this field, and visibility is a key part of it.”