reWorking Michigan: Lansing's Energy Future May Be Up In The Air

Apr 30, 2012

Last week, Mayor Virg Bernero announced that a series of small wind turbines would be installed on the roofs of City Hall and the Lansing Center in June.  Generating electrical power from wind energy is part of Michigan’s overall renewable energy strategy.  But there’s some debate as to whether the urban core is the best laboratory in which to try it out.  


The slickest PR firm in Lansing could not have engineered a better stage for Mayor Virg Bernero’s press conference Thursday outside City Hall.  My colleagues and I had to tape down our microphones and pray the gusty wind wouldn’t ruin our recordings.

“Thank you all for joining us on this breezy, lovely day in downtown Lansing, perfect for the announcement that we’re here to make,” said Bernero.

Just a few feet from the mayor stood the object of the day’s event.  Three slender steel turbines rotated furiously, like a trio of DNA double helixes in biological overdrive.  With the Capitol dome looming behind him, Bernero explained how the rooftop unit might harness clean, renewable energy.

“I’m absolutely convinced that with the steady stream of hot air coming from across the street -- maybe even a little coming from the ninth floor – we’re convinced that Lansing’s future energy needs can be met for generations to come,” Bernero quipped.

Lansing’s wind turbine pilot program is funded through a federal U.S. Department of Energy grant.  The units are made by Indiana-based Windstream Technologies.  The company gathers meteorological data about wind patterns across the country before deciding where to launch its projects.  As a player in the so-called “micro-wind” market, Windstream has mainly tested its units in rural settings.  But it does have a few prototypes in some high-profile places, including the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland and the Buffalo Bills stadium. 

Lansing will be Windstream’s first real urban test lab.  Vice-president of business development John DeGray says the urban landscape creates a wind tunnel effect that accelerates the current rising off the rooftops.

“So as we are able to deploy in places like this with programs like this, we’re going to be able to quantify the accelerating factors, and that will help us to pick more and more locations,” DeGray says.

The whole point of a utility infrastructure is to deliver energy where consumers live,  and of course, that’s in larger cities.  But some industry experts say urban turbines are frowned downtown.

“The general experience in urban areas is that it’s a very complex, turbulent wind regime (that’s) difficult to assess,” says Brent Summerville with the Small Wind Certification Council.  “There’s a large contingent that says it’s a really bad idea.”

The SWCC is a non-profit based in New York.  It’s an independent agency that field tests wind turbines for safety, function and durability.  Summerville says cities have yielded mixed results.  Broad streets channel the wind, but tall buildings are windbreaks.  But Summerville says wind energy experiments continue.

“It’s quite an engineering challenge to develop the wind turbine that’s suitable for the environment and to use technology to try to assess the actual wind flow,” Summerville adds.  “So, it’s been tried with unsuccessful efforts, but the study period is not over.”

In Lansing, utility operators hope the technology will spur more public interest in wind energy as a cost saver.  The Lansing Board of Water and Light offers a net metering program in which customers who generate more energy than their home requires through solar and wind power can receive a credit on their energy bills. 

The program isn’t widespread; not yet.  But Mayor Virg Bernero is confident that one day, his city’s energy future will be up in the air.

“One can imagine many different scenarios; General Motors here, Michigan State; a lot of different organizations and companies that want to go green that are committed to it,” says Bernero.  “And so, it’s going to be very exciting to see what the results are.”

Lansing’s wind energy pilot program officially begins in June, when Windstream Technologies will install its turbines atop City Hall and the Lansing Center.  They’ll collect wind speed and energy efficiency data for one year.


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