Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wind turbine plan spins out of control

By Edward Mason and Mike Underwood 
Wednesday, September 10, 2008 - 


The Menino administration is turning red over efforts to go green as the bungled installation of a wind turbine on City Hall’s roof is running up a bill for taxpayers - all to create enough electricity to power just 19 lightbulbs.  Making matters worse: City officials may have inadvertently violated bidding laws in the scramble to get the little turbine engine spinning.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Environment and Energy chief James Hunt said the windmill project is “definitely worth doing.”  “The energy may be small, but to showcase the potential of renewable energy in the city of Boston is far more significant,” he said.  The turbine - set to be turned on next week - was donated in January by Arizona-based Southwest Windpower.

But what was intended to be a cost-neutral proposition has turned into anything but, with City Hall running up a $13,000 tab getting the wind turbine installed.  The city had trouble securing the turbine to the roof, which is made of concrete reinforced with steel, Hunt said. The turbine also had to be on a hinge so city engineers could safely repair and maintain it.

Hunt said a $5,000 grant from a Somerville energy company, Excelerate Energy, will be used to to offset some of the expense, leaving taxpayers with about an $8,000 tab.  “Anytime you’re dealing with installation in City Hall, there are always challenges,” he said.

With 6-foot-long blades, the turbine is a tenth the size of the IBEW Local 103 turbine visible from the Expressway.  The Skystream 3.7, 1.9-kilowatt turbine produces enough power to run 19 100-watt lightbulbs, said Michael French, a Southwest Windpower spokesman.

Hunt said it generates the energy used by two average Boston homes - but added that the device’s true value is measuring the effectiveness of a wind turbine in an urban setting.  Southwest Windpower said the turbine costs between $12,000 and $18,000 to install. State bidding laws require project’s costing more than $10,000 to be put out for a competitive bid, to ensure the city pays a fair price.

Jeff Conley of the Boston Finance Commission, a city watchdog, said he’s a stickler for complying with the bidding laws but that he doesn’t have a problem with the way the city handled the project.  “They made a judgment around the cost,” Conley said. “They made a mistake.”

The turbine is a small piece of the city’s promotion of alternative energy. The city is investigating placing wind turbines at up to six public schools.

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