Windmills on NYC Skyscrapers Sound Cool, but Wouldn't Work

By Eliza Strickland | August 21, 2008 1:55 pm

windmillNew York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made news yesterday when he proposed perching windmills on top of the city’s skyscrapers and bridges, and building windfarms off the coasts of Queens and Brooklyn. The move would make the city less dependent on the national energy grid, he said, and would also express the city’s commitment to renewable energy. As Bloomberg put it: “I would think that it would be a thing of beauty if, when Lady Liberty looks out on the horizon, she not only welcomes new immigrants to our shores, but lights their way with a torch powered by an ocean wind farm” [Washington Post].

However, the day after the announcement, experts are expressing numerous doubts over the plan’s feasibility. Skyscrapers would have to be designed — or retrofitted at great cost — to accommodate the extra weight, vibration and swaying of the turbines. Insurers would have to be persuaded that turbines are worth the risk. And New York is not a particularly windy city, so a few buildings facing New York Harbor might be the only sites that make sense [The New York Times]. And while new, smaller, eggbeater-shaped windmills don’t pose the same major construction hurdles, they may not produce enough electricity to make them worth the cost.

Few U.S. cities have experimented with wind power, because tall buildings tend to disrupt air currents. “Turbulence makes urban wind development difficult,” said Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. “New York is more likely to get offshore wind parks than on top of buildings or the Brooklyn Bridge” [Bloomberg]. But U.S. energy companies have been slow to develop offshore windfarms, citing high startup costs and low profits. Last year, the Long Island Power Authority canceled a plan to build 140 offshore wind turbines when costs soared to $800 million.

Faced with a barrage of criticism, Bloomberg backed away from his proposal today, saying that windmills are just one part of the city’s energy strategy, which also includes increasing solar and tidal power and pushing for energy conservation. There are many hurdles to the windmill plan, Bloomberg admitted, including irritable New Yorkers who don’t want the skyline altered. “There are aesthetic considerations,” Bloomberg said. “No. 2, I have absolutely no idea whether that makes any sense from a scientific, from a practical point of view” [AP].

Meanwhile, DISCOVER checks out the latest wind power technology in the article, “Wind Turbine That Imitates Flippers Could Increase Efficiency.”

Image: flickr/rasmithuk

  • Damian

    Great article. Don’t I recall that one of the preliminary designs for the rebuilt WTC would have involved two towers, with the upper 20 floors of each tower consisting of an enclosed wind turbine? I wonder if that proposal was viable, or whether it was similarly ill conceived.

  • Eliza Strickland

    You remember right. The “Freedom Tower” was originally slated to have 8 vertical wind turbines in an open-air structure towards the top, which were meant to supply some of the building’s power. But NY Governor Pataki worried that the blades would slice up birds, and others worried that the turbines would freeze in the winter, so the whole concept was eventually scrapped.

  • Jef

    I remember seeing these vertical axis turbines on a television program. I’m not sure if that’s what they meant by ‘eggbeater’ but they seem like a good partial solution. I found a promotional pdf that explains it rather well:
    As far as harnessing wind in urban settings, I haven’t seen any better ideas yet.

  • Damian

    If they were worried about the blades on just Freedom Tower slicing up birds and freezing in the winter, how about an entire _city_ worth of frozen-solid-turkey-chopping whirligigs?

    On the other hand, it would be the most interesting skyline in human history.

  • Evrim

    If Man can step on the moon, why can’t be futuristic enough to support Bloomberg and atleast do not disagree with his ill-visioned aim to lace a wind turbine on each building. Why? and Why Not? Somebody has to study the social, structural, economic, and legal feasibility.

  • Todd

    I love how one of the arguements against wind power is that it’s ugly. You know what else is ugly? An energy crisis.

  • Christopher Wilson

    New York does not have the same intensity of wind that one finds in many wind-farm areas. But there is plenty of wind for a number of custom wind-turbine designs throughout the city, designs that are lightweight, with vibration dampers and bird safety features included. Hold competitions for new designs with substantial cash prizes, and the appropriate engineering will come, I guarantee it. When we depend on old ideas and existing technology, that’s what we get. New skyscrapers, by their shape, permit many new approaches to engineering wind power. Let New York show how it CAN be done, and put a sock in the mouth of the nay-sayers; they are the ones who are pulling this country down into a miasma of insoluble problems and perpetual mediocrity!

  • Joe

    I’m with Todd. Have any of the people who complain about the looks of windmills ever seen an open pit coal mine?

  • Bernard Gilland

    Windpower, in New York or anywhere else, is a stupid nonsolution to the energy problem. It is a fluctuating energy source that requires backup from fossil fueled power plants. It would be far more sensible to build a nuclear power plant in Central Park.

  • Jef

    You should look at the link I put up earlier. I’m not associated with that company, so I’m not spamming, but they don’t kill birds and they don’t look bad and, though they never go very fast, the fluctuation is very little as they’re moving rather constantly in the type of twisting, gusting wind you find in a city. They’re not loud or heavy and they don’t cause very many vibrations. They’re not expensive, particularly on upkeep. Really, the only disadvantage is that the power output is far from impressive. But hey, put enough partial solutions together it starts looking like a solution.

  • Robert Dollar

    Sometimes obstacles point to new directions. Here here to Mayor Bloomberg for at least tossing the idea out. Besides, isn’t Chicago the windy city?

  • moi

    Affixing turbines to buildings entails serious engineering problems, but the lack of wind in New York isn’t such a big deal. There *is* wind at the height of tall buildings! (outside the tropics, anyway)

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