Ever notice how many of the wind turbines on the old Bethlehem Steel property along Lake Erie don't rotate, even on windy days?
Now we know why.
The company that manufactured parts for the turbines went bankrupt, and the owner of the turbines in Lackawanna and Hamburg can't get replacement parts.
Now the company that owns them, Erie Wind, a subsidiary of TerraForm Power, plans to spend $21.46 million to fix them – with bigger blades designed to be safer for birds. The original investment in the turbines was $65 million to $70 million.
"They have replaced these windmills two-and-a-half times over, and they're still not functioning," said Sean Doyle, executive director of the Hamburg Industrial Development Agency.
The fix involves replacing the nacelle, rotor, hub and blades for each of the 14 turbines – in other words, all the moving parts at the top of the support shaft. The foundations and the towers would remain, although they would support longer blades.
The turbines were built in two phases, and they were hailed as the first urban wind farm in the country, a symbol of the future of renewable energy and a model for repurposing brownfields.
Steel Winds I started operating in 2007 and consisted of eight 2.5 megawatt turbines at the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. site in Lackawanna. Steel Winds II included two 2.5 megawatt turbines in Lackawanna and four in Hamburg. The second phase started generating electricity in 2012.
Wind energy production has increased since Steel Winds was first proposed, and now accounts for 3.2% of the energy produced in New York State, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade association for the wind industry. New York ranks 14th in the nation for its capacity, according to the association.
An attorney for Erie Wind told the Hamburg Planning Board recently that the new blades will be longer, but he said the company is proposing several features to make them safer for birds and bats: feathering the blades and curtailment, so they do not operate at lower wind speeds when birds and bats are typically flying.
He said the replacement project would be completed in 2021.
“Our repowering projects, including Steel Winds in Erie County, and Cohocton in Steuben County, would lead to enhanced energy generation – up to 25% to 30% more – through the installation of new state-of-the-art turbines that would be installed," company spokesman Sherif El-Azzazi said in an email.
He said there also is a "major cost incentive for repowering projects," which are estimated to cost about 40% less than a new wind farm.
The Lackawanna and Hamburg turbines aren't the only ones not blowing in the wind.
The New York State Thruway Authority last year filed a lawsuit over four wind turbines at area highway exits that don't work. Those turbines were installed in 2013 and 2014 with the aim of saving energy costs.
But four of the turbines in Chautauqua and Erie counties stopped working. The French manufacturer of those turbines, Vergnet, went into receivership in 2017.
Erie Wind, the owner of the turbines on the former Bethlehem Steel site, is seeking tax breaks from the Erie County and Hamburg industrial development agencies in the form of a payment in lieu of taxes agreement. The current community benefit agreement provided for a payment of $10,000 per megawatt per year, according to Doyle.
He said the proposal for a 15-year agreement is to increase that to $11,000, and increase it by 5% in the 11th year. Four of the turbines are in Hamburg and eight are in Lackawanna. Erie County, Lackawanna, Hamburg and Frontier Central and Lackawanna City school districts receive the payments, which totaled just over $300,000 this year, according to Doyle and Richard Stanton, Lackawanna's development director.
"It brings a marginal increase in tax revenue and it prevents a decrease in tax revenue," Stanton said.
If the industrial development agencies do not approve the project and the payment in lieu of taxes, the company said in its application the work cannot be completed. If the project is not approved, the equipment and facility will be "faced with an extremely short useful life," the application states. There are three people employed by the facility.
There are two public hearings scheduled on the project, one by the Erie County IDA at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Lackawanna City Hall, and one by the Hamburg IDA at 7:30 a.m. Nov. 26 in Blasdell Village Hall.