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Reno, Nev., Puts Wind Turbines on City Hall Roof

With turbine and solar energy projects, city officials expect to reduce energy use by 25 percent and save $1 million a year.

From the roof of Reno's City Hall, you can see the snow-spotted peaks of the Sierra Nevada. But local officials didn't gather at the top of the 17-story building Wednesday, June 2, to admire the view. They came to see the future: two 1.5 kilowatt wind turbines designed with special hoops to reduce noise.

Reno became one of the first cities in the nation to install windmills on a city hall roof. Two years in the making, this project marks the latest stage in Reno's ongoing effort to plant small-scale turbines throughout the city to produce energy and save money, said Jason Geddes, the city's environmental services administrator.

Reno already has installed a turbine at the sewage plant and one at a park. In total, nine urban turbines are slated to go up, so city officials can test how they perform in various environments.

In the U.S., wind turbines produce enough electricity on a typical day to power the equivalent of more than 9.7 million homes, according to Tom Welch, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE leads the nation's push for enhanced, affordable wind and water power technologies through its Wind and Water Power Program.

City officials are betting big money that renewable energy projects will pay off. The city, Geddes said, is investing $1 million for wind programs with a total of about $19 million for new energy technology. With wind, solar and energy-efficiency projects, he added, local officials expect to reduce energy use by 25 percent and save $1 million a year.

None of the investment money is coming out of the city's general fund. About $4.1 million comes from grants and utility rebates, the rest from stimulus bonds that the city plans to pay back with the money it saves on energy costs, Geddes said.

"It's a great thing to do to lower energy bills as much as you can," he said, "and hedge against future increases in fossil fuel energy."

Winds of Change

Reno isn't the only city to put windmills on city buildings. In 2008, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino proposed putting a small-scale windmill on top of City Hall to convert sea breezes into clean energy. By the fall of 2008, the turbine was up and running.

"The wind power demonstration project on City Hall and the potential for turbines on school grounds will showcase the tremendous promise that renewable energy holds in Boston and beyond," James W. Hunt, Boston's chief of environment and energy, said in a 2008 release.

But, according to The Boston Channel, the windmill stirred controversy due to its limited power and the thousands of dollars it cost taxpayers.

Regardless, proponents see these small-scale turbines as a sign of a greener tomorrow. In Reno, officials plan to use the city's website to keep the public informed on how wind power works and why it might be a smart investment.

Starting this month, Geddes said, the website will offer real-time data on wind speed, turbine locations and electrical output. By plugging addresses into a 3-D regional map, citizens can gauge typical wind conditions and see how much energy a particular turbine on their property could produce.

"People will be able to look at where they will put a turbine in that region and get an estimate," Geddes said. "There's so much new technology in the market. A lot of these systems can work in the urban environment."

Urban Turbines

The plan to put wind turbines on the roof of Reno City Hall dates back to a yearlong energy audit in 2008. At that time, Geddes said, local officials analyzed ways to incorporate renewable wind and solar projects into the system.

"As we were developing that, the stimulus bill passed," he said. "That gave us the funding we needed to support this project."

With the city turbines scattered around Reno, officials and manufacturers hope citizens catch wind of the power-producing potential of urban turbines. In July, Windspire, a Reno-based, small-scale wind company, will install one of its propeller-free, vertical turbines on a city-owned parking garage.

"When you talk about wind power, most people think of big turbines in the middle of nowhere," said Amy Berry, Windspire's director of marketing. "We're big proponents of the city putting small wind turbines around because it will introduce more people to the idea of small wind."