Prisons turn to the wind for energy

Prisons are turning to wind power to supply energy for their around-the-clock operations.

Courtesy of the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex in California.
Wind power helps offset energy costs at the federal prison in Victorville, Calif., after a wind turbine was built there in 2005. It was the first wind turbine at an American prison.
Courtesy of the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex in Californi
Prisons around the world are considering cutting their energy costs by installing wind turbines, such as this one in Victorville, Calif.

When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic and landed at Plymouth Rock, it was the wind blowing into their ships' sails that pushed them across the water.

That power of the wind will soon reassert itself in Plymouth, Mass., when a giant device becomes the first thing any visitor to this historic town will notice. That’s because plans are under way to build a wind turbine at the county jail here, on a hill less than a mile from the coast.

“We hope to be generating power, if not next year, then in the foreseeable future,” says John Birtwell, the spokesman for the Plymouth County Sheriff’s department. “We’ve been waiting for a year to buy a wind turbine after finishing all feasibility studies.”

According to Mr. Birtwell, the jail’s electricity bill runs close to $1 million per year.

“Unlike a school building or another commercial building, we’re always open,” Birtwell says. “When you have to feed and house 1,600 souls at a location, we have an enormous demand for energy.”

An increasing number of correctional facilities in the United States and in other countries are beginning to look at wind power to supply energy to their 24-hour operations. With the rising cost of fossil fuels, governments are finding that investing in wind energy at correctional facilities makes sense. Plus, green energy improves the image of prisons and jails.

The state of Massachusetts is currently planning wind turbine projects at three prisons – after the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust overlaid a wind map with the locations of state facilities and provided thousands of dollars for feasibility studies.

“Our governor asked state agencies to lead by example and become more sustainable in our operations,” says Kevin Flanagan, the deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management.

Construction of two turbines at the North Central Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in the city of Gardner, is scheduled to begin in the spring. When the project is completed – in approximately 12 months – it will be the first wind-energy system at a prison in the state.

Wind will meet the entire electricity demand at the prison, and extra electricity will be sold to the grid, according to Mr. Flanagan.

The first wind turbine for a US prison was built in March 2005 at the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex in California. Scott Debenham, a developer who worked on that project, says that wind supplies approximately 10 percent of the prison’s energy needs, and prisoners’ help maintain the turbine by washing the bugs and dirt off the its blades twice a year.

“It’s in a remote area where the neighbors won’t complain about the looks of it,” he says.

The government is planning to build another wind turbine at the Federal Correctional Institution Big Spring, in Texas, according to Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons.

In California, where two state prisons already use solar energy, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is studying the feasibility of wind power at three prisons, according to Paul Verke, a spokesman for the department.

In Indiana, the first wind turbine at a corrections facility was installed last year, according to Kevin Durbin, a maintenance supervisor at the Putnamville Correctional Facility. The prison is on the highest elevation in the county, he says, which made the location perfect for wind.

Virginia is planning to use stimulus money to erect three turbines on a ridge at the Wallens Ridge Correctional Center, according to Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the governor’s office. He says that when completed, this will be the largest wind-energy system on state land in Virginia – and the first one at a prison in that state. Construction is scheduled to begin this year.

Why are correctional facilities considered well suited for wind energy?

In addition to consuming a great deal of electricity, they're on public land, where no special permits from town committees are necessary. Prisons are also often located in areas – such as on islands, along seacoasts, or at high elevations – where winds are stronger.

Those locations aren't an accident. “Because when it’s on a hill, you have a better view,” said Étienne Chiasson, a spokesman for Correctional Service Canada, when asked why prisons are often built on windy hills or mountains. “It would be a good vintage point when you have someone trying to escape.”

Canada installed its first wind turbine at a federal correctional facility – at the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick – last April and is currently building a second one at the Drumheller Institution, a medium-security prison on the prairies of Alberta.

In New Brunswick, the turbine reduced the prison’s carbon dioxide emissions by 940 metric tons, which is the equivalent of taking 265,511 small cars off the road or planting 4,700 trees, according to the Correctional Service’s press office.

The Canadian government is also evaluating the feasibility of wind power at 10 other prisons.

“The Government of Canada is committed to demonstrating leadership in promoting renewable energy technology,” the press office said in an e-mail. “This project is a concrete example on how CSC is delivering on its Sustainable Development Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Wind turbines are also going up at prisons in Britain, according to Lauren Starr, a press officer for the Ministry of Justice. Ms. Starr says the ministry is now evaluating 50 potential locations for windmills, an initiative that will offset up to 50 percent of prisons’ carbon emissions.

Back in Plymouth, Mr. Birtwell is excited about tapping into wind energy, but he says the county jail has been unable to purchase a turbine for a few months because of a shortage. Still he remains optimistic:

“If you stand on the roof of our building, you could see Plymouth harbor,” he says. “It was the wind power that brought the Pilgrims here, and we’re sort of building on that tradition.”

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