Green living: Wind turbines power a Bronx apartment complex

Wind turbines power green living at a Bronx subsidized apartment complex.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor
Green living: Ivan Crespo says that he’s become much more environmentally aware since moving into the Eltona Apartments in the Bronx. Rooftop wind turbines power the common areas at the 63-unit subsidized housing complex.

Like many New Yorkers who live cheek by jowl in rented concrete spaces many times removed from the energy sources that power the city, plumber Ivan Crespo says he used to "look the other way" when confronted with news about environmental issues and climate change. But since moving into the Eltona Apartments in the Bronx last fall, he feels he's finally taken a stake in the environment. That's largely because of the 10 eight-foot-tall wind turbines mounted on parapets atop the five-story building – an experiment in urban wind power that developers hope could become a national model.

"It's just amazing to see them work," says Mr. Crespo. "I never really thought about where energy comes from before, but now I pay close attention to things like that."

Crespo is so enthused about clean energy that he's changed his habits, too: He uses green cleaning products, recycles, and unplugs electronics and appliances when he's not using them.

The Eltona's developer and owner, Blue Sea Development, specializes in green buildings and wanted a site to experiment with wind power in urban housing, says company president Les Bluestone. If you want to put wind turbines on a building, the structure needs to be strong enough to support them, meaning the turbines should be incorporated into the initial building plan. Mr. Bluestone figured the Eltona, a precast concrete and masonry structure built from the ground up last year, would be the perfect experiment.

"My partner and I felt like someone's got to try it out, someone's got to be the first," Bluestone says. "Otherwise we'll all just sit here and talk about how wonderful the technology could be."

The wind turbine system cost about $100,000 to buy and install. The turbines have been up and running since October 2009, when the building opened. Bluestone says they don't want to release any cost-savings numbers until the system has been on-line for a year. But when the wind blows steadily, the turbines can generate enough electricity – about 12 kilowatts – to serve the common-area energy needs of the 63-unit subsidized housing complex.

Typically the electricity bills for common areas in such a building would cost thousands of dollars a month. That means the turbines will ideally save Bluestone tens of thousands of dollars per year in electricity costs, allowing them to offer programs including job training and counseling free of charge to low-income residents and to invest more in attractive, ecological landscaping.

"The energy savings allow us to do those things, and it's just a healthier building over all," says Bluestone.

The building also gets electricity from an on-site natural-gas generator. Through cogeneration – an environmentally friendly strategy for large buildings – the "waste heat" from the generator warms the building's water. There is also a community garden on the property and various green design features.

Wind turbines are rare in cities because surrounding buildings block the wind, and because of limits placed by zoning, yard space, and infrastructure too weak for roof-mounting. But if buildings are constructed to host wind turbines, as the Eltona was, environmental awareness might be multiplied among urban denizens like Crespo. Though city regulators have been slow to revise codes to deal with residential wind turbines, Bluestone and Crespo say the Eltona draws only accolades from neighbors.

"[The turbines are] very sculptural, so most people respond well. They're very aesthetically pleasing and soothing to watch," Bluestone says.

Crespo frequently notices passersby and drivers stopping to snap photos. "We realize we're part of history," he says.

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