New parking ramp concepts blowing in the wind

Imagine pulling into a downtown parking ramp that has a small windmill on its top deck, or mounted on its facade.
 You park your electric car in a special space, plug the vehicle into a recharging unit that's powered by wind, then head to work.

Granted, this scenario is riddled with pitfalls, including start-up costs, liability issues and engineering challenges.

But some Buffalo parking officials say they're intrigued by the emerging technology. They believe that several city-owned downtown ramps might be ideal sites to launch a bold experiment that harnesses renewable energy.

The head of the outside entity that operates Buffalo's parking system has been reviewing data compiled by the Wind Turbine Lab at the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass. Kevin Helfer, executive director of Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, recently attended a conference that focused on the potential of installing windmills on urban buildings.

Helfer stressed that it's too early to say whether the concept is feasible at city ramps. Even wind power supporters concede that small rooftop turbines, which can have blades as small as 6 feet, only make sense when mounted in areas with "good wind regimes." Helfer said some downtown ramps may meet the criteria.

"We absolutely have very tall buildings, i.e., the parking ramps," Helfer told the city's Parking Board on Wednesday. "We have tremendous location right on the lake."

 R. Maura Cohen, a longtime Parking Board member, said anyone who has braved wind gusts while walking from ramps to downtown buildings knows their power. Cohen cautioned that officials are in the "very preliminary stages" of discussion, adding that further study might find the concept cost-prohibitive.

Board Chairwoman Susan M. Gonzalez said, "We have to look at every opportunity, including opportunities in green technology."

But the potential hurdles are formidable. Helfer conceded that the city would likely have to partner with an entity such as the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in order to make such projects a reality. There also would be engineering, safety and insurance issues to address.

"This is something that's new," Helfer stressed. "This isn't like there's a template out there, and you do A through Z, and you're all ready to go."

Helfer said it's possible wind power eventually could provide a valuable amenity for ramp customers who own electric cars.

"I would love the opportunity to have plug-ins. People come in, lock their car, plug in on the first floor," he said. "And I would love to tie it to a windmill that would be generating the energy that would be charging people's cars."

"What is our biggest obstacle going forward? It's a winter day with no wind and rain and sleet coming down ice," Helfer said. "Then all of a sudden you get wind. And if these things start spinning with ice on them, then you've got a problem. Those are the things that [researchers] have been looking into."
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