Will wind power make a comeback on the North Fork?

10/07/2016 6:00 AM |

wind turbine

On a blustery, overcast day last week, the blades of the 156-foot wind turbine just west of the grapevines at Pindar Vineyards cut through the air with a quiet whooshing noise. Each spin of the turbine — one of a handful of units that tower over North Fork’s wineries — has helped make the vineyard greener.

But the North Fork’s turbines have another, more tangible benefit: They save their owners thousands in electrical fees.

More than five years after a wind energy boom on the North Fork, vineyard owners say the turbines — which sprang up in the late 2000s thanks to the availability of federal grants and rebates from the Long Island Power Authority — have paid back their investments.

Wind power was once common on the North Fork and in Riverhead, where windmills were used primarily to run water pumps, said local historian Richard Wines.

“If you wanted any kind of a domestic water supply, you had to power the well somehow,” he said. “Especially where the water table was fairly far down, they operated as a primitive deep-well pump.”

Unlike their counterparts on the South Fork, few windmills north of Peconic Bay powered mills, Mr. Wines said.

Instead, most grain mills ran on water power that relied on the flow of streams and the tides. Windmills were sometimes used to supplement that power, like the one built on Goldsmith Inlet in the late 1800s.

Windmills were used to power water pumps until the 1920s, when electricity slowly reached the countryside. Most windmills were taken down, Mr. Wines said, though a few — like an antique structure that was recently restored on the Tuthill farm property in Southold — survive today.

Ironically, the same electricity that killed wind power in the early 20th century powered their revival nearly a century later.

Southold Town assistant planning director Mark Terry helped draft the addition to the town code that specified how wind turbine systems could be built.

“It is a beneficial accessory power generation for the businesses out here,” he said. That code was adopted in 2007, just as other municipalities in Suffolk County were pushing to approve wind energy systems.

A year later, Riverhead Town would adopt a similar code.

The first wind energy system to be installed in the area was a 100-foot-tall, 20-kilowatt turbine built in 2009 at Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards in Peconic.

Other turbines were later installed at McCall Wines in Cutchogue, Kontokosta Winery in Greenport and Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck.

“The wind turbine was a great investment,” said Shinn co-owner David Page. The 10-kilowatt wind turbine was installed in 2010 at an initial cost of around $18,000 — the price after federal and Long Island Power Authority grants were factored in.

The turbine produces about $5,000 of electricity each year for the vineyard and generates all the power used at Shinn, Mr. Page said. By now, he added, the savings from the turbine have paid back the initial investment.

“It’s kind of a landmark up here on Oregon Road,” Mr. Page said. “People see it and find us. It’s been a net positive.”

The biggest wind energy system in Southold Town is the looming 156-foot, 100-kilowatt turbine at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, which matches another at Half Hollow Nursery in the Riverhead Town side of Laurel.

Pindar’s turbine, installed in 2011, was so large that Southold Town revised its code to permit bigger turbines.

“It was natural to go the wind turbine route,” said Pindar Damianos, owner and vineyard manager. “In the wine industry, you use a lot of electricity.”

Most of the equipment at Pindar, from the grape presses to the pumps and bottling lines, is electrically driven, Mr. Damianos said. A grant from the federal government that covered 30 percent of construction costs made the turbine economically viable.

Before the turbine was installed, Pindar was spending up to $20,000 a month on electricity for the production center, which allows the vineyard to produce 80,000 cases of wine each year.

But since then, the winery’s power needs have been almost completely met by the wind-energy system’s production. Some years, Pindar has gotten all of its electricity from the turbine, Mr. Damianos said.

“We love it,” he said. “We’re glad we made the investment. People come out and they love it.”

Aside from a few lightning strikes, the wind turbines have mostly withstood the rigors of North Fork weather, from nor’easters to Hurricane Sandy, although one turbine “tossed” a blade during a storm.

But the wind power boom of the late 2000s was short-lived. After a flurry of activity at vineyards across the North Fork, applications for new wind turbine systems dried up. Since 2013, no new commercial turbines have been installed on the North Fork.

“We haven’t seen many more since there was a big influx,” Mr. Terry said. “We put it in place and hoped that we’d get more of these.”

That lull is due in large part to pricing changes, said John Rocchetta, a partner and vice president of sales at GreenLogic.

Solar energy, he explained, became less expensive than wind because of rebates and cheaper long-term maintenance costs.

“Wind turbines are harder to maintain than solar is,” said Mr. Rocchetta, who installed many of the turbines on the North Fork. “Solar is a quick, easy fix. Wind turbines are longer term.”

Mr. Damianos of Pindar said he sees more businesses now that are interested in solar panels as the next source of renewable energy, due to the rapidly changing technology.

Solar panels are predictably effective no matter where they’re placed, so long as they’re on the same latitude. Turbines, like the blades on a boat’s propeller cutting through water, work best when the air flow is unobstructed; they are much more sensitive to disruption from nearby trees or land features, Mr. Rocchetta said.

Still, he added, the North Fork’s vast open spaces and the gusty winds off Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound create one of the best wind turbine spaces in the country.

“You’re putting a wind turbine 60 miles out into the ocean, essentially,” he said.

While construction has tapered off, Mr. Rocchetta predicts a big revival soon. Rebates for solar panels are changing, making wind energy a potentially more cost-effective option.

“I don’t think the wind industry is over by far,” he said. “I think you’ll see a lot more.”

Mr. Damianos isn’t ready to give up on wind power, either. 

“I think it’ll come back around,” he said. “I hope it comes back.”

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Photo: A wind turbine at Kontokosta Winery in Greenport spins about the grapevines last week. The turbine is one of a handful on the North Fork, where owners have said the investments in clean energy have paid off. (Credit: Paul Squire)