Buffalo’s Clean Energy Future (Including Slideshow)

Urban Nation’s first post from the road documents the burgeoning clean energy scene in Buffalo, and examines a few start-ups’ relationship with federal programs. Scroll down to see a slideshow.

The Steel Winds plant, built on top of the old Bethlehem Steel site. Clark Mizono

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At a bar called Nietzche’s in the Allentown section of Buffalo’s west side, a local named Jim told me, after Jeopardy had wrapped up, that Nikolai Tesla spent a great deal of time in Buffalo when he lived in the States. Tesla, Jim said, wanted to see a metropolis built between Rochester and Buffalo, powered entirely by Niagara Falls, conveniently located right between the two. This tidbit of info — more or less true, by the way — speaks both to the industrial promise the city of Buffalo had in the early 20th century, and to the mad creativity Tesla brought to the discussion of how to bring electricity to the world. Tesla’s victory in the battle of the currents aside, both of these things have been lost, to a certain extent. Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the union, having lost its industrial base over the past few decades, and while the conversation about energy has gotten more creative recently, actual output of renewable energy is miniscule compared to more ‘traditional’ methods. In Buffalo these days, it seems like that might be changing, and the connection between industry’s departure and clean energy’s resurgence will be connected in no insignificant way.

Take the Steel Winds power plant, for example. If you drive down NY SR-5 south of downtown Buffalo, and look out the passenger side window, you’ll see eight stark-white windmills rising out of the post-industrial detritus that peppers the waterfront. These windmills, in fact, sit right atop the old Bethlehem Steel plant that used to stand there, at the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal.

Any new industry on the shores of Lake Erie is bound to stand out. The waterfront is littered with industrial leftovers both large and small, but precious little that appears to be in working order. In order to get a better view of the plant (due to maintenance issues, we were denied a tour), my photographer and I hiked around a small piece of land, owned by a seemingly defunct livery boat service, that juts out into Lake Erie. Doing so, we walked by massive, deteriorating grain elevators, as imposing as any building in Buffalo’s modest skyline, while under our feet, the beach was composed entirely of rusted ball bearings. Your guess is as good as mine. The plant itself, which was hard to see against the white October sky, was moseying along just fine. About half of the windmills were spinning at any given time, though John Lamontagne from First Wind, the company that owns the plant, assured me via email that Steel Winds produces 20 megawatts of power, or about enough to keep 9,000 New York homes running, at any given time.

It’s not Niagara Falls, but it’s something, and it’s placement is a rather powerful symbol, too; industry can return to the Midwest, but it’s going to look different. And, perhaps, it will need to be built on the skeletons of industries past. Fortunately for Buffalo, Steel Winds is not the only example of this phenomenon.

I had initially gone to Nietzche’s — where I later met Jim — to speak with Jeffrey Stottlemeyer, a Buffalo newcomer and entrepreneur. At Nietzche’s, Jeff tells me about his recent move to Buffalo to start a clean energy company with his old friend Jerry Bove, called Buffalo Green Power. Jeff’s initial goal was to partner with the city to create a municipal-scale composting program which would provide the fuel for an anaerobic digestion waste-to-energy system. Anaerobic digestion is essentially composting in a vacuum, and the byproducts of the chemical reaction are a biogas that can be used like a traditional fuel, and a ‘digestate’ that can be used as fertilizer. In Jeff’s words, it’s the logical end-point of recycling. We have figured out paper and plastics, but still send our organic waste to the landfill. And while a municipal program is still his goal, he and Jerry are focusing on partnering with private interests in the region to capture some of their industrial waste as a starting point, eventually working up to partnering with the city.

Jeff told me that while people in Buffalo are quite receptive to anyone with an idea — it didn’t take long for him to meet many of the players in Buffalo’s beautiful Art Deco city hall — many in the city still hope that traditional industry will return. So, while he hasn’t had a hard time getting people’s ear, he recognizes it will be slow-going working with the city, but he is confident it will work out.

But what of the federal government? Jeff told me that it was never really an option for such a small start-up to go after stimulus dollars. Also, he might have come along too late; he didn’t start until June of this year. He echoes what Mr. Lamontagne from First Winds told me: that they built too early to get stimulus dollars. All Steel Winds gets from the federal government, in terms of subsidy, is a production tax credit, which has been around since the early 90’s. While helping to capitalize new projects through the Stimulus was a good start for the administration, it seems new energy subsidies need to be in place to keep these sorts of start-ups competitive. The dead climate change bill would have done this in reverse, by putting a price on carbon, it’s not entirely unreasonable to expect some longer-term investment in green energy from the administration.

But, there is one green business in Buffalo that might be getting money directly from Washington. And, like Steel Winds before them — perhaps better than Steel Winds, actually — they, too, are employing the massive infrastructure left behind by old industries. Initially, the project was called RiverWright, and they had been rehabbing the old grain elevators on the Buffalo waterfront to use for storage of massive amounts of grain, which they were going to use to produce ethanol to sell to local buyers. The grain was also to be locally sourced, making RiverWright quite green, with low overhead. Unfortunately, due to community pushback, the ethanol production side of the business has been shelved, but I’m told they do have plans to redevelop the grain elevator site for a sort of green energy corridor, with possible funding from the Small Business Administration (I have contacted RiverWright to confirm, but they have declined to comment).

While all this investment in clean energy is exciting news for such a depressed city, it seems that Washington’s involvement in the movement is largely rhetorical, or simply hard to connect with, for smaller business owners. The only tax credits introduced with the stimulus bill are actually a continuation of the already existing production tax credits, which have been around since the early 90’s. At 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first ten years of operation, it isn’t the most lucrative subsidy.

But, at the same time, being in the city, I wondered if some in Buffalo would even be interested in more government involvement. Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino signs were everywhere in sight — “This Is Carl Country”, warn some — perhaps most notably on an abandoned factory south of Downtown. I wondered if the placement was meant to be ironic or not. Jeff tells me Mr. Paladino probably just owns the building, and wouldn’t really consider something like that. But without a serious change in the forms of energy that Washington subsidizes, Buffalo won’t be able to really harness all its potential in this growing market, and Paladino won’t be able to find a buyer for that abandoned factory, if he does indeed own it.

If Washington’s goal is to unleash the market potential of these cities, it would seem that a bit more involvement in this growing industry would be the way forward, instead of the quasi-libertarian approach to governing the ascendant Tea Party proposes. It will be interesting to see what happens at the polls.

Correction: This article initially stated that RiverWright was still planning to produce ethanol, and called NY SR-15 I-5.

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Tags: infrastructurewashington dcgovernance

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