The Way the Wind Blows

in Snapshots
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Press

Ten minutes after I was due at Phoenix Press, Inc., the spokes of my bike were still spinning. I searched out every corner’s street sign, hoping that the next would say James Street. Knowing that the friendly businessman I had spoken to was probably checking his watch, I had the sinking feeling that comes with being lost—until I saw the waving white arms of the wind turbine. They twirled gracefully in the breeze against the blue background of the sky. The turbine’s long, slender base reached far above the boats gliding under the bridge nearby and the children playing in the park below.

Connecticut’s only commercial-size wind turbine is perched at the meeting of the Quinnipiac and Mill Rivers in an industrial area of New Haven. It belongs to Phoenix Press, a family-run business that prints everything from instruction manuals to calendars, and which erected the 150-foot-tall machine in 2010 to help power its production center. Brian Driscoll, one of the owners of the press and the man behind the turbine idea, has a maverick streak; he has fought to make his printing business succeed in an industry where companies are rapidly closing doors, but has done so by jumping into another that is struggling to get off the ground. Though Driscoll’s project was mostly met with support, many other wind energy initiatives in Connecticut have failed. Several years after the inauguration of Phoenix Press’s turbine, questions remain about whether turning to wind was—and is—worth the cost, for both Driscoll and the rest of the state.

Driscoll, a large, white-haired man with rimless glasses, met me in a waiting room featuring an antique printing press purchased at an auction. After ushering me into his office, he showed me a computer screen with an image of a turbine and three virtual dials tracking the turbine’s velocity (nearly one revolution per second, when I arrived), total energy production, and wind speed. The day was a windy one, and as I watched as the virtual needle indicating wind direction flick downwards, toward the south, I knew the real turbine was turning with it.

Since Driscoll and his two brothers, Tony and Kevin, founded their company in 1982, many relatives have found jobs there. Kevin is still a co-owner; their mother worked as a receptionist and their sister as a bookkeeper, Driscoll told me after we walked past his daughter at the front desk. Only seven of the thirty-two employees are related to him, but he extends the same familial good feeling to all his employees.

The staff has shrunk over the years, and is far from the seventy-five people it used to be. When the economy started to tank in 2007, he looked for ways to cut back on purchases, labor costs—anything that would help Phoenix Press. Business looked bleak, and Driscoll was not alone in his concerns. According to the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over a quarter of commercial printers have shut down since 2000.

Industry employment has fallen by over forty percent because of newer, more efficient machines that require less manpower. Additionally, many clients have begun designing their own products rather than working with external pre-press departments, and have also turned to the Internet to distribute information that would have been printed.

This economic desperation sparked the idea for the wind turbine. Perhaps for my benefit, Driscoll told the moment of revelation with cinematic detail. It happened on a break one afternoon: “When I walked around the corner of the building, the wind was blowing, and it started to blow my hair. My shirt was fluttering and my pants were fluttering,” Driscoll said. After a stroll later the same afternoon toward a nearby air quality monitoring station that also kept track of wind speed, he started to ask more questions about solar, wind, and tidal energy. In the following months, he petitioned for permission to build a turbine from the local planning and zoning commission, and secured a $200,000 grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, the quasi-state agency that has since become the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA). Despite all the troubles technology had brought, it also had the potential to save Phoenix Press.

Though the total cost of the turbine, $500,000, was high, they decided to install it largely for its financial benefit, as it would both cut electricity costs and make the press more attractive to customers invested in sustainability.

“We were doing things in the right direction, but this was going to separate us a huge amount from our competition,” Driscoll said. Still, he maintained that the company’s green practices, which include recycling all paper, cardboard, wood skids, and aluminum plates; printing on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; and using linseed- and soybean-based inks, are not solely financially motivated. Blaine Collison, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership, in which Phoenix Press participates, pointed out that the three hundred or so new partners each year come in with a desire to be green, but they would not— or perhaps could not join if they did not profit from investing in sustainability projects.

A small business like Phoenix Press hitting headlines with its biggest project in several decades was meant to be a game-changer. Poster-sized prints of construction day photos still lie in a stack in the office. Though Driscoll was not one of the “rugged guys” who installed the turbine, as he calls them, he was involved in the construction process every step of the way. He showed me a photo of himself in a white hardhat, harness, and sunglasses, noting that a crane lifted him nearly above the turbine itself so that he could get a better look. “Can you imagine? That’s how high I was,” he said. “But at that point I would have jumped up there. I was so excited.”

Since then, dozens of articles have been written about the turbine, and over a thousand people have visited. Hundreds of schoolchildren entered into a contest to name the turbine, which was adorably christened Gus(t). But Driscoll’s enthusiasm is decidedly subdued now; the turbine has been less of a boon than he and his brother had hoped it would. Though all of the press’s clients can see the “Wind to Print” logo on their products, their biggest concern, ultimately, is printing costs: “Regardless of how good you are and how well equipped you are and how many turbines you have and how many green initiatives you have, you’ve got to have at least close to the lowest price,” Driscoll said. Andrew D. Paparozzi, NAPL’s chief economist, pointed out that this hypercompetitiveness makes other companies shy away from green initiatives; when asked about their capital investment priorities for the next three years, only eleven percent of commercial printers cited sustainability. Gary Jones, an assistant vice president at Printing Industries of America, noted that the vast majority of the industry is taking some environmentally-friendly measures: “The real question is what’s the level.” Recycled papers and vegetable-based inks are fairly common, he said, but many companies are hesitant to take steps as bold as Phoenix Press has. With space limitations on smaller companies and sky-high technology costs, generating their own energy is simply not feasible. Even if they were to go ahead with new eco-friendly projects, returns are never guaranteed.

Driscoll’s turbine generates about a third of Phoenix Press’s electricity, and the company is credited by the local utility when it feeds unused energy to the neighborhood’s electricity grid. But as Driscoll hesitantly admits, the company’s profit margin has been less generous than expected because the turbine just isn’t spinning as quickly as expected. The press estimated energy production using standard maps that show wind speeds one hundred meters in the air, where wind speeds are much higher than at the turbine’s actual level.

According to Dave Ljungquist, the Director of Energy Efficiency Deployment at CEFIA and a member of the committee that approved Phoenix Press’s grant, as a result, the company’s actual energy output is tens of thousands of kilowatt-hours below the estimates each year. Back in the Phoenix Press offices, Driscoll drew a sketch on a piece of paper to show me how Long Island blocks some of the wind coming into Long Island Sound, creating disruptive turbulence. Ljungquist thinks that the more likely cause of this turbulence is nearby structures, such as Q-Bridge and the smokestacks of United Illuminating’s English Station.

Though new technology has helped CEFIA more accurately track lower-level winds, the outlook is bleak. “Given the technology that we have in wind, a good wind turbine really doesn’t start to look economical unless you see an average wind speed of twelve miles per hour,” Ljungquist said. “There are very, very few places in Connecticut that have an average wind speed of twelve miles per hour.” However, he described all the other turbines you would find if you took a drive north on Route I-95, which made Massachusetts and Rhode Island look like they have slightly more optimistic prospects.

Glenn Weston-Murphy, the founder of the Connecticut Wind Working Group, said that while Connecticut will never have wind farms on the scale of those in Texas and Oklahoma, smaller-scale development is likely. When I met him in one of the restricted-access rooms of Yale’s Mason Laboratory, Weston-Murphy, who works as an engineering design adviser there, said, “Phoenix Press is a nice example of where it can and does work reasonably.” His big complaint was that CEFIA and Connecticut’s legislators are not doing enough. With a touch of cynicism, he said that the fact that Phoenix Press’s small 100-kilowatt turbine is the only commercial-size turbine currently functioning in the state is “representative of the sort of lukewarm reception that Connecticut has for wind energy.”

From Weston-Murphy’s perspective, CEFIA is too tight-fisted with its money to help the state’s nascent wind industry get off the ground. He sounded slightly peeved as he described how, as an early recipient of funds specifically for on-site generation, Phoenix Press hit it big, but several other more recent wind projects have been turned down. Though CEFIA still provides grants and rebates, which are largely paid for by a renewable energy fee on customers’ utility bills, it has aimed to reduce reliance on such direct funding. Instead, Ljungquist said, they want to serve as a “green bank” that attracts private capital to the energy efficiency market. For Ljungquist, this puts his organization at the forefront of renewable energy development. For Weston-Murphy, it is a problem: “They are more finance people now than they are technology people, so they’re just looking at hard numbers as opposed to what are we trying to do here,” he said. In any case, Connecticut’s state-mandated renewable energy portfolio standards require that utilities get twenty percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by 2020, so development of renewable technology, wind or otherwise, has to continue.

While Driscoll described his turbine as unobtrusive, lovely even—a moving piece of sculpture that was quieter than the motorcycles driving by outside, other residents do not seem to share his view on the energy machines. “People don’t want tall towers in their backyard, or their neighborhood, or even their town,” Ljungquist said. A wind testing machine at Yale’s West Campus was shut down three years after its construction due to complaints about its beeping noise. A wind farm proposal in Prospect, Connecticut was shut down due to locals’ bitter protests. The proposed Cape Wind development in Nantucket Sound, which is set to be the first offshore wind farm in the country, has won approval, but is still highly controversial.

After emerging from rooms filled with hulking printing presses with ink-smeared rollers into the backyard of Phoenix Press, it was hard to not to look up at the turbine’s slender white stalk and find it beautiful. The motor whined faintly, and Driscoll and I listened to the whoosh of blades slicing through the air. As the wind bit into our cheeks, we shrank into our coats and stuffed our hands further into our pockets. The area was overgrown with weeds, and a pile of rubbish sat in front of a the remnants of a building next door, making the turbine seem all the more majestic as it spun above us.

Weston-Murphy said that tens of thousands of people who commute across Q-Bridge each day see the turbine, and, despite its limitations, it is “a testament to the Yankee ingenuity spirit.” Though Driscoll sounded disappointed as he spoke of the lack of profit from the turbine, he has maintained some of that go-getter spirit, partly for himself and partly for people like me who come to learn about the future of renewable energy in Connecticut: “It’s so cool to look at it, to watch it spin, and to know that it’s helping run and keep the lights on for this whole big plant,” he said, brimming with pride.

As I bid Driscoll farewell at the door to the offices that have emptied out and gone dark for the day, I could not help but get caught up in his bright vision of the turbine. But as I headed back down Chapel with a broken bike light, oddly querulous winds pushing up against me at each turn, the turbine receded in the distance until it was just a pinwheel on the horizon.

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