City Turns on Microturbines

For months, large metal boxes containing the energy of the future have been sitting around on the tops of a handful of buildings, waiting to be turned on. Now, they finally can be.

A rule published in the City Record Monday ends a moratorium imposed two years ago by the Buildings Department that prohibited residential and commercial building owners from using microturbines, which are natural gas-powered electricity generators that use the heat thrown off to warm water for showers and faucets. The Observer wrote about this hiccough in the city’s environmental agenda back in April. Since then, an interdepartmental task force forged an agreement that assuaged the Fire Department’s concerns about safety (there is a flame involved, after all).

“We turned it on Tuesday,” said David Birnbaum, president and chief executive of Public Interest Network Services, a telecommunications firm about its 65 kilowatt microturbine that is supposed to reduce its energy costs by half. “We needed to make some adjustments, so we turned it off Wednesday morning and it’s been back on since then. Next week it will be completely fixed.”

The rule will still require companies to get a permit before using microtrubines, which must be approved by nationally recognized testing laboratories. In addition to Mr. Birnbaum’s device, atop a West 17th Street low-rise, four other buildings are awaiting final approval from the Fire Department and utility company.

“We’re very happy about that,” said Douglas Durst, co-president of The Durst Organization, which installed two 75 kilowatt microturbines in The Helena apartment building on West 57th Street but has yet to use them. “We spent a lot of money and effort to design and install them and they have been sitting there for almost two years, and we could be eliminating the amount of CO2 pumped into out atmosphere.”