ATLANTIC CITY - The 32-story turbines of the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm have so dramatically changed Atlantic City's skyline - perhaps more than any casino could - that tourists haven't stopped asking questions about them since they went up five years ago along a back-bay salt marsh.
Some casino hotel guests are so fascinated that they ask for rooms with a view of the five delicate fans, resort operators say.
So the Atlantic County Utilities Authority is cranking open the security gates at the Route 30 wastewater-treatment facility that houses the turbines for twice-a-week tours in June, July, and August.
The tours were offered by appointment only last summer - to see whether anyone was interested. This year, they are scheduled for noon Mondays and Fridays, no appointment necessary. About 15,000 people a year - mostly school groups - had previously visited since the turbines were erected.
The tour covers the industrial-looking grounds of the wastewater-treatment facility, where a rotten-egg smell emanates from the containment basins and water-clarifying stations. But standing at the concrete base of one of the massive turbines gives visitors a better understanding of just how this operation saves 24,000 barrels of crude oil a year with the hybrid energy projects in use here.
While visitors can't go inside and climb the winding staircases of the 385-foot carbon-steel structures, they can get close enough to the bases to hear the unique "whoosh" of the 120-foot blades.
Most of the time the turbines are silent sentries, turning between 10 and 20 revolutions per minute, and when the wind averages about 15 m.p.h., the tips of the blades go as fast as 120 m.p.h., said Chris Harris, director of wastewater operations for the plant, who led a recent tour.
"This entire plant, with the wind turbines as a centerpiece, is actually the largest demonstration of hybrid energy in the U.S.," Harris bragged as he showed the group how the wind energy, combined with a solar array on the site, supplies more than 60 percent of the electricity required to operate the plant.
Fourteen municipalities pump about 40 million gallons of wastewater a day at the plant. Cleansing that wastewater sufficiently to be released back into waterways is an energy-consuming process for which the utilities authority sought savings, officials said.
It joined with Community Energy Inc. of Radnor, Pa., to build the $12.5 million turbines, creating the first commercial wind project in New Jersey and the nation's first coastal and urban wind farm, Harris said. The 7.5-megawatt wind farm was operational in December 2005. A year later, the plant completed a 500-kilowatt photovoltaic solar project, which produces more than 600,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year.
Harris explained how the turbines work: They need winds of at least 8 m.p.h. to operate. A weather station atop each turbine turns a nacelle to face the wind as its direction shifts. The turbine's three blades then pitch to maximize their speed. A shaft at the hub of the blades turns a gearbox attached to a generator that processes the electricity. The electricity is then transported to the ground through wires, which are attached to the electrical grid at the plant. Electricity not used by the plant runs backward through the electric meter into the power grid.
In its five years, the wind farm has saved the utilities authority about $2.5 million in energy costs. The authority also saved more than $500,000 in 2010 as a result of using the solar panels by avoiding some electricity costs and generating proceeds from the Solar Renewable Energy Credits program, officials said.
John Wolfram of Absecon, who works in guest relations at the Water Club in Atlantic City, said visitors constantly asked about the turbines, so he took a Monday tour to satisfy his own curiosity and to pass information along when he is asked.
"People drive in and see these things, and they are intrigued," Wolfram said. "They're like a tourist attraction. A lot of guests request rooms with a view of them."
Dan DiPasquale, visiting the casinos with his wife and parents for the weekend from Wallingford, Conn., said he and his father had taken the tour as an alternative to gambling and walking on the Boardwalk.
"You know, you want something to do that's a little different, and we always wondered about these big turbines as we're driving in here, so we saw a brochure on it and thought it might be entertaining," DiPasquale said. "Who knows? This could become as big a tourist attraction as the casinos."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.