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Monday, November 17, 2008

Eco-Friendly Billboard for Times Square

In Times Square, a Company’s Name in (Wind- and Solar-Powered) Lights

The first eco-friendly billboard is coming to Times Square, entirely powered by the sun and the wind — but there is one small catch.

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Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

An eco-friendly billboard will be installed above the Chase sign at 7th Avenue and 42nd Street.

Gigante Vaz Partners NYC

The billboard, seen in a rendering, will have four 45-foot stacks of wind turbines to power it.

When there’s no sun, and no wind? The $3 million billboard goes dark: there is no backup generator.

“We think if that happens, it’s just fine,” said Ron Potesky, a senior marketing vice president for Ricoh Americas Corporation, the office equipment and document-storage supplier that owns the sign.

The billboard — traditionally called a “spectacular” on the Great White Way — weighs in at 35,000 pounds. It will be 55 feet off the ground at 3 Times Square, wrapping around the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street.

Fitted with 16 wind turbines and 64 solar panels, the sign will be “a first for Times Square,” said Barry E. Winston, a Times Square billboard consultant not involved in the Ricoh project, who has been a sign expert for more than 50 years.

Wind turbines for the vast sign, which is 126 feet wide and 47 feet high, have arrived in a warehouse in Deer Park, N.Y., where preliminary testing is being done. Construction will begin this month, for a lighting ceremony on Dec. 4.

Ricoh would not say how much it was paying for its three-year lease, but based on recent deals, the lease would most likely cost in the low six figures, as much as $200,000 a month, according to sign rental experts who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are contractually forbidden to make public statements.

Such a cost would not be unusual for a sign across the avenue from 1 Times Square, where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

By generating its own electricity — enough to light six homes for a year — the sign could save as much as $12,000 to $15,000 per month, according to Ricoh, which estimated that the sign would prevent 18 tons of carbon from being spewed into the air yearly.

The “passive” sign is not studded with light-emitting diodes like so many others in Times Square, but will be lighted by 16 300-watt floodlights. It will feature custom-printed opaque vinyl sheeting bearing the red-and-white Ricoh logo. The sign will be green, nevertheless, a message “to customers, other companies and the world that resources and energy can be used creatively,” Mr. Potesky said. “The point is that there are ways of being environmentally friendly to the planet, even on a billboard.”

Unlike the tall propellers in a typical wind farm, the cylindrical Ricoh drum turbines have no sharp blades. They will provide 90 percent of the sign’s power; the rest will come from the solar panels on the sign, feeding electricity to eight collection batteries up in the sign. The drums are so perfectly balanced, Ricoh says, that their rotors could be turned by the wind from a single household electric fan.

Mr. Potesky said the turbines would most likely generate enough power to keep the sign lighted even after four days without wind or sun. But the company is prepared for the sign to go dark. Mr. Potesky said the only other such sign in the world is one Ricoh put up in 2003 in Osaka, Japan, “using somewhat less advanced technology,” he said, referring to its 26 small propellers and 39 solar panels.

“On dark and rainy days, that sign went dark during the night,” he said.

Passers-by will be able to see the 26 blades spinning in each of the sign’s 16 turbine drums, piled in four 45-foot-high vertical stacks. When operating at their average speed of 10 miles an hour, they put out 22 kilowatts.

Stalklike propeller turbines require unidirectional, or “clean,” wind to function. But the revolving drums on the Ricoh sign can use turbulent, multidirectional winds common to Midtown, said Mary S. Watkins, chief executive of PacWind Inc. in Torrance, Calif., which makes the custom turbine arrays.

PacWind studied meteorological records and did a wind analysis, she said, determining that Times Square has 10-mile-an-hour winds, on average, ranging from no wind to gusts of 85 m.p.h. The turbines provide usable power from winds as weak as 5 m.p.h. and rotate safely in winds up to 100 m.p.h., she said, because the aluminum blades are aerodynamically designed to regulate themselves, slowing automatically in high winds.

The company has designed wind turbines for applications ranging from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous — including a turbine created for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to capture 400-mile-an-hour winds for a lander on Mars, and a turbine that powers the 20,000-square-foot garage of Jay Leno in Los Angeles.

Ms. Watkins said the Times Square turbines were designed to keep ice from forming on the blades in winter. Birds have not proved to be a problem as the company has installed 50 of its drum turbines across the country, she said, “because they see the turbines not as spinning blades, but as a solid object.”