A triple-bladed wind turbine at Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel looms over the farmland and tiny post office on the Riverhead Town side of the hamlet.
The 156-foot turbine — which is tied for the North Fork’s largest wind energy turbine and is rated to produce 100 kilowatts of electricity — was installed in 2010 in the midst of a boom that led to others sprouting up at vineyards across Southold Town.
Yet wind energy never spread far past the town line into Riverhead, even though the town passed legislation in 2008 that permitted its use. To date, the Laurel turbine is the only wind energy system that’s been installed on agricultural land in Riverhead Town.
But with grants and rebates for solar energy initiatives on the wane, some say wind energy could soon make a comeback.
Wind power was once common in Riverhead, where windmills were used primarily to power water pumps, said local historian Richard Wines.
“If you wanted any kind of a domestic water supply, you had to power the well somehow,” he said. “Especially where the water table was fairly far down, they operated as a primitive deep-well pump.”
Unlike their South Fork counterparts, few windmills north of the Peconic River powered mills, Mr. Wines said. Instead, most grain mills ran on water power that relied on the flow of streams and the tides, like those along the Peconic River. Windmills, including one built on Peconic’s Goldsmith Inlet in the late 1800s, were sometimes used to supplement that power.
Windmills were used to power water pumps up to the 1920s, when electricity slowly reached the countryside. Most windmills were removed, Mr. Wines said, although a few — like an antique bladed windmill next to Hallockville Museum Farm in Northville — still survive.
Ironically, the same electricity that killed wind power in the early 20th century powered its revival on the North Fork nearly a century later. In 2007, Southold Town adopted code to allow wind energy systems — just as other Suffolk County municipalities were pushing to approve the technology.
That code change led to a handful of new wind turbine projects at vineyards in Southold Town, including Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards and Pindar Vineyards, both in Peconic, and Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck.
“It’s kind of a landmark up here on Oregon Road,” said Shinn co-owner David Page. “People see it and find us. It’s been a net positive.”
Mr. Page said his turbine, installed in 2010, has paid for itself and saves the small winery thousands of dollars in electricity costs each year.
At Pindar, a turbine takes care of nearly all the vineyard’s electricity needs for production.
“We love it,” said Pindar Damianos, owner and vineyard manager. “We’re glad we made the investment. People come out and they love it.”
In 2008, Riverhead Town adopted code similar to Southold’s, thanks to the work of then-councilwoman Barbara Blass and the town’s clean energy committee.
“The lead on this was Barbara Blass,” said former supervisor Phil Cardinale, who was in office at the time. “She proposed it.”
The law was first proposed because Riverhead had no specific rules in place to cover windmills, Mr. Cardinale said.
In an interview with the News-Review, Ms. Blass said the town had hoped to “lead by example” by allowing wind energy on local farmland.
“We were exploring all sorts of things,” she said. “That just seemed to be natural to offer the opportunity to residents and businesses in town.”
Those windmills could even be placed on lands where the development rights had been sold, so long as the power from the turbines was used to run the farm operations. The measure was unanimously approved in April 2008.
“There wasn’t a lot of opposition to it,” Mr. Cardinale said. “The basis of it was to make it as simple as possible.”
But for the rest of his tenure as supervisor, he said, not one farmer submitted an application to build a wind farm. Mr. Cardinale said he was “surprised” that only the Laurel wind turbine exists and that others had not taken advantage of the opportunity for wind energy.
Riverhead Town itself briefly flirted with the idea of a 750 kilowatt, 250-foot wind turbine at the sewer plant. That turbine would have been the tallest on the North Fork, but its hefty price tag, estimated at about $2 million, made it unpalatable to the Town Board at the time.
A report in early 2012 that showed the turbine wouldn’t turn a profit until its 18th year killed the proposal, according to a previous News-Review story.
Since then, solar energy has become the popular renewable energy in town. In addition to smaller solar installations at greenhouses and businesses around town, two large-scale solar farms have been built.
A solar farm of more than 30,000 panels is operating on former sod farm property off Edwards Avenue in Calverton and a 3.9-megawatt solar energy facility was built on 32 acres south of the Riverhead Charter School.
In August, sPower, a Utah-based energy company, revealed it hopes to build a 20-megawatt solar energy facility on about 120 acres immediately west of Peconic Avenue and south of the Citgo gas station on Route 25, according to officials.
The surge in solar power popularity is due in large part to pricing changes, said John Rocchetta, a partner and vice president of sales at GreenLogic, a Southampton-based renewable energy company.
Solar energy became less expensive than wind turbines because of rebates and cheaper long-term maintenance costs.
“Wind turbines are harder to maintain than solar is,” said Mr. Rocchetta, who installed many of the turbines on the North Fork. “Solar is a quick, easy fix. Wind turbines are longer term.”
Solar panels are predictably effective no matter where they’re placed, so long as they’re on the same latitude. Like the blades on a boat’s propeller cutting through water, turbines work best when the air flow is unobstructed; however, the turbines are much more sensitive to disruption from nearby trees or land features, Mr. Rocchetta said.
Still, he added, the North Fork’s vast open spaces and gusty winds off Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound combine to create one of the best wind turbine areas in the country.
“You’re putting a wind turbine 60 miles out into the ocean, essentially,” he said.
Although construction has tapered off, Mr. Rocchetta is predicting a big revival soon. Rebates for solar panels are diminishing, making wind energy a potentially more cost-effective option.
“I don’t think the wind industry is over by far,” he said. “I think you’ll see a lot more.”
Photo: A 156-foot wind turbine stands on farmland at Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel. The turbine is the only agricultural wind-energy system approved in Riverhead since a town code was adopted in 2008 to encourage renewable wind energy. (Credit: Paul Squire)