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Adobe turns to the wind for power

What’s that on the sixth-floor deck of Adobe headquarters in downtown San Jose? Those slender silver spires, spinning quietly in the breeze, are actually turbines producing environmentally friendly electric power.

Workers installed the 20 wind turbines over the December holidays at Adobe Systems’ high-rise offices at Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard. Officials at the big software company say it’s part of a larger effort to tap renewable sources for the power they need to keep the lights, computers and other equipment running at Adobe’s facilities here and around the world.

Renewable energy isn’t a new idea for Silicon Valley, where Google, Microsoft and other big tech companies use solar panels to supply some of the power for their local sites. But wind turbines are more typically found in rural or suburban areas. City officials say Adobe is the first to install them on a building in downtown San Jose.

“You just don’t see this going on in an urban environment,” acknowledged Randy Knox III, Adobe’s director of facilities and environmental programs. “But it kind of looks like art.”

Each turbine is 30 feet tall and 4 feet wide, with an open framework that rotates slowly on a vertical axis. Unlike traditional windmill designs, which have wide propeller blades, the manufacturer says the vertical turbines are designed to turn slowly and are unlikely to harm passing birds.
The installation is expected to produce about 50,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, according to Knox. That’s enough to power five or six average homes, though it’s less than 2 percent of the total energy consumption at Adobe’s three downtown towers, where more than 2,000 programmers, sales reps and other employees work in nearly 1 million square feet of office space.

Adobe has already won “green building” certification for the complex, by taking numerous steps to lower its energy use. Knox said the company is also evaluating the potential for using solar power and fuel cells, which make electricity from renewable sources.
But unlike other tech firms, which have more space on their sprawling suburban campuses, Knox said Adobe probably doesn’t have enough room for a significant solar installation at its downtown site.

One thing Adobe has is the wind. Air currents swirl around the three buildings, which extend 16, 17 and 18 stories into the sky. The buildings themselves help channel the wind so it blows at an average of 13 to 14 mph across the top of a five-story parking garage that sits between the three taller buildings – creating what Knox calls “a really nice wind tunnel” about 50 feet above street level.

City height restrictions preclude putting turbines on top of the office buildings, because they’re so close to the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport. But Ed Tolentino, San Jose’s chief building official, said Adobe had no problem winning approval for installing them on the roof of the garage, which also serves as an open-air patio for Adobe employees.

Adobe placed several of the turbines in planter boxes that line the deck’s perimeter, where they’re not expected to disturb anyone using the patio to eat lunch or play on its basketball and bocce courts. The turbines rotate in near-silence. Knox said their “bird-friendly” design was also an important consideration, since peregrine falcons and other species are known to visit the buildings.

The spires turn slowly enough to remain visible, so birds are unlikely to fly into them, said Amy Berry, a spokeswoman for Mariah Power, the Reno-based startup that sells the turbines.

Adobe won’t disclose how much the installation cost, although Knox said the turbine’s output should lower Adobe’s spending for outside power enough to make up the cost in about eight years.

“We’re looking at it as an investment in technology that needs to be developed,” he added.

A spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, said he was glad to hear of Adobe’s installation. Ron Stimmel said wind power is seeing increased adoption in the United States, but it’s still rare in urban areas. At Adobe, one row of turbines stands above Almaden Boulevard, where they’re easily spotted from the sidewalk across the street.

“I like that it’s in a place where people can see it,” Stimmel added. “It brings renewable energy to people’s backyards, instead of being out in a big field somewhere.”