Thursday, August 16, 2007

Wind beneath my skis

New England's ski industry stands to be a major climate change causality. Some ski resorts in the north have already begun to experience fewer days of adequate natural snow fall, fewer skiers, and plummeting revenues. One way to compensate for this is to produce snow artificially. That is, of course, a very energy-intensive process which, more often than not, introduces more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, many elected officials and grassroots environmental organizations from the Berkshires in Massachusetts to the Green Mountains of Vermont while professing to support renewable energy, oppose the erection of wind turbines along their scenic ridge lines.

Problem is: those are characteristically the optimal inland sites to harvest wind energy.

Enter Brian Fairbank.

Traveling in green circles: Ski resort builds windmill

Brian Fairbank looks at the windmill -- with three blades each as long as a 12-story building atop a white base near the summit of the tree-covered mountain -- and sees a beacon of hope for his Western Massachusetts ski resort.

"There's no noise, just this gentle turning of the blades, and you look at it, and it's like, 'My gosh, think about the power it's creating,' " said Fairbank, president of Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock.

The $3.9 million 378-foot-high windmill, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty and is the first owned by an American ski resort, can produce 4.6 million kilowatt hours of energy a year, enough to power 1,200 homes from Pittsfield to Williamstown. Since this month, when the blades turned for the first time, it has become Jiminy Peak's most visible attempt to offset rising energy costs and attract environmentally-conscious skiers who like the idea of vacationing at an earth-friendly resort.

For years, ski resorts around the country have invested in green energy, often paying a little extra for bragging rights. A resort in Oregon sells "carbon" tickets, with which skiers help pay for renewable energy at the ski area, and 28 resorts from California to Vermont operate exclusively on renewable energy.

"People who are skiers and snowboarders generally consider themselves friends of the environment," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, who has flown from Denver to attend today's dedication of the Hancock windmill. "They want their industry to be sustainable. They want it to be good stewards of the land."

But not all resorts can finance a private windmill, Berry said. Jiminy Peak struggled to find a company that would install a single windmill and ultimately needed a $3.3 million loan from Legacy Bank and a $582,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

By using half of the energy to help power the resort and the other half to power local residences and businesses, Jiminy Peak hopes to receive $138,000 in renewable energy credits and $161,000 for the energy sold to outside consumers in each of the next 10 years. At the resort, windmill-generated energy will replace a third of that produced by oil, coal, or natural gas, powering ski lifts and snow-making machines.

Fairbank said the windmill should help the ski area survive financially in winters scarce of snow, when electricity is most needed for snow-making. Last winter, the Hancock resort saw a 7 percent drop in skiers because of warm temperatures and a lack of snow, he said.

More than 600 people, including other resort operators, government officials, and environmentalists, are expected to attend today's dedication.

The windmill will hardly make a dent in the 25,000 megawatts Massachusetts uses each year, but environmental activists said they hope it will serve as an advertisement for wind energy.

Traditional electricity production can be less efficient, with 7 percent to 9 percent lost as electricity travels out of coal, nuclear, or natural gas plants and along miles of wires. Renewable energy makes up less than 5 percent of the state's consumption, but is increasing, said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge.

"You're seeing renewable energy in high-end markets, you're seeing it in rural areas, you're seeing it in cities, in towns -- this is all over the place," Rogers said. "It's growing very quickly, and it needs to."

Naming the windmill became a community exercise in Hancock. A professor from Tufts University, an advertising executive, the president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, and Hancock Elementary School's principal considered more than 540 names, from Spin Bob Turbine Pants to The Jiminator. They chose Zephyr, the name for the western wind that will turn the mill's blades.


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