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Harnessing Vail’s wind

Cliff Thompson
Vail Environmental Coordinator Luke Cartin stands next to the wind measuring station on Ptarmigin Ridge. Vail is doing research into alternative energy such as wind to supplement its energy consumption.
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The proposal for four 100-kilowatt wind generators at this windy, rocky 11,000-foot-tall ridge contains equal parts political pragmatism and economic sense, driven by the forces of increasing energy costs, new technology and a partnership between the ski company, energy producers and local environmental groups. The green contingent likes the idea that energy is converted to electrical power without creating pollution; the ski company likes the fact that an environmentally sensitive project like this warms up its image and the energy company likes it for the potentially high-profile alternative energy project it could create.

Skiers embarking on the Minturn Mile pass beneath Ptarmigan Ridge; the wind farm could be built as early as the summer of 2004.

“It definitely makes sense to create a renewable power source,” says Adam Palmer of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability. “We’re pumping all this carbon dioxide into the air and having global warming that can be the biggest threat to our local economy. This is the best mitigation to that.”

Three-quarters of the electric energy for the Western Slope is created by the coal-fired electric-generating plants in Hayden and Craig. Only 7 percent of the region’s energy comes from wind; the rest comes from natural gas and other sources.

In 1981, when the proposal for a wind farm first wafted through the corporate halls of then Vail Associates, it almost made enough economic sense to happen. Vail Associates monitored wind on the site for seven months and even received approval in 1984 from the U.S. Forest Service to proceed. The ski company didn’t receive approval, however.

“We had bigger fish to fry,” said Joe Macy, former manager of government affairs for the company, now known as Vail Resorts.

A new dynamic

Since then, the alternative-energy equation and environmental ethic has changed and support for the project has blossomed from multiple points of the political and economic compass.

With the difference in price per kilowatt hour between coal-fire generated and alternative energy narrowing, the proposal is beginning to make economic sense. Equally important is the increased interest from energy-generating companies and the public’s desire for cleaner, greener power generation.

Wind farms are springing up across the country. One of the most visible is north of Greeley, near the Wyoming border.

Energy from that farm can be purchased in 100-kilowatt blocks for 9.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. Coal-created electric power sells for 7 cents.

There’s even a super-high-visibility and controversial farm proposed for a 170-generator wind farm along a 28-square-mile section of the Horseshoe Shoals on Nantucket Sound, between Nantucket and Cape Cod, Mass. It could create 420 megawatts of power and has created plenty of opposition from seaside residents concerned the 197 foot towers could be visible from shore.

The proposed wind farm atop Vail Mountain is tiny by comparison. It would have four, 100-kilowatt, three-bladed turbines atop 100-foot towers on a half-acre site.

The power generated by the site can run as many as a trio of ski lifts, Palmer says, and it will also supplement the power used on the mountain. The 1981 study estimated power produced annually was more than 500,000 kilowatt hours, based on four, 75-kilowatt generators. With four 100-kilowatt generators, that number could reach 637,000 kilowatt-hours annually.

An average home heated with gas uses approximately 500 to 600 kilowatts of electric energy per month. One hundred kilowatt hours of electric power will run a 100 kilowatt light bulb for 100 hours.

The Ptarmigan Ridge facility will cost approximately $400,000, Palmer says, and the free energy created will equal the initial expense in as little as eight or 10 years.

Money to create it will come from the partners and from grants for development of alternative energy he says.

What about the wind?

But visual impacts are only one of the issues with which proponents must deal. At Vail, the visibility issue isn’t as great as wind farms on the plains, where towers are several hundred feet tall. The Ptarmigan Ridge towers would be smaller, says Palmer, adding there already are 497 lift towers on Vail Mountain, as well as numerous communication towers.

Ptarmigan Ridge is visible to much of the valley from Avon eastward. Sharp-eyed observers of Game Creek Bowl and Ptarmigan Ridge can pick out individual towers of Chair 7. The wind towers there would be similar in size to the lift towers.

“They will be barely visible from Interstate 70 at Avon,” he says. “We’re not talking about a 900-kilowatt monster like in the wind farms near Greeley. These will be one-ninth that size.”

Another issue wind farms have generated is the toll they take on migrating birds, as well as hawks and eagles, that use the towers as perches. Sometimes there are killed by the rotating turbine blades.

New technology, however, has largely removed that issue because the new turbines rotate at a slow 28.5 revolutions per minute, Palmers said.

Ptarmigan Ridge is one of the windiest sites on Vail Mountain, as indicated by surveys of the wind there taken from June 1981 to March 1982. Air compresses and accelerates to rise over the exposed face of the ridge, and at 55 feet above the ridge, the same height as the turbines, the average annual wind speed is 17.5 mph. Below that height, the wind dramatically decreases in velocity, the report notes. Ten feet above the ridge line the wind’s annual average is 13.5 mph.

A minimum wind of 9 mph is needed to generate electricity from the generators, Palmer says. This “cut-in” period when power can be generated occurs approximately 50 percent of time, according to data compiled.

But the wind can create some other issues on this site. One of those is a phenomenon known to aviators as “wind shear,” in which wind bursts blow sharply toward the ground. At the wind farms in the plains, there is smoother, or “laminar flow,” of wind across the expanses. In the irregular mountains, the winds can swirl and whip in a number of directions. If they blow hard enough and change directions quickly enough, they can destroy the generator blades, Palmer says.

“We want to be sure we’re using the right equipment,” he says.

Putting the wind farm at that elevation will require plenty of monitoring to know what to expect, said Luke Cartin, environmental coordinator for Vail Resorts.

“The biggest thing about this (project) is that it’s never been done before,” he says. “We’re 20 miles from the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet. I’d rather take my time and get it right.”

That means developing plenty of wind records, Cartin said. A 55-foot monitoring tower has been installed on the ridge. It has wind and other weather-recording equipment, Cartin says.

Environmental impacts

Even green projects like wind farms have environmental impacts, however.

One of those will be the disturbance to the area created by the digging and blasting needed to secure towers to the mountain. Vail Resorts operates most of Vail Mountain’s ski runs on Forest Service land under a special-use permit.

Cartin and others will be monitoring the potential environmental impacts of the wind farm in the summer for the required Forest Service environmental assessment. He says the project will be monitored for ground disturbance, as well as the impacts on wildlife and threatened plants.

The generators’ blades create some noise as they whoosh around. How much needs to be measured, too.

The power generated by the farm will be connected by a buried cable to the power system for nearby Chair 7, Palmer says.

Adding that to the local power grid is similar to the Wind Pioneers program offered by Holy Cross Energy, which consumers can purchase blocks of wind-generated electric energy from the Greeley wind farm and elsewhere. That program has resulted in the sale of 3,900, 100 kilowatt blocks.

Vail, the city of Aspen and Aspen ski resorts are the largest consumers of electric energy under that program, said Holy Cross’s David Church.

What exactly are you buying?

But how do you know if a gust of wind has caused the power you’re using? Energy company officials will be the first to acknowledge it’s difficult to tell one electron from another in a power grid. Whether the ski companies actually are using wind-generated power is debatable. But the effects of adding wind-generated energy to the electric grid are not.

“It’s an act of faith,” Church said. “The mental picture I like to use is pouring a gallon of water in one end of a lake and taking a gallon out of the other end. It’s not the same gallon but one goes in and one goes out. It’s not a contribution because you genuinely are paying for generation per kilowatt-hour. If not for wind-generation, it would be created by coal.”

Holy Cross, Church said, is partnering with organizations interested in creating alternative energy sources.

Burning coal for energy generation on the Western Slope’s Hayden and Craig power plants created environmental issues, as well as a lawsuit over pollution in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, near Steamboat Springs.

The Vail wind farm proposal is an indirect beneficiary of the increased cost of energy production the suit caused because cleaner-burning, multi-million dollar systems are being installed at those plants.

“The cost of electricity is going to get more expensive,” says Dave Ozawa, a Forest Service snow ranger who oversees Vail and Beaver Creek mountains. “Like solar panels, once you install (wind-powered generators), they’re low maintenance, but the initial cost is fairly high.”

Once the proponents develop enough data on the potential and actual impacts of the site, an environmental assessment review will be made. That will involve public meetings and methodical Forest Service review.

Palmer says so far an unofficial survey of skiers and boarders on Vail has resulted in an 84 percent approval rating.

“Once they understand what we’re trying to do, they’re enthusiastic,” he says.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.


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