Is Skico’s answer blowing in the wind? |

Is Skico’s answer blowing in the wind?

SNOWMASS ” An experiment to gauge the viability of wind turbines at the top of Snowmass Ski Area is expected to begin by the end of August, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

A 164-foot tower equipped with four anemometers is en route to Snowmass Village and will be placed at the top of the Big Burn to start gathering data on wind speeds, according to Jim Stark of the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. He is heading exploration of the project, which the agency is undertaking with the Aspen Skiing Co.

The anemometers will measure horizontal wind speeds at three elevations on the tower, Stark said. One will measure vertical wind speeds. A subsidiary of Leitner-Poma, which manufacturers chairlifts and snowmaking equipment, among other things, will assess the data.

Auden Schendler, Skico executive director of community and environmental responsibility, said there is little doubt that there is enough wind at the proposed site. Three turbines would meet two-thirds of the Skico’s demand for electricity, Schendler said.

But “is it as good of a site as we think or is it too extreme?” he said. That’s what Leitner-Poma will help determine.

Extensive records of wintertime wind speeds have already been collected as part of the ski area operations, Stark said. However, most of those measurements were from anemometers at a lower elevation. No data exists for wind speeds in spring, after the chairlifts close, and during summers.

Stark said he has talked to officials from Lightwind, the subsidiary of Leitner-Poma, as well as an official with the National Renewable Energy Lab, and they expressed confidence that the ski area site is viable for turbines.

Stark started promoting the idea after the Forest Service and other federal agencies received an executive order to seek alternative energy opportunities on public lands. Stark raised the idea internally around the Aspen-Sopris district before approaching Skico officials.

“That was my first thing ” I’m not going to keep pursuing it if it doesn’t have support at the Forest [Service] level,” Stark said.

He found the support needed to keep pursuing the idea. He has since discussed it with the board of directors of Wilderness Workshop, a leading local environmental organization, and with Snowmass Village officials.

The idea has met with little resistance, Stark said. Nearly everyone agrees that visual impacts should be minimized and that a full-blown wind farm with multiple turbines wouldn’t be appropriate. Forest officials also want to keep turbines away from land designated as wilderness, where permanent human presence isn’t allowed. As the idea progresses, it will be reviewed through the federal National Environmental Policy Act criteria, which includes opportunity for public comment.

Stark believes the Snowmass site is ideal since it already has the infrastructure ” roads, power lines, etc. ” for the ski area. The Forest Service and Skico are assessing the possibility of erecting three turbines and possibly a fourth, according to Stark.

The Skico hasn’t made a definitive decision to fund the project, although Schendler said turbines produce enough power to make a feasible return on investment, especially since the company could eliminate the volatility of energy prices. An investment in turbines also would help the company reach its goal of slicing carbon emissions.

“It’s an environmental and a business move,” Schendler said.

Stark said he would like to see the Forest Service tap into some of the power for its facilities in Aspen. The best-case scenario has the project producing power by 2010.

If the project advances, one turbine would be placed about 656 feet up the slope from the top terminal of the Big Burn chairlift. The other turbines would be placed at similar distances from each other higher up the slope.

The data collected by the anemometers will help determine the turbines’ requisite height. A standard height is 65 meters to the hub, or about 213 feet. The three giant blades, which are the length of a tractor-trailer, would add to the overall size.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Stark said. “It’s the right time at the right place.”

He also feels it sets the right precedent. “Every ski area in the White River [National Forest] is going to be interested in this if it works,” he said.

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