Despite years-long claims that a yet-to-be-built wind farm could provide the bulk of clean, alternative energy to FortZED—Fort Collins’ multimillion experiment in creating a downtown-wide “zero energy district”—documents obtained by Face the State show the city had no plans at all to use the energy such a farm could produce.
For years, the proposed Maxwell Ranch wind farm, to be built by private developers on land owned by Colorado State University, has been used to sell the idea that FortZED could power itself without relying on the Platte River Power Authority’s coal-burning municipal utility. The wind farm was prominently mentioned in grant proposals, on the FortZED website, in newsletters and in numerous presentations given to interested parties since at least 2007.
It was even highlighted in a section of a 2007 report called “A Day in the Life of FortZED,” which imagines the eco-living enjoyed by fictional Fort Collins resident “Sue”: “Sue awakes and jumps into the shower—her water was pre-warmed from the bright Colorado sun the day before, then heated the rest of the way to hot-shower temperature using energy from breezes turning windmills at the CSU Green Power Project at Maxwell Ranch.”
But city documents obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act show that long before the project was scuttled in December as “not commercially attractive” to the developer, Fort Collins made clear that it had no intention of buying power from the wind farm even if it had gone forward.
“City Utilities has no plans to purchase the energy from the Maxwell Ranch Wind Farm development,” Light and Power Manager Steve Catanach wrote in a memo to City Council last July. “Utilities has not been contacted by Colorado State University or Cannon Power Group, the developer, to discuss delivery or purchase of the Maxwell Ranch wind farm energy.”
Other documents show that the proposed wind farm was more of a concern to the city than it was something to be excited about. City Manager Darin Atteberry tapped Natural Resources Director John Stokes as the city’s point-person in dealing with CSU and Cannon Power Group as the project moved forward, instructing him to monitor the project and, if needed, “advocate on the City’s behalf.” That advocacy had nothing to do with securing wind power for FortZED.
“At this time, the City does not plan to purchase power from the proposed facility,” Atteberry wrote in an Oct. 22 memo. “Further, over the last several years, the City has generally presented its concerns to CSU as related to two major themes: 1) the scenic/aesthetic impacts to the area and 2) the habitat fragmentation associated with wind projects.”
Even while the wind project was still being considered, Cannon made no effort to begin the process of negotiating a sale of its energy to CSU, which is a partner in FortZED. Instead, the documents show that the company was trying to strike a deal with Xcel Energy and even considered running transmission lines to deliver power directly to Denver, bypassing Fort Collins altogether.
After one meeting with Cannon, a city staffer wrote to Stokes in an e-mail in August, saying, “I think the Utility is pretty much out of the picture unless somebody tries to drag us in as part of FortZED.”
Yet a month later, a CSU newsletter continued to promote the wind farm as an integral part of FortZED.
“CSU’s proposed wind farm on the Maxwell Ranch could potentially produce the bulk of the power needed to power the district,” the September issue of the Today@CSU newsletter read.
Dr. Bill Farland, CSU’s senior vice president of research, said that despite such material suggesting otherwise, the wind farm wasn’t necessarily intended to offset power for FortZED. He explained that Platte River could have bought the wind energy to distribute throughout its electric grid (which is shared by Fort Collins, Estes Park, Longmont and Loveland). That wouldn’t offset energy used in the FortZED district, but contribute to Platte River’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, a requirement that public utilities produce 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
In that case, “it would be part of the demonstration that is FortZED, that you can bring renewables online and then you can manage them with community resources, whether it’s auxillary power, electric vehicles, generation capacity in some of our local businesses,” he said. “All of those are part of the FortZED concept, that you can manage the load at the level of the consumers and not have to have that done solely by the supplier. …
“I think the issue that we’re looking at with FortZED is not so much the idea that either CSU or the city would necessarily purchase that power but that it would be part of a renewable portofolio that they would put in place to meet the RSP and that there would be an opportunity to demonstrate demand-side management with the Fort ZED concept,” he continues. “I don’t see it as much of a disconnect as you suggest.”
That the wind farm’s potential to benefit the zero-energy district turns out to be overblown doesn’t surprise FortZED’s most outspoken critic, citizen-watchdog Eric Sutherland, who earlier told Face the State that he believed the project was a “pipe dream” from the beginning.
“Anybody with a cursory understanding of the wind power business would have understood from the get-go that that project had about a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting built,” he said. “It’s just one of these brain farts that never should have left the lab. It was just clueless academics trying to take the stereotype of clueless academicians a little bit further.”
FortZED is a partnership of the city of Fort Collins, CSU, Larimer County and several private businesses. It recently launched a year-long pilot project to offset five megawatts of power using a variety of “alternative sources.” As reported by Face the State, the city is using (among other schemes) diesel and natural gas generators to replace nearly two megawatts of the five megawatt goal. When former Gov. Bill Ritter flipped the switch on the $11 million project last week, Utilities manager Catanach refered to the generators running on non-renewable fuel as “wind simulators.”
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