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A ‘make or break’ wind power gamble on display at Berkshire East in Charlemont

CHARLEMONT – The world’s first wind turbine that supplies a ski area with all its power will be on display at Berkshire East Saturday.

The wind turbine is 291 feet tall, which is almost the length of a football field, and started spinning in January. It cost about $3 million to erect and is projected to produce 2.1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, about the amount that 300 homes use, said Jon Schaefer, co-owner of Berkshire East.

The ski lifts, snow guns and night lighting at Berkshire East use about 70 percent of that amount of power, he said.

The ski area was facing electricity bills of $200,000 to $400,000 a year, depending on the snowfall, and that uncertain expense was threatening the business, Schaefer said. Many family-run ski areas have closed in the last few decades, he said.

“It was a make-or-break situation because we’re so exposed to fluctuating energy prices,” he said. “We had to hedge against increasing costs of power, because otherwise we were faced with going out of business in a few years. This was our solution to stay in business.”

Now Berkshire East has fixed loan repayments, which Schaefer said are much lower than its electricity bills would be, though he declined to be more specific. The ski area did its own financing after getting grants from the state and federal governments. He projects the project will pay for itself in seven to 10 years.

The wind turbine also has a “wow” factor that has helped the business. “There was a lot of buzz coming into the winter with our own customers, and I’ve noticed on the Web site that there are a lot more hits per day,” he said.

On Saturday, the public is invited to come see the turbine between 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Guests will gather at the base of the mountain at 11:30 and take a lift to the top, where there will be a free barbecue lunch. Schafer will speak about the wind turbine and the process of building it. An optional attraction is Berkshire East’s Zipline Tour, which is a way to descend the mountain on cables, at a discounted fee.

Berkshire East is at 66 South River Road in Charlemont. The event is cosponsored by the Mass Energy Consumer Alliance and the Center for EcoTechnology, and officials from these organizations will also speak at Saturday’s event.

Turbine’s benefits

The wind turbine has three blades, each 91 feet long, and the center of the hub is 195 feet in the air. The blades spin at a maximum of 27 revolutions per minute. The energy generated by the wind turbine is the equivalent of what it would take for cars to drive about 2.3 million miles, according to Berkshire East.

Most businesses, and most homeowners, can’t afford the initial investment to put wind turbines on their properties. But they can still support renewable power to match the amount of electricity they use.

Mass Energy Consumers Alliance is buying Renewable Energy Certificates from Berkshire East and selling them to customers. In most Hampshire County towns, this transaction takes place through New England GreenStart and in Amherst through New England Wind.

“This is like transferring the benefits of a wind farm to your home,” said Peggy MacLeod of the Center for EcoTechnology, which is marketing the program. “People can’t afford to put out thousands of dollars, but this is an affordable, month-to-month way to get clean energy.”

Over 550 households in Northampton, and 8,000 in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have made use of this option, which costs about $5 to $12 more a month than conventional electricity, she said. More information is available at massenergy.org or by calling 1-800-287-3950.

“We don’t have an unlimited amount of oil or gas and there are environmental problems with coal,” MacLeod said. “All conventional electric fuels have problems. By putting renewable energy into the grid, you’re reducing those negative impacts. It’s important not to wait for the government to make the policies to push money in the direction of renewable energy. This is something we can do ourselves.”