SUPERIOR – Town leaders have set aside $3.5 million to buy what could be one of the largest municipally owned wind turbines in the state, but it’s money they may never spend for that purpose.
Today, an energy consultant will brief the Superior Board of Trustees about various ways to increase the town’s renewable energy portfolio. And purchasing a 1.5 megawatt turbine will not be at the top of his list of suggestions.
“Right now, it’s not a cost-effective solution,” said Erik Fenger, president of Golden-based Rocky Mountain Energy Management. “There’s a lot of hurdles in place right now.”
Some of those obstacles include state regulations on how wind power can be generated and distributed while others involve the economic limitations to harnessing the renewable energy source.
“There’s a whole lot more to it behind the scenes than just throwing up a turbine,” Fenger said.
Jay Wolffarth, administrative services manager for Superior, said the town identified the money for a wind turbine as part of its 2011 capital improvement project budget.
“It addresses the town board’s goal of sustainability,” he said.
Wind power would add a renewable energy source to the town’s already extensive array of solar panels, which by year’s end are expected to generate 440 megawatts of electric power – or 21 percent of Superior’s municipal needs.
Wolffarth said a turbine erected within Superior’s borders could boost the percentage of power the town gets from renewable energy to 50 percent. Because the wind blows so much more forcefully and consistently on the eastern plains than along the Front Range, an off-site turbine could boost that percentage to 70 or so.
Despite the obvious production advantages of a turbine on the plains, Wolffarth said, there’s no denying the emotional power of a turbine in town that residents can claim as their own.
“Yes, you could point to it and say that’s what you bought,” he said. “If we did put it somewhere in town, we’d probably put it up on (Colo.) 128 where we have some right-of-way and it would be away from homes.”
Charles Newcomb, section manager for wind and water at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said there’s little chance a turbine in Superior would generate enough power to provide a good return on investment.
A 1-megawatt tower would cost about $2.5 million to build and $65,000 a year to maintain and operate, according to Rocky Mountain Energy Management.
“If you’re going to invest millions of dollars in a turbine, it’s not a great idea to put it in a location where there’s no wind,” Newcomb said.
But taking ownership of a turbine in a wind farm out east introduces the problem of transmitting the electricity to where the town wants it. It would also require having to cut deals with Xcel or other utilities to obtain the appropriate renewable energy credits, he said.
“Electrons can get complicated in terms of how you get them to you,” Newcomb said.
It’s doable, especially if Superior can figure out how to make a distant project relevant to its residents, he said. That might mean placing a kiosk in Town Hall where the generation of electricity hundreds of miles away could be measured and monitored.
“When you’ve got that kind of community ownership and buy-in, that’s a very powerful thing,” Newcomb said.
Fenger said his objective is not to talk Superior out of buying a wind turbine but to present information that will allow its leaders to evaluate the project’s feasibility. He said with Superior’s aggressive pursuit of solar power, it would be in as good a position as any other town or city to take on the challenge.
“They would definitely be a trailblazer in the state if they did this,” he said.
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