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Taking in Berkshire East’s tower of power

HAWLEY – Standing three to six feet themselves, about 100 people turned out for a closer look at the 277-foot wind tower topping the Berkshire East Mountain Resort development.

The mountain itself was humming with activity but it was difficult to discern a sound from the turbine until the hikers reached a level with the base of the tower, where cooling fans produced a sound like an airplane in the middle distance.

“Ski lift, mountain coaster, lodge, cooking, computers, etc.,” resort owner Jonathan Schaefer said, listing the main power needs in the summer when the main drain – the snow-making guns – aren’t active.

Formerly an attraction only when there was snow on the slopes, Berkshire East has added zip-lining, a mountain coaster and mountain bike trails to bring in summer business in recent years and began producing all its own electricity with a 900-kWh wind turbine. A 500-kWh solar field followed. Schaefer said the two complement one another, with the wind turbine producing more energy in the solar field’s winter slump. The sun was strong but wind was low Sunday for the fifth-annual Berkshire East Wind Festival, and the 91-foot blades slowed to a halt as the crowd dispersed to zip, hike, drive or take the ski lift back to the foot of the mountain.

Schaefer said the system, installed in 2010 and online in January 2011, will pay for itself soon. “It’s paid for itself for sure in avoided costs. We avoided about $600,000 in increased power rates this year, $500,000, somewhere in there, because our net consumption was low we fit a rate profile that was much lower than we would otherwise have,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said the turbine doesn’t necessarily save the business money day-to-day, but was built as a long-term hedge against a volatile energy market. The major difference between the solar farm and the wind tower is that the solar takes up 10 acres of cleared land to the tower’s two and was twice as expensive to build, but the tower took six months to permit while the solar field took “six minutes,” Schaefer said.

Sunday’s visit to the wind tower was organized by the nonprofit Mass Energy Consumer Alliance, which buys sustainably-produced energy from Berkshire East and others to sell to members.

Mass Energy Marketing and Membership Director Erin Taylor said danger to wildlife is a common objection to wind power, but backyard cats kill more. “When properly cited, they are really good for wildlife because our current habits are really bad for wildlife,” Taylor said. Taylor said there has been no significant data to validate fears of seizures from flicker caused by fan blades in front of the sun at certain times of year. Schaefer said that in the course of a one-year study three birds were found killed by the turbine, while four were killed on the drive up.

Schaefer said he has been invited to speak to a ski area owners’ convention about Berkshire East’s experience, but many ski areas may be restricted by their location on state or federal land and government incentives are drying up.

Daniel Helman of Los Angeles, visiting a friend who heard of the event, said he is in a doctoral program for sustainability education and was interested to hear from a wind-farmer. “It’s neat to see a business owner who’s actually implemented it … what they think of it,” Helman said.

Matt Bogart of Williamsburg said he skis at the resort in the winter and had seen the turbine then, although he has seen wind farming on a much larger scale in Illinois fields. “Renewable energy’s always cool. It’s good that a small resort like this was able to do it and sustain itself,” Bogart said.

Jasper Lieber of Amherst came to see the tower with his wife, his mother, his 6-year-old and a 6-year-old neighbor. The idea was partly to have a nice weekend outing, “And my politics are way into alternative energy, have been since high school, so it’s cool to see it up close,” Lieber said.