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Friday, October 8, 2010
Updated: April 28, 3:06 PM ET
Massachusetts resort installs wind turbine

Berkshire East's new wind turbine, being installed in November, will eliminate the equivalent of 2.3 million miles of driving each year.

Three years ago, when the world's energy prices nearly tripled, small ski areas faced a bleak future. Berkshire East, a 980-vertical-foot hill in western Massachusetts that's been owned by the Schaefer family since 1975, was among those in trouble.

Coming off a five-year, fixed-price contract with the local electric provider, Berkshire East had two choices: either start paying retail power prices, which in western Massachusetts rank among the most expensive in America; or find another way to power its four-chairlift mountain.

Brothers Jon and Jim Schaefer hatched a plan. They began to research wind turbines. Their search led them to a small company in Hamburg, Germany -- PowerWind -- that was looking to break into the U.S. market. The two parties cut a deal.

Next month, the Schaefers are scheduled to erect a 331-foot PowerWind turbine at the top of their 200-skiable-acre mountain. If it performs as planned, the turbine will generate enough energy to power the ski area year round, making it the third such large-scale turbine in the industry, along with one at Massachusetts's Jiminy Peak (which powers about a third of the ski area) and a ski resort in Switzerland.

Given the numbers associated with installing the turbine and the expected return on their investment, what the Schaefers are doing borders on game-changing.

The turbine is coming from Germany's PowerWind.

With snowmaking capabilities on 100 percent of its south-facing mountain, and with a night-skiing operation that runs six nights a week, Berkshire East's power costs top out at $90,000 a month -- a huge expense for a ski area that counts just 75,000 skier visits each season. By law, Berkshire East's turbine must tie in to the local power grid, and any excess power generated from the turbine goes to the town of Charlemont, a 1743 settlement where Berkshire East is located. Likewise, if the ski area uses more energy than it creates, it must buy that at retail cost from the local provider.

"We'll either get a check or a bill at the end of each month," said Jon Schaefer, assistant general manager.

Since the wind blows about 17 mph on average above Charlemont, Schaefer expects the turbine to be "a great source of revenue."

It gets better. Due to the Obama Administration's emphasis on alternative energy, Berkshire East's turbine is being funded in large part by the state of Massachusetts and the federal government, which are contributing $470,000 and 30 percent of the overall cost, respectively. "They're pushing wind hard," Schaefer said.

Schaefer said his family (his brother Jim heads the Alternative Energy Group at investment-banking firm UBS) has budgeted the total cost to be $2.5 million to $3 million, of which they will pay about $1.8 million to $2 million. "We're estimating a seven- to nine-year payback," Schaefer said.

The process hasn't been without controversy. Berkshire East's turbine incited an uproar from a vocal minority in Charlemont (pop. 1,358), who played the eyesore card, and a lengthy permitting process included bird-kill studies, among other means of evaluation employed by the local government.

"We're talking about a town board that normally [evaluates] garages or a chicken coop," Schaefer said.

Eventually the town allowed it, which is how the turbine ended up on a boat currently en route from Europe to New Jersey. From there, it will be transported to Berkshire East in 90-foot sections and should be generating power by the time the ski area opens in early December, Schaefer said.

Its estimated reduction in pollution will be equivalent to burning 94,672 fewer gallons of gasoline and eliminating 2.3 million miles of driving each year.