2 high school seniors present energy study to Ski Corp.

For their senior projects, Steamboat Springs High School students Chrissy Ford and Ben Paley studied the feasibility of installing wind turbines to power chair lifts on Mount Werner. — Photo by Matt Stensland

By Jack Weinstein

Steamboat Springs — Chrissy Ford and Ben Paley wanted to do something practical for their senior project. And they wanted to do something green.

Ford and Paley, who will graduate with the 120 other members of the Steamboat Springs High School Class of 2009 at 2 p.m. Saturday in the school’s gymnasium, decided to study the feasibility of using wind energy to produce electricity for the Storm Peak Express and Morningside chair lifts at Steamboat Ski Area.

Their inspiration came from a magazine article describing the successful implementation of a wind turbine at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Mass. The turbine now powers one third of the mountain’s annual electricity.

They thought, “Why not do it here?” Ford recalled.

“We decided our objective was to present our idea to the mountain,” Paley said.

They did just that, compiling the necessary numbers and statistics to prepare a business presentation for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. officials.

The research

Ford and Paley first went to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden to learn about wind turbines, which convert kinetic energy into electricity.

To see whether wind energy would be feasible on Mount Werner, they visited Storm Peak Laboratory at the summit of the ski area, which has kept wind databases since 1992.

After discovering that there was enough wind at average speeds of 13 to 15 mph to provide a significant amount of electricity for the mountain, Ford and Paley worked with the U.S. Forest Service to figure out which of the two kinds of turbine — horizontal, which looks like a propeller affixed to a tower and is the most common, or vertical, which the students modeled after a Forest Service turbine in Yampa — was least harmful to birds.

They then narrowed down a list of contractors to Infin8 Solutions, of Castro Valley, Calif., to develop a business plan. The plan included the cost and payoff for two turbines — 50 kilowatt (50 feet tall) and 100 kilowatt (100 feet tall) — that would be located near Storm Peak Laboratory and the radio tower.

“One of the things they found is that Steamboat is in a perfect wind zone for this,” said Eric Nilsson, a science and math teacher at the high school and Ford and Paley’s adviser for the project. “It’s definitely feasible, technically and financially.”

The industry

Wind power, which became viable in the early 1980s in California and really took off in the late 1990s, is the fastest-growing form of energy generation in the world, said Robert Thresher, director of the NREL’s National Wind Technology Center.

“Of all the renewable resources with low carbon footprints, which people are looking for right now, wind is the cheapest,” he said.

But he said it’s also one of the smallest energy sources in the U.S., with less than 2 percent of the country’s electricity produced by wind. Thresher said the country produces about as much energy from wind as it does from 25 coal-fired power plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 600 facilities burned coal to produce nearly half the country’s electricity in 2007.

Nearly one third of the country’s wind turbines are in Texas, and by comparison, about 4 percent are in Colorado, Thresher said.

But citing a recent report by the Department of Energy, NREL and American Wind Energy Association, Thresher said it’s possible that 20 percent of the country’s energy could be generated by wind.

Thresher said the biggest hurdles for wind energy are finding sites and transmitting the produced electricity. The recession has hampered the growth of the wind industry, he said.

The pitch

Last week, Ford and Paley presented their project to Ski Corp.

Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations, said he had been charged with exploring the possibility of wind energy, but Ford and Paley provided him with some information he didn’t know.

They calculated the cost of the two turbines at $448,000 and the return on investment at about 10 years. But with grants, Ford and Paley said, the cost could be reduced by $200,000, and the time for seeing a return on the investment would be more than cut in half.

The best part of the proposal, they said, was annual savings for Ski Corp. of more than $43,000.

Allen said he appreciated Ford and Paley’s study. He said the information presented was useful because Ski Corp. is interested in the potential of wind energy on the mountain. But Allen couldn’t say if or when it would happen.

“With the markets the way they are and the capital available, I couldn’t commit to a timeline when this project would be undertaken,” he said.

Ford said the goal of their project was to actually have an effect on Mount Werner.

“Our main goal was to get the idea out there and information to them,” she said. “I feel like we reached our goal in that sense. It wasn’t to get a turbine up there, maybe in a couple of years. Our goal was to get awareness to them, and I thought we did that.”

Next year, both will study engineering in college, Ford at California Polytechnic State University and Paley at Colorado School of Mines. Ford and Paley said they hope to see wind turbines on the mountain when they return home for winter break sometime in the coming years.