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Winds of Change in the Berkshires


This region in western Massachusetts is transforming itself into an alternative energy leader with wind turbines, biodiesel and other renewable resource projects.

Jiminy Peak always has been the place to go for skiing and winter fun in the tree-covered Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Until now, the wind was something visitors put up with as they enjoyed the slopes.

Today, visitors come for the wind as well—or at least to witness the wind being harnessed as a source of renewable energy.

They come to see the Zephyr wind turbine, a colossal propeller that sits atop Jiminy Peak and provides more than 2 million kilowatts of power annually to the resort, about 25% of its total needs. A survey of 14,000 new visitors to Jiminy during this past winter found that nearly a quarter of them were drawn by the big turbine.

Zephyr—which cost $4 million and is the first megawatt-class turbine installed for on-site power usage in the country—has come to symbolize the dramatic transformation of the Berkshires into an alternative energy hub, the central element of the “Berkshire Blueprint” which focuses on the three E’s: energy, environment and economy. The Berkshires are abuzz with initiatives designed to address the twin concerns of environment and energy in a coordinated effort that fuels economic development.

HOMEGROWN ENERGY

The drive to green energy in the Berkshires is largely homegrown, with key players marrying local needs with 21st century technology. A good example of this dynamic is Tyler Fairbank, son of the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort owner and former head of the Berkshire Economic Development Corporation. Fairbank recently founded EOS ventures, which provides turnkey renewable on-site power generation solutions to large-scale energy users in the area. To Fairbank, the focus on alternative energy is a logical extension of his previous work in economic development.

“There is no more relevant issue [to economic development] or market segments today, and for the next decade, than renewables,” he says. In Pittsfield, MA, Berkshire Biodiesel is building a $65 million, 50-million-gallon/year biodiesel production facility, said to be the largest in the northeastern U.S. The 50-megawatt plant aims to produce the highest-quality biodiesel at the lowest cost, and to serve a market that currently is the largest user of home heating oil in the country and which pays the highest electricity prices.

Biodiesel is a renewable, sustainable energy source that can be made from virgin and waste vegetable oils and animal fats. The Berkshire plant will make use of tallow and chicken fat, and eventually plans to process algae into biofuel.

Berkshire Biodiesel’s plant is being constructed on the 110-acre Ashuelot Park site owned by Crane & Co., a location which formerly housed the Beloit Jones manufacturing facility and research center. A new spur to a nearby rail line will bring in raw materials to the biodiesel facility.

“The Berkshires are a unique location to benefit from wind, solar, biofuels and biomass energy projects as well as significant advances in conservation, said David Rooney, president, Berkshire Economic Development Corporation (BEDC).

“This is partly because of our natural assets and partly due to our aggressive approach to harnessing their energy value. It’s a region already rich in culture, high technology, diverse workforce—including a robust creative economy, transportation access, manufacturing opportunities, incentives and quality of life. Our leadership in alternative energy is increasing this value base exponentially. This is our distinctive strength,” said Rooney.

Compared to oil, biodiesel when burned substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions from unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. According to Berkshire Biodiesel, the estimated 500 million gallons of biodiesel produced in the U.S. in 2007 offset nearly 12 million barrels of oil. The impact on greenhouse gases was said to be equivalent to the removal of 700,000 passenger vehicles from America’s roadways.

WOOD AS A FUEL SOURCE

Also planned for the site is a 50-megawatt biomass plant that exclusively will use clean wood as a fuel source. Berkshire Renewable Power, a subsidiary of Tamarack, owned by Halley and Aldrich, is spearheading the biomass project, which will be situated less than a mile from high-voltage transmission lines that will permit interconnection to the regional power grid. Effluent from the Crane property will be converted to cooling water for use in the biomass facility.

The biomass and biodiesel projects are part of a planned “mixed-use energy campus” that Crane is creating to facilitate additional economic development at the Ashuelot site. Crane also is considering reinstalling hydro generation at two dams it owns on the nearby Housatonic River, and the company is working with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to access the feasibility of a hydropower installation at its Byron Weston facility in Dalton, MA.

The focus on energy conservation has long been a priority for Crane. The company, which has been established in the Dalton-Pittsfield area since 1801, is one of the largest single consumers of electricity in Berkshire County, and the development of cost-effective power generation is considered critical to its ongoing viability, company officials said. Since 1981, Crane has been purchasing steam from a trash-to-energy facility now operated by Covanta Corp. Massachusetts law currently prohibits the sale of electricity across public ways and land boundaries of different owners, so the establishment of alternative energy resources on property it owns will permit Crane to purchase electricity without transmission or distribution fees. At the same time, the biomass facility and/or the biodiesel plant should be able to sell electricity to Crane without going to the grid.

However, the state still needs to address how large industrial users can access such power without paying penalties which could be applied to make the electrical distribution provider whole—known as “decoupling,” this will determine who will pay what portion of the revenue for local utility companies that provide electrical service.

Recently, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce announced that it has entered into an agreement with CQI Associates, a non-commission- based company, to form an energy consortium for Berkshire County that will permit Chamber members to pool their resources to purchase electricity in a deregulated market.

Jack Filiault, vice president and CFO of the Jiminy Peak resort, sums up the “green mentality” that has taken hold in the Berkshires: “There is no project we’re working on in which we don’t think about whether what we are doing is environmentally responsible,” he says.

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