Berkshire East goes renewable


Berkshire East is now the first ski resort in the U.S. to be using 100-percent renewable energy.

Now that it's almost summer, snow might be a diminishing thought on most people's minds, but as Jeremy Jones recently pointed out to the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama, the state of winter isn't anything to sleep on. A recent study co-commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters found that there is $12 billion in economic value at stake.

While Jones and fellow snowboard and ski spokespeople do their best to hurry along change on Capitol Hill, one small ski resort in Massachusetts isn't waiting to make their own move. With the recent addition of a 500kW solar farm to a 900kW wind turbine installed in 2011, Berkshire East is generating enough renewable juice for their entire electricity demand -- a first for any ski resort in the USA.

"When we have a warm winter we use more power to make snow," says Jon Schaefer, Berkshire East assistant general manager. "To be able to make all of our own power, and to pay for it in fixed increments over the course of a year, and not take a really big hit in January or February, is a really big deal."

The solar array, consisting of 90 AllSun Trackers from Vermont's AllEarth Renewables, was installed and developed by Sustainable Energy Development Inc. of Ontario, NY. The six-lift Berkshire East ski resort in Charlemont used a 30-precent federal investment credit along with state grants to help defray the expense of the $2.8 million system.

The resort expects the system to pay for itself within the next five to seven years, a time period that is affected by the comparative cost of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

Renewable energy is not the cheapest up-front investment for resorts to pursue at this scale, but Schaefer says that even with the struggles of financing and permitting, the economics lined up positively:

"These projects are a hedge against the future increase in the price of power. We have effectively set our rates for the next 25 years."

Many ski resorts have invested in renewable-energy certificates (RECs), which means they are essentially investing in a pool fund for other "green" projects as a way to offset their own carbon footprint. For Berkshire East, being able to see the benefit of this investment right on their own slopes was critical.

"Essentially a REC is somebody else's greenness," says Schaefer. "If we produce an electron, there is a good chance we use that electron. And let me tell you, there is nothing sweeter than sitting on top of a wind turbine, feeling the wind, checking out the view and understanding that you are converting that air into the electrons that power a business that employs up to 275 folks in a small town."

Beyond the economics, Schaefer says the project aligned closely with their business's mission of getting people connected to having fun outside.

"We do our best to support health, fitness and an active outdoor lifestyle," says Schaefer. "Producing power in a responsible manner fits right into that model. Since Berkshire East is a ski area in a warming world, it makes some sense to put our money where our mouths are."

Berkshire uses energy effectively across the board, replacing fuel oil with outdoor gasifier wood stoves powered by wood they cut themselves. They run a fleet of fuel-efficient snow cats and work to make snow at the coldest possible temps, which uses less energy and yields more coverage.

While Berkshire East is the first to generate 100-percent renewable power on site, resorts across the world that are seeing a decreasing snowpack trend that ultimately results in economic downturns in towns where ski resorts are the primary industry are taking similar efficiency steps.

"We are the canaries in the coal mine," says Schaefer. "We'd all better be doing our damndest to educate ourselves and the public about our collective future."

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