New England Interview: Brian Fairbank, President and CEO, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort
New England Interview: Brian Fairbank, President and CEO, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort
Location: Hancock, MA
For his entire career, Brian Fairbank has developed and managed the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort with great enthusiasm and environmental commitment. During his nearly 40 years at Jiminy, Brian has grown the mid-sized ski area into a successful, year-round resort that accommodates more than 1,800 guests with top-notch customer service. The high water mark of Fairbank's environmental initiatives came in July 2007 with the installation of a 1.5-MW GE wind turbine generator (christened "Zephyr") on the western slope of the Berkshires ski area. We spoke with Brian shortly after Zephyr's public dedication, an interview revealing the determination and sense of purpose required to complete this project and make Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort the nation's first ski area to install a wind turbine.
Q. Why did you consider a wind turbine project at Jiminy Peak, as opposed to other potential sustainability projects?
A. Sustainability initiatives are not new to Jiminy. We've been working hard to reduce our electricity consumption over the past 15 years. It started with energy efficiency. Over the past 10 years, the resort was able to reduce its annualized electricity consumption by 25%, from 9.4 to 7.0 million kWhs. Most of this savings came from advances and efficiencies in our snow-making operation; further savings came from the resort-wide installation of compact fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-saving devices. We've also saved on fuel consumption via programmable thermostats and the capture of waste heat to warm our facilities. After completing these initiatives, we've captured all the "low-hanging fruit." We thought the next appropriate step was to consider on-site renewable energy. As we began to educate ourselves on the options, we quickly learned that wind-generated electricity production would be at its greatest during the November to March period — corresponding exactly to our season of peak electricity demand. Since our greatest economic benefits will come from avoiding purchases from the grid, this convergence of production and consumption made a wind turbine the right choice.
Q. Unlike most mountaintop wind farms, which build access roads, Jiminy used the existing infrastructure. Tell us about some of the unique challenges that resulted from this decision.
A. We used an existing ski trail as the access road to the turbine location. This was attractive from an environmental perspective because far less clearing was required than for a new road. But the steep grade of the route — reaching an intimidating 27% pitch at its maximum — combined with the unpaved trail presented a formidable challenge to the equipment used to haul the turbine components, compared to the 10% or 12% grade more typically associated with wind turbine project access roads. The tower base was the first heavy component to attempt the ascent. When the truck pulling it began to slip, we stopped. A bulldozer was added for additional power and traction, and then another, and another on subsequent attempts, until two D8 bulldozers and two D6 bulldozers were assisting the tower base in its climb. The nacelle provided no less of a challenge — the frame of the trailer we had originally intended to use to haul it up the mountain bent on our first attempt, requiring us to build a custom trailer better capable of handling the weight. Once the ascent began, the team of bulldozers prevailed. The decision to use a ski trail as the sole route to the turbine also means that access may be limited by the weather in general (and equipment cannot access the turbine at all in the winter). Now that the turbine is installed and operating, we hope the most difficult logistics are behind us and that time will support our decision to use existing infrastructure.
Q. Did you encounter any other unexpected challenges?
A. Looking back over the entire project, two additional challenges included procuring and delivering the turbine components and interconnecting to the local utility grid. Turbine procurement and delivery posed some interesting challenges. Originally, Jiminy put a 750-kW turbine out to bid. This original solicitation failed due to lack of turbine availability in this size category. Following this initial attempt, we were fortunate to capture the interest of General Electric. Since GE only produced a 1.5-MW turbine, we had to double the project capacity as compared to our original plan. Keeping up with the logistics of the turbine components was fascinating — the tower came from Quebec, the blades from Brazil, electronics from Tehachapi (California), and the nacelle from Europe. With respect to interconnection, the challenges came in three parts. First, we spent approximately $500,000 reconfiguring the resort's internal electrical systems to capture the maximum benefit from turbine production in offsetting on-site electric usage. Second, we had to bear the cost of several upgrades to the utility transmission system in order to maintain safety and reliability requirements.
Q. How was the public involved in the project, and how did they react?
A. People often ask us why we did not encounter more local resistance. I'd like to think that the answer is in part because we sought the input of local community leaders and residents before the project research and planning ever made it to the press. The first thing we did was host a coffee hour to discuss our plans and objectives and ask for our community's feedback. I've lived in this community for 30 years, and I live within one mile of the turbine. All of the community's questions were my questions, and so this part of the process was very important. As a result of this initial meeting the conversation about Zephyr took the tone of a local business proposing a project to protect local jobs, be an environmental leader, and send a positive message to the region. While public comments ranged from concern to the characterization of the turbine as a "gorgeous piece of art," the announcement to our community went more smoothly that we thought it would.
Q. How did your commitment to sustainability impact your review of the turbine's expected environmental and aesthetic impact?
A. At Jiminy, we've been looking at environmentally preferable alternatives for 30 years. This history of conservation, recycling, and efficiency measures made it easier for us to consider the broad benefits of installing a wind turbine as compared to the specific site and local impacts. However, this perspective did little to quell months of anxiety over how the community would react. Shortly before we invited the community to talk about our plans, hurricane Katrina hit and global warming became consistent front-page news. In general, the community responded by supporting our wind project. The regional media response was far more extensive than we expected, but we are happy to tell our story if it helps others consider their environmental responsibilities and learn from our experience.
Q. What led the resort to decide to own the project, and would you make the same decision again?
A. The value of producing the electricity on-site and offsetting grid purchases was enough to entice us to want to own the project. We would not have been able to capture nearly this value if a third party owned the turbine and sold us the power. For the power we sell back to the wholesale grid (approximately 50% of the project's total output of 4.6 million kWhs) we are also able to make use of the federal Production Tax Credit, which is typically one of the drivers for third-party ownership. However, convincing ourselves that we wanted to own the project was easier than convincing our lenders. I can't overstate the importance of doing the research necessary to gain the comfort of your banker. From our bank's perspective (and ours for that matter), Jiminy Peak is not in the energy business, we are in the tourism business, and we cannot risk over-leveraging that businesses with an energy project. Our bank required us to roll this project into our long-term capital expenditures plan and demonstrate that the resort as a whole was not taking on more debt than it could reasonably repay. The financial support we received from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative was critical in gaining our lender's support — particularly as it related to providing assurance of long-term Renewable Energy Credit value. All in all, we would look to own the project again if we had it to do over.
Q. What advice would you give to other ski areas and resorts considering wind power?
A. First, make sure you get the right consultant to be your advocate and guide you through the process. This person should be able to perform some initial environmental assessments and understand the grid interconnection issues and project economics in order to get your financers on board early in the process. Next, determine whether you have internal support from your resort's management team. Assuming you have critical mass, identify a project champion to shepherd the project, not only during the development and construction phases but throughout the turbine's operating life. Finally, don't plan your access route up a 27% grade. We did it, but we also got more than we bargained for.
Q. With this initial success behind you, would you consider constructing another turbine at Jiminy?
A. Jiminy doubled its long-term debt obligations installing this turbine. As we pay down this debt over time, we may consider installing another turbine. Changes in net metering rules over time could accelerate this process, but in either case, I think we need to take the next 4 to 5 years to fully integrate and optimize this initial undertaking. We are extremely proud of our turbine and have no regrets. While we spend most of our time talking about the project's environmental merits, it is important to realize that the decision to construct was based first on the economics. This is a financially sound investment and overall one of the best things Jiminy has done in its history.
For more information, please see the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort Web site.
This information was last updated on May 20, 2008