Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Can wind breathe life into renewable energy?

Ketchum company seeks to provide a green alternative

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Idaho Tower Co. Eric Demment, John Campbell, Paul Cox, and Tyler Chandler (from left to right) take a break while raising a 165-foot anemometer on a Crow Indian reservation in eastern Montana. According to Dean Bearclaw, a representative of the Crow Nation who watched the Idaho Tower Co. employees at work, the project suits the Crow culture, which is based on living off the land.

It's no secret that interest in alternative energy has forced its way into the collective consciousness of the nation. However, Ketchum-based Idaho Tower Co. has quietly decided to take an active role in providing a solution, rather than simply joining the growing chorus of complaints.

John Campbell, president and co-founder of the company, hesitates to confess his reasons for entering the wind energy market, lest he be branded a "bleeding-heart liberal." Yet the motivations of this self-described capitalist are betrayed not only by his company's foray into renewable energy, but also the nine solar panels atop his house.

Two years ago, Campbell enlisted the help of fellow Williams College alumnus Eric Demment to look into how he could use his 15 years of tower building experience to take advantage of one of Idaho's greatest natural resources: wind power.

Demment, a Vermont native who lives in Ketchum, saw potential in this undertaking and jumped at the opportunity to head Idaho Tower Co.'s wind division.

"This was a chance to not only make a departure from the transient, Sun Valley ski-bum lifestyle, but, more importantly, to make a positive impact on the community that has come to be my home," said Demment, who is also a member of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and the Ketchum Fire Department.

It didn't take long for the pair to make history. Last April, they erected a pair of 50-kilowatt wind turbines—essentially large, modern windmills—in Mountain Home, for Ketchum resident Thomas Griffith, creating the nation's first commercial hydrogen plant powered by wind energy. Griffith's company, Synthetic Energy, is now able to sell hydrogen to various companies that would otherwise have to import the fuel from Canada.

The scope of their work is by no means restricted to corporate ventures.

"Our ultimate goal is to own and operate a wind farm," Demment said.

He and Campbell are in the process of creating Western Wind Towers, a company dedicated to the development of wind energy in the Northwest.

"In the meantime, (as Idaho Tower Co.) we want to be advocates for wind energy as a renewable and viable source of power and consult with anyone interested in developing this alternative on their own," Demment said.

Neither Demment nor Campbell have any misconceptions regarding the size of the task they have set for themselves. The construction of a wind farm would entail considerable costs, Demment said, as it would take approximately $1.5 million to produce one megawatt of electricity. But the financial aspect is relatively minor when compared to the process of actually bringing power to people's homes.

To start, they have to find a location with an average annual wind speed of 12 to 16 miles per hour. That requires the erection of an anemometer, a device that measures the wind's force, and at least a year's worth of data. Strong winds, however, are not enough to ensure the viability of a project, as the site needs to be relatively close to existing transmission lines. Otherwise, it becomes too expensive to get their energy onto the grid.

Even if those two requirements are met, they might face another hurdle: Idaho Power Co. would have to be convinced to enter into a power-purchasing agreement. As the owner of the majority of transmission lines in the state, Idaho Power is the largest potential market for high-wattage power projects, and, while it does purchase some wind energy, is under no legal obligation to buy from commercial producers.

Flying his Cessna plane over southern Idaho to scout potential locations, Campbell cited the inconsistent nature of wind power as the potential reason why more power companies have not fully embraced this alternative energy source.

"This can easily be countered by putting up farms in different places," Demment said, as the small plane was buffeted by strong winds above a desolate butte. "We have the 13th windiest state in the nation—the wind will always be blowing somewhere."

While a large-scale project may be part of a distant future, Demment and Campbell aren't waiting to help others make impacts of their own.

Blaine County resident Kiki Tidwell contacted Idaho Tower Co. last winter, looking to augment the "green" energy provided by her solar panels with a small wind turbine.

"This is what I can do to reduce the need for a coal-powered plant in Idaho and a new transmission line coming into the county," Tidwell said.

In addition to cutting down on her carbon dioxide emissions, Tidwell would benefit from the federal incentive program of net metering, which mandates that a utility company has to purchase any unused electricity produced by a renewable energy source that generates 100 kilowatts or less. Idaho, on the other hand, isn't doing nearly enough to promote the use of alternative energy resources, Tidwell said.

"All the states around us have incentives," Tidwell said. "We're becoming the hole in the donut."

Despite the impediments they face, Demment and Campbell continue to push forward, erecting five anemometers, which cost approximately $15,000 each, in Idaho, Nevada, and Montana since 2005. And though they hope to reap rewards from those efforts, both environmentally and financially, they understand that they are only a small piece of the solution.

"There is no silver bullet when it comes to lowering demand for coal and foreign oil," Demment said. "It will be a mixture of wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear energy. To fulfill our role within all of this, we have to provide as many options as possible that can help everyone from conscientious consumers like Kiki Tidwell to small agricultural communities."

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