North Country
5:34 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

Expanding Balsams Ski Resort: Money, Jobs And A Regulatory Challenge

Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR.
Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR.

If Maine entrepreneur Les Otten can expand the ski area of the closed Balsams resort he says it would create about 1,000 full or part-time jobs.

That’s something the region desperately needs. But it isn’t clear whether Otten has the money or can work through a regulatory tangle including safety issues.

The issue is being raised after Otten said he would like to work with Dan Hebert and Dan Dagesse, the owners of the closed resort.

One issue is a safety concern. Can the huge blades on the 410-foot tall turbines throw chunks of ice far enough to endanger skiers?

And a companion issue is whether the state’s Site Evaluation Committee will agree to change a standard it set about five years ago that says people should be kept at least 1,300 feet from any turbine.

That’s important because Otten wants to maximize the length of the ski runs. He has told some public officials that making  the project viable skiers must be able to get within 500 feet of the turbines.

Figuring out whether that can be done is essential for the project to move ahead, says Scott Tranchemontagne, a spokesman for Hebert and Dagesse.

“Until we have that certainty, we can’t move forward.”

And getting that cleared up could be a challenge.

The issue is the Granite Reliable wind farm, which has  33 turbines placed along the ridge lines. Some of them are above proposed ski areas.

The SEC’s 2009 approval of the wind project included the requirement that people should be “discouraged from coming within 1300 feet from any turbine location.”

The idea was that distance would protect people from injuries including being hit by a ice thrown by a turbine blade.

There was little discussion of the issue by the SEC.

The decision was based on the operating manual for the Vestas turbines. Its says: “Do not stay within a radius of 1,300 feet from the turbine unless it is necessary.”

And, without further research it was a done deal.

But changing that 1,300-foot limit means convincing the SEC that it was too cautious originally.

The current manual no longer includes a specific setback distance. A spokesman for Vestas, the manufacturer, said a consultant should check each location to determine what’s safe.

The reason, he said, is that there are lots of factors ranging from topography and winds to how fast the blades are turning.

Ian Baring-Gould is a researcher with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and he has worked with an international group studying the cold-weather operation of wind turbines.

He says he doesn’t know of anyone who wasn’t a wind farm employee – working close to the turbines – being hurt by ice thrown form a turbine.

“Ice, even when it does get thrown doesn’t get thrown very far. It is in the order of a couple of hundred feet from the turbine, not thousands of feet.”

Baring-Gould says typically turbines are shut down when icing occurs and the danger of ice being thrown mostly comes when the turbine begins operating again. That can be done when people aren’t around, eliminating any danger, he says.

In May 2012 most of the furnishings of the closed hotel were sold at an auction. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
In May 2012 most of the furnishings of the closed hotel were sold at an auction. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR

Using an industry rule of thumb, the setback for turbines likes those in the North Country would be about 800 feet, says Rene Cattin, a Swiss researcher who studies wind turbines in cold weather.

But, Cattin said, his research shows that ice isn’t thrown more than about 500 feet.

Balsams spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne says Otten would like a 500 foot limit for normal conditions and a 1,000 foot limit if icing is likely.

“And we know from industry research and best practices and precedents set at other ski areas around the country and around the world that is a very conservative and safe set of distances,” he said.

According to the National Ski Areas Association there are about a half dozen ski resorts around the country with wind turbines nearby.

At Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts official Jim Van Dyke says there is a 1000 foot buffer, which goes beyond the recommended 800 feet by the turbine’s manufacturer, GE.

“That way we exceeded GE’s setback and we are reasonably assured that we weren’t putting the public or ourselves in harm’s way when it comes to the turbine ice shedding in the winter time.”

However, there are safety issues beyond ice throw, issues that could occur year-round.

If a turbine has a serious mechanical failure it’s possible for its parts to be thrown farther than ice.

The maker of the Granite Reliable turbines, Vestas, says debris has been thrown a record 1,600 feet. However, that did not occur in Coos.

There is also a tangle of issues that could make it a challenge for the SEC to figure out what, if anything, to do about a change.

For example an ATV and snowmobile trail passes within 650 feet of the turbines, a violation of the 2009 regulation.

And the 1,300 foot limit doesn’t apply to abutters because the SEC cannot control what happens on their property.

So a ski slope on an adjacent property would not be limited by the SEC ruling.

It would be the job of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee to figure all this out and to decide whether to shorten the distance.

And the wind farm’s owner, Brookfield Renewable Power would have to ask for a change in the 1,300-foot limit. The Balsams can’t do that.

Brookfield says it’s open to asking the SEC for a change. But first it wants Otten to fund a safety study. The company wants to make sure there’s no danger.

Otten declined to be interviewed.

But spokesman Tranchemontagne says  a study is being considered. But, he added, there’s already plenty of research on the issue and a full-blown study would delay the project.

The Granite Reliable wind turbines line the mountain tops, including several targeted for ski slopes. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR
The Granite Reliable wind turbines line the mountain tops, including several targeted for ski slopes. Photo by Chris Jensen for NHPR