Mike on America

The Winds of Change

You can almost hear it through the fog if you listen very closely. The spinning blades of a wind turbine being turned by the winds of change.

"This project particularly represents a paradigm shift for American business." So says Kevin Schulte, a Vice President and "wunderkind" of Sustainable Energy Developments . The turbine we're looking at was made by GE (parent company of NBC and CNBC); the plan to install it and make it work belong to Schulte, but the "paradigm shifter" is someone else. His name is Brian Fairbank.

"I'm free in this country to go do something like this" since 1969, when he was 23.

Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Massachusetts is a medium-sized ski resort. It was built in 1947 began operating in 1948. A quarter of a million people ski here during the winter, day and night, with another hundred thousand or so passing through during the summer. It has been Brian Fairbank's life.

"There isn't one thing here today that was here when I came here in 1969. Everything has been replaced or changed," Fairbank says.

And the biggest change is the wind turbine called "Zephyr" that sits on the shoulder of the mountain. It's been going through testing for a few weeks but officially goes on line Wednesday. A 1.5 megawatt wind turbine, it cost Fairbanks four million dollars, most of it in a loan from a local bank. And they are watching, he points out with a chuckle.

"It's 3.3 million dollars that we borrowed from them, and their board room looks right at the wind turbine. So I do get phone calls saying, 'How come it's not turning?'"

Getting a 250-foot tower and three 120-foot blades out of the Port of Albany and up the side of Jiminy Peak was quite a show. It had to go down the highway and through town. It's the first private ski area in North America to have one. But Fairbank isn't doing it for the publicity, he's doing it for long term survival.

The one thing his resort counts on more than anything else is snowmaking and to turn a crystallized water droplet into a snow flake at 27 degrees you need electricity and a lot of it. Nearly six percent of the resort's $20 million annual budget goes to power. And having done everything thing they could to conserve and cut back, Fairbank decided it was time to make some of their own. But the question is, Why would a sane man get into the wind business? Fairbanks smiles.

"Well, a sane man wouldn't be in the ski business to begin with, So I'm already crazy."

When fully operational the turbine will generate enough electricity to run half  the resort's necessary snow making. And when not making snow it will run chair lifts and various buildings on the property. Excess power will be sold onto the local electrical 'grid' and Jiminy will be paid a nominal fee for it. They studied the idea for 3 years and it all sounds so perfect. Except for one four letter word -- risk.

"It is a proven technology, but it's an unproven business model, and that's where the risk exists," according to Kevin Schulte.

For Brian Fairbank, it's all about independence.

"It will really make a difference in seven years, when the bank loan is paid off and we have the ability to say what do we want to do with pricing? Where are we with sensitivity in the market with pricing? And our power rates are going to be stable. Of course, I've just got to live that long," he says with a laugh.

Let's all pray for wind, and a long life.

Back along the highway. Are the blades turning?

Questions?  Comments?  mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com