LIVERMORE — A long train of electrical transmission lines, supported by large skeletons of power transformers, vanishes over a distant horizon east of Red Mountain Road on the edge of the 11,000-acre Maxwell Ranch in northern Colorado.
The road, which CSU plans to use as construction access for its proposed Green Power Project — a lofty initiative to power the university’s main campus solely with wind energy — snakes through a network of deep arroyos and large hills in the windswept foothills of the area.
Nina Jackson, a member of a group of about 35 local property owners that organized to oppose the project in October, steered her white Ford F-350 over the crest of one the hills and pointed out a CSU weather tower close to the power lines.
“The winds are typically pretty fast here,” she said, explaining that the fierce foothills wind is often unpredictable, bringing problems to the project, which, university officials admit, is already uncertain. “With the change in terrain, you have to expect how the wind is going to change from this area to this area.”
If construction of CSU’s wind farm is successful, she said, the tower, which gathers meteorological data for the university’s Atmospheric Science Department, will be joined by dozens of massive wind turbines that are expected to completely fuel the university.
But the project — which comes with a $400 million to $500 million price tag and is pending large amounts of research to determine its viability — is not without skepticism.
Jackson and the 35 other local residents formed the group to protest the initiative because, they say, preliminary preparations for the project herald a largely unattainable goal, pitting the university’s contractor against a myriad of challenges.
The group cited a number of problems that threaten the legitimacy of the project that include:
What the group said is a lack of commitment to the will of the rancher who donated the land to CSU for agricultural research
A lack of existing infrastructure to transmit the energy produced by the wind farm to the energy grid and ultimately to CSU
Inconsistency of wind velocity on the hilly property, and
A lack of transparency about the focus of the wind farm, which, they say is merely a way to bring more money to a cash-strapped institution under the guise of a research initiative.
CSU looking at project more conservatively
The CSU Research Foundation, which technically owns the land, leased it to Wind Holding, a national wind farm contractor in 2007.
Among other CSURF stipulations outlined in the lease, like bringing in tens of millions of dollars to the foundation over the course of the project, the deal mandated that Wind Holding must have the wind farm up and running by 2015.
But the application is already months late, pending a large environmental research initiative by the company to determine the viability of the project.
Wind Holding is saying that it will start construction by the end of next year.
University officials confirmed last month that, considering the heavy load of challenges that face the project, the operation is being looked at with a more conservative attitude than it was under former university President Larry Penley, who strongly pushed the project before he resigned last semester.
“The commitment is to make progress,” said Bill Farland, the vice president for research at CSU. “Though you’re not hearing the same commitment that you were from Dr. Penley,” the university is still looking to push the wind farm, even if for a later time frame.
Wind Holding will present its research to Larimer County commissioners, it hopes by the end of this year, as part of its application for project permits.
The company is also responsible for rubbing elbows with donors to bring in the cash to fund the expensive project.
J. Michael Powers, a Wind Holding official who is overseeing the project, said the fundraising and application processes are looking up, but declined to discuss specifics about them, saying it is very early to comment in detail.
Posing questions about the initiative, Jackson and her group said the lease shows a blatant disregard for the will of the northern Colorado rancher who donated the land to CSU in the 1940s.
Maxwell will: Land to be used exclusively for
In 1945, a prominent area rancher named Fred Maxwell donated the land to CSU, which was then called the Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, for research purposes.
Derek Roberts, a local landowner in a small community near the ranch, said the lease with Wind Holding doesn’t live up to the donor’s wishes of using the land for agricultural research.
Maxwell’s will, which is public record through a probate court case CSU filed in 1969 to give the CSURF the land rights, says the land is to be used exclusively for agricultural research.
“It is my will that my said lands shall be used for a study of nutritive value of mountain meadows and grasses and include experimentation with the means of renovating and improving meadows and pastures and a study of animal nutrition and diseases under range conditions . including experimental work in breeding of livestock,” the will says.
After these conditions were met, CSURF obtained authority to use remaining assets “exclusively for experimental purposes in connection with Colorado State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts,” according to Maxwell’s will.
Then, in the months leading up to Penley’s 2007 announcement of the project, CSU obtained an state Attorney General opinion saying the university was within its rights to use the land for the Green Power Project.
But landowner Roberts disagreed, saying that Maxwell, who he knew as a boy, had a strong commitment to preserving the land for agricultural research. He said the idea of the project being a commercial or money making business deal violates the will.
“My grandfather and Fred Maxwell were friends. I remember Fred Maxwell. I’m an old guy. I’m 75,” Roberts said, “I can remember sitting at my grandfather’s kitchen table with (Maxwell), and he was so proud to leave his beautiful ranch to a land grant college specialized in agriculture.”
But, contrary to Maxwell’s will, university officials announced in an Oct. 21 stakeholder meeting that research to be conducted on the land after the wind farm is built is only an ancillary benefit, saying the primary purpose is to bring in money.
University and Wind Holding officials said last month that, over the 25-year scope of the project, the company would bring between $15 million and $45 million to CSURF.
The project is a brainchild of former President Penley, who first brought the idea for the wind farm to light in March 2007 after gaining heavy national attention for being an active champion of CSU’s many research initiatives.
The Green Power Project is exemplary of Penley’s business philosophy as he made a name for himself during his five-year tenure at CSU by traveling across the country looking to bring alternative forms of revenue to a financially struggling university.
His vision for Maxwell Ranch, he told the CSU community last fall, was to help power the main campus completely with green energy by 2020 — a goal dictating that construction would begin by spring this year, which hasn’t happened.
Bill Farland, the vice president for research at CSU, told reporters last week that the number of turbines on Maxwell Ranch would be around 50 to 60, and the rest of the 100 turbines needed for the project will be erected on other CSU properties.
But the initiative, according to Jackson and other residents, faces technological and physical challenges posed by the area’s electrical infrastructure and geography that still have to be worked out.
A lack of technological infrastructure
From Maxwell Ranch, the power lines travel the approximately 30 miles to a small electrical substation in Ault, about five miles east of Fort Collins, where the power is converted into units small enough to feed into residential areas.
Public Service, Tri State, Platte River and Western Area Power Authorities co-own the substation.
The lines are co-managed by the WAPA, which has operations in a 15-state region in the western U.S.
Those lines and a large network of others converge at the substation, which, according to Jackson and a WAPA official, is maxed out for capacity — it can’t handle any more power without a significant, and expensive, overhaul.
Bob Easton, the manager of transmission planning for Wind Holding, said that, while the issue is complicated, the Ault substation can’t transmit any more power to the south.
“When you talk about transmission capacity going out, they don’t have capacity,” Easton said.
Lisa Billings, another local landowner who helped Jackson start the initiative to oppose the project, said any excess wind energy produced by wind farms in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming that is fed through the Ault Substation becomes obsolete.
While technologies are being developed on a national scale to store wind energy, it is the only renewable energy source that is not storable, meaning that any power coming from the wind farm that the substation can’t handle is lost.
CSU officials offered no explanation of how the power would be stored and transferred to the university, saying that Wind Holding is conducting research that it will present to county officials for approval by summer.
Powers, the Wind Holding official overseeing the project, said the company is still conducting research to determine the viability of the wind farm.
“We’re confirming the scope of the project and some other technical aspects of the project,” Powers said.
Powers also said a number of other options are in place but was unable to name any specifically.
Skeptics question carbon neutrality
Billings said the unpredictability of the wind on Maxwell Ranch brings skepticism to the project as existing energy resources will have to serve as a backup for the wind turbines.
Easton said because the wind only blows a certain percentage of the time, alternate energy sources would have to produce more power when the wind stops.
“What would you do when the wind stops blowing?” Easton said. “Would you turn all the lights off?”
Power companies have to produce enough power to fuel their constituencies constantly. If a large amount of energy is coming in from the wind farm and the wind stops suddenly, local natural gas and coal plants have to increase power output significantly to make up for the loss.
A power plant has to significantly increase its usage of fossil fuels to bring the facility back to full operating capacity. Coal plants are much less efficient than natural gas plants in increasing use of fossil fuels.
Skeptics of green initiatives involving wind farms have said this model of power output poses a serious problem to claims that renewable energy produced by wind actually reduces the carbon footprint of wind power purchasers.
Fort Collins residents, including CSU students, can currently sign up for renewable energy credits produced by wind, solar and water resources. In theory, the RECs offset greenhouse gas usage, replacing energy produced by carbon-based fuel.
But local activist and energy expert Eric Sutherland said those RECs are not quantifiable because of the discrepancies in wind activity.
“The RECs are so incredibly hypervalued that some of them are worth nothing,” he said in an interview last year.
Powers said that, according to wind data obtained from the met tower on the property, the wind farm will be capable of generating about 200 megawatts of energy, or enough to power CSU dozens of times over.
But the farm will only produce that much power about 30 percent of the time, Powers said, when the wind is blowing hard enough.
If the wind farm is successful, the energy it produces will feed into the U.S. energy grid, offsetting the energy that CSU’s main campus uses. And, while they didn’t say CSU will become carbon neutral, Wind Holding and CSU officials are confident that the wind farm will not just bring in money, but also present an educational opportunity for students.
“We don’t see it just as a commercial infarm,” said the university’s Interim Provost Rick Miranda. “We want to make it a project that is supported by the local ranching community and the broader northern Colorado community.”
Powers added that, “I think everyone’s excited about reducing the carbon footprint of Larimer County. This would be new energy that would be available. . This might be the only wind farm in the U.S. that’s really a part of a university.”
Residents skeptical, project constituents laud the effort, citing benefits
While questions about the project’s viability pour in, CSU is still committed to pushing the wind farm.
Powers said the project, in addition to reducing fossil fuel usage, will provide CSU with an innovative model for research, while bringing an estimated $20 million to CSURF over the 20-year scope of the plan.
But area residents were slow to echo CSU and Wind Holding’s sentiments, saying the wind farm is merely a way to bring more money to a cash-strapped institution under the guise of a research initiative.
“CSU missed the boat,” Billings said. “(They could have) used the students to do the research. Instead they brought in this private company. . Is CSU about going green, or is it about the almighty dollar? Because this lease is about the almighty dollar.”
Josh Allen and Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.