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Boise State Radio to Harness Wind

JACKPOT, Nev. What is believed to be the first public radio transmitter site to rely on the power of the wind is set to go on the air. It will provide service to remote areas in Idaho and Nevada previously unreachable by broadcasters.

JACKPOT, Nev. What is believed to be the first public radio transmitter site to rely on the power of the wind is set to go on the air. It will provide service to remote areas in Idaho and Nevada previously unreachable by broadcasters.

Boise State Radio is harnessing the energy of wind turbines – a source of power typically used to drive water pumps on farms, support two-way communication or deliver cell phone service.

100-mph winds

Plans called for the radio station launch this month using a tower and wind turbines atop Ellen D. Mountain in northeastern Nevada, where winds can reach 80 to 100 mph and higher.

Tentatively named KBSJ(FM), the news and information station will be an affiliate of KBSX(FM), a noncommercial station based at Boise State University.

Currently, the 10,000 rural residents of northeastern Nevada and southern Idaho, and drivers who travel along the desert corridor of Interstate 93 between Twin Falls, Idaho and Wells, Nev., do not have access to any stations, said Tom Lowther, chief engineer for the eastern network of the state’s public radio service.

The number of travelers who drive that stretch of highway is estimated to be 2,000 daily, increasing to about 8,000 drivers during the summer.

“Wind was chosen because no commercial power is available at the site,” Lowther said. “All we have is wind.”


Steve Johnston, BSR director of engineering, managed the project. In October 1998, Lowther began designing the new station and supervising its installation. But funding setbacks and weather delays have hampered test efforts.

Boise State Radio eventually received a $251,000 federal Public Telecommuni-cations Facilities Program grant to cover some of the estimated $480,000 needed for the entire project.

In order to raise money, BSR conducted a fundraiser in December, titled “Tools, Towers, & Tinsel,” which raised $60,000. BSR plans another equipment fundraiser in June.

More recently, the weather postponed the launch of the station. In an area where snow starts as early as mid-October, Lowther said the staff has been using a helicopter, the safest form of transportation in winter, to get to the top of the 8,633-foot mountain to finish the work.

The engineers have erected a 100-foot tower, installed an antenna and built a small building on top of the mountain. Tests and the launch were to take place this month, weather permitting.

Despite the difficulty in traveling to the mountain, Lowther said the terrain lends itself to broadcasting. It is the highest elevation in the region and is shaped perfectly for a wind-powered site.

The terrain also is ideal because there is no turbulence at the site, Lowther said, adding that the site gets laminar flow, an occurrence similar to the flow of air over an aircraft wing that moves as one mass. This helps the turbines derive more power out of the wind, which makes them more efficient. Also, the lack of turbulence will increase the life expectancy of the turbines, said Lowther.

BSR erected four towers on the site; three are 10-kW wind turbines on top of three separate towers. A fourth tower holds the station antennas. The FM station’s ERP will be 3.7 kW.

According to Lowther, the new station is unusual because its backup system consists of a propane generator supplied by three 1,000-gallon tanks of propane. The propane could power the station for eight to nine days. A stored battery bank, weighing more than 12,000 pounds, could provide an additional three days of power.

Reliability, savings

Most stations using wind power are connected to the commercial power grid. For them, wind provides power reliability and saves money. Other stations using wind have solar power generators as backups.

KBSJ’s fellow tenants on the mountain use solar power, a more expensive option at the high power levels FM broadcasters need, Lowther said. The other users at the site are two-way radio and cell services; both use significantly less power than an FM station. He cited an estimated $1 million cost for a solar-powered system compared to the $200,000 BSU spent on the wind power-generating equipment.

If a commercial grid had been available the site, Lowther estimates the state radio network would have saved a considerable amount of money because of the wind turbines. Before the California energy crisis occurred, he had predicted that Boise State Radio would recoup costs of the turbines in five years, but now says it might be sooner. This case also will help BSR determine whether wind power will help save money at other sites already served by commercial power.

Lowther expects the backup system would be used in late summer and early fall when rain on the mountain ceases and the winds die down. During the summer season, he said, the site will be accessible for him and his staff to refill the propane tanks.

The elevation also made it necessary to use an alternate method in place of a crane to erect the wind turbines, said Michael Bergey, president and chief executive officer of the Bergey Wind Power Co., which sold the turbines to Boise State Radio for an undisclosed amount.

The turbines were stacked at the base of the tower, then hoisted up the tower using the gin-pole method, similar to the davit system that raises and holds lifeboats on ships.

The turbine company has installed wind turbines for about six other broadcasters, Bergey said, all of which use a hybrid of wind- and solar-powered systems because they have seasonal variations in wind.

Besides taking an alternative approach to its backup system, Bergey believes Boise State Radio is unique because it will have a more powerful signal than the other stations that use the company’s turbines.

The other stations using wind power are either 10-watt translators or Class A or D FM stations operating at 100 to 500 watts.

For Boise State Radio, Lowther said, the new station will be a test case. If KBSJ is a success, Boise State Radio could launch more stations relying on wind in other parts of Idaho or install wind power systems at existing sites for power redundancy and economic savings.

“We’re not limited to where the power grid is,” Lowther said.