Fort Lyon prison could live again as wind farm: The answer, my friend, is blowin' in your face

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It's distressing to learn that the good folks of Bent County are shelling out thousands of dollars a month to lobbyists in an effort to "repurpose" the decrepit, soon-to-be-shuttered state prison at Fort Lyon. After all, we suggested five amazingly practical new uses for the old place months ago, and we didn't charge a dime for the advice.

Undeterred, we're still eager to help. With its magnificent cottonwoods and buildings that date back a century or more, Fort Lyon is a place worth saving. It's had a troubled history of late, first as a money-pit veterans hospital, then as an ill-conceived prison for geriatric and disabled convicts -- expensive to operate, too remote to attract the medical staff needed, and plagued by asbestos exposures and funky water, as reported in my 2007 feature "Poisoned Pen."

But that doesn't mean we can't turn all that around. Local officials have been trying to get the Department of Veterans Affairs or another state prison system interested in taking over the place, but it's time for a complete break with the past. Instead of importing more convicts or other, even more dubious revenue streams, it's time to turn to a local resource that can be found in abundance in this corner of the state.

Wind, baby, wind.

Start with a few wind turbines out on the back forty, then expand into other renewables, using the existing infrastructure for research and development projects and jobs. A little seed money, and Fort Lyon could be the hub of a renewable energy revolution in Colorado.

According to data compiled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at least three-fifths of the fifty states could meet their electricity needs from renewables (mostly wind and solar, but also geothermal, micro-hydro and other projects) developed inside their own borders. In fact, the ILSR figures that Colorado could develop a surplus in excess of its electricity needs, in the neighborhood of 2530 percent. (Being a windy hellhole has its advantages; the estimated surpluses in North and South Dakota are easily ten times that figure.)

True, at present the wind industry is heavily dependent on tax credits and subsidies. True, federal energy strategy right now focuses on developing a handful of projects and transmission grids to spread the energy generated across the country, rather than encouraging a wealth of local initiatives. But a bold investment now (are you listening, Xcel?) could pay off handsomely down the line.

Think of the possibilities. Fort Lyon could be a magnet for field trips by schoolchildren from across the state. In addition to touring the wind farm, they could visit a museum on the premises devoted to Colorado's energy follies of the past, from the Fort Saint Vrain nuclear plant and the oil-shale bust of the 1980s to the current fracking frenzy and Lamar's bizarre decision to convert a natural gas plant to coal.

Maybe it sounds fanciful, even ridiculous. But no more so, surely, than the notion that converting an asbestos-contaminated hospital into a prison for ailing inmates was going to be the economic salvation of Bent County.

More from our News archive: "Fracking: Wyoming jumps ahead of Colorado in regulation of hydraulic fracturing fluids."

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