College considers windmill farm for power needs

An abandoned ski site seems an unlikely location for a wind turbine project with the potential to end the College’s reliance on fossil fuels and supply 140 percent of its energy needs. But today, a group of students and alumni are collaborating to turn the idea into reality.

Located on College-owned property along the ridgeline of the Berlin Pass, the prospective site, which is part of an old ski area abandoned in the late 1970s, is split between New York and Massachusetts. According to Chris Warshaw ’02, who has been highly involved with the windmill project over the last year, the land stood largely neglected until 1979, when a student named Reed Zaars proposed the idea of establishing a wind farm there. Inspired by Zaars’ innovation, several students continued to develop his idea after his graduation.

At that time, student Thomas Black set up an anemometer on the Berlin Pass to monitor wind speeds and collect data for his thesis, gathering some of the most critical information for Warshaw and others involved with today’s project.

“Black’s analysis forms the foundation for most of our current work,” Warshaw said.

Besides Warshaw, Nick Hiza ’02, Fred Hines ’02 and Stefan Kaczmarek ’02 are also currently working on developing Zaars’ idea. The group initially became interested in the wind farm proposal last February, when an alternative energies class called the site to Hiza’s and Hines’ attention. That spring, they began their preliminary analysis.

Hiza, who was awarded a Center for Environmental Studies (CES) grant, remained at the College over the summer to continue his research. He produced economic analysis and constructed models of the site. At the end of summer, Hiza’s grant was renewed and he was given permission to work on the project until December.

The current work involves not only alumni but also current students. Malin Pinsky ’03, chair of the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee, picked up the initiative from Hiza in the spring. He is currently supporting Hiza’s research and is pushing for the College to take a more in-depth look at the feasibility of wind power. He is also interested in getting more of the College and the community involved.

“The wind turbines would provide a functioning laboratory where students and community members could learn about generating energy from wind,” Pinsky said. “Both the Renewable Energy Labs and the Boston Museum of Science have expressed interest in this aspect to the project.”

Warshaw believes strongly in the environmental benefits that such a venture would hold, but he noted that “no energy source is a panacea [as] all energy has costs.”

Both Warshaw and Pinsky stress the importance of reducing CO2 emissions, an effort in which Pinsky notes both the College and local community need to be involved.

“On the local level, the town of Williamstown has signed onto a program called Cities for Climate Protection and is working to reduce town-wide greenhouse gas emissions. The College produces about 25 percent of these,” he said.

Warhaw pointed to the positive impact the windmill project would have on the local economy. “In addition to its environmental and health benefits, the site would add to the local tax base and create jobs for people in our community,” Warshaw said.

Pinsky feels the College’s investment in wind power would create “a strong ripple effect” in the higher education community. “Williams College would set a strong example and provide leadership that is needed on these issues,” he said.

There are some possible drawbacks to the proposal, though. Helen Ouellette, Vice President for Administration and College Treasurer, said the windmill project could meet with disapproval from the area’s residents.

“People who live in the vicinity and are used to seeing a pristine mountain ridge may significantly prefer that view to a row of windmills,” she said. “People who live close enough to be impacted by the sound of the windmills, or by the construction of the site, may [object to] the project.”

Ouelette plays an important role in the future of the project, as she will be deciding whether or not to actually use the location and how much money the College contributes to the set-up costs.

She said people may likely object to the windmills’ intrusive presence in the beautiful Berkshire environment. “Generating ‘green’ power is a fine thing, [but] in this case, that good idea may come into conflict with some other ‘goods,’ including the presence of hiking trails in the area, especially the Taconic Ridge Trail. Outdoor enthusiasts may find the presence of man-made structures a significant intrusion into a ‘wilderness’ experience.”

Costs of the project will likely run in the $10 million range, but according to Pinsky, the development would be done by an independent company, not by the College. While the College declined to apply for an initial grant, collaborators on the project are seeking support and developing more comprehensive research before seeking important funds. Right now, the researchers would like an additional $25,000 to install anemometers to continue measuring wind speed.

Although it is still too early to determine the outcome of the situation, supporters are optimistic. “The community needs to be informed of the facts involved, and educated about the impacts that such a project would have,” Pinsky said. “Politics are obviously involved in a large project like this, and it needs to proceed with careful consideration of all communities involved.”

For more information on the project Hiza said a website has been established: www.berlinwind.org has answers to questions concerning the project, such as size, cost and power generated.