College wind farm efforts proved ill-fated

The following is the first part of a three part series on the failed plan for the College to build a windfarm in Berlin, N.Y.

Reed Zars ’77 put his life on the line for science. At 21, he climbed 150 feet up a radio tower—without a harness—to install an anemometer.

“It’s just ice on each rung going higher, higher,” Zars said of his winter 1977 ascent above Mt. Raimer. “As it gets a little more questionable with each step, the wind picks up and of course tries to dispose of you … Your fingers are freezing … you’re being buffeted, and you have to let go to bolt this thing on.”

The thing in question —an anemometer — is an instrument that measures wind speeds. Zars, then a senior at the College, needed wind speed data for his one-man crusade to reduce his school’s impact on the environment.

Over the past forty years, Zars’ idea for a college-owned wind farm on Berlin Pass has been the subject of two student theses, four student feasibility reports, two summer research fellowships, numerous news articles, a public opinion survey, a Berlin zoning board of appeals meeting, a professional feasibility study and a petition. Despite the College’s recent commitment to net carbon neutrality by the end of 2020, however, the Berlin Pass wind farm is no longer under consideration.

Zars is now a prominent environmental lawyer in Laramie, Wyo. His recent work taking on big utilities has earned him the nickname “the environmental lone ranger,” which, it seems, he has always been. In 1977, inspired by President Jimmy Carter’s charge to conserve energy and develop renewable resources, Zars proposed the College’s first campus conservation measures and ways to provide the school with clean electricity.

Zars’ greatest conservation victory was his discovery that an oil tank in the College’s central heating plant was losing three percent of its energy to ambient heat loss. Thanks to Zars, Buildings and Grounds could insulate the tank, reaping such significant savings that Zars’ faculty advisor petitioned — unsuccessfully — that the Board of Trustees waive Zars’ student debt.

Zars’ creative ideas in the realm of renewable energy would ultimately have more of an impact. His 1977 report titled “Proposed Wind Energy System for Williams College,” complete with jokes, musings and hand-drawn graphs, suggests that three 200kW wind turbines (today’s smallest commercial turbines generate around 500 kW) be built on college-owned land atop Berlin Pass in Berlin, N.Y.

In conceiving the Berlin Pass wind farm, Zars drew on his experience growing up in the Midwest, where old homestead windmills were a common sight. He and his brother had experimented with wind energy, once to the devastation of their mother’s bedroom, where a turbine landed after crashing through the roof. When Zars came to the College, he experimented more with windmills, attaching one to the roof of Baxter Hall —which was then the student center, located where Paresky Center now stands — and running a wire down to the Williams Outing Club headquarters, where it powered a radio and a light bulb.

“Every student saw [the windmill and] would comment on it … It was very fun to have that up and increase people’s awareness that in fact, right in Williamstown, we could generate some of our own power,” Zars said.

With his anemometer on nearby Mt. Raimer, Zars approximated wind speeds on the College’s land, confirming his suspicion about a wind funnel effect on Berlin Pass. According to Zars’ calculations, this meant that the three turbines could produce between 20-50 percent of the college’s electricity needs. He estimated that the project would cost roughly $524,400 up-front plus about $5000 per year for maintenance in 1977 prices. To put this in perspective, Zars calculated the investment in a Berlin Pass wind farm would recoup “twice the income of a 30-year annuity investment.”

Although the plan sounds easy and logical enough in Zars’ report (as he puts it, “2+2=4”), the idea was ambitious for the time. Although wind was gaining traction both technologically and societally, Zars was not aware of any other school in the U.S. pursuing renewable energy. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the first utility-scale wind operations were not built until 1980.

Zars also looked to Europe for inspiration. He found a school in Denmark — Tvind Skole in Ulfborg — where students were designing and building a record-breaking 2MW turbine. After graduation, Zars, who scorned fellowships, set out to visit this school with “just…peanut butter and [a] bicycle.”

It was this gritty, do-it-yourself spirit that helped Zars see his proposal through. When his anemometer repeatedly froze over, Zars solved the problem by refitting a campus light fixture with an infrared bulb (the plan went slightly awry one night when the head of Facilities caught Zars trying to remove the can light from the ceiling of Bronfman with a screwdriver). This “[do] it … and ask for permission later” attitude was common for students back then, Amy Johns ’98, director of the Zilkha Center, said.

This sign of the times was also evident in the content of Zars’ report. Although it details everything from the way the wind-generated electricity would be stepped-down and synchronized to the way inflation and national policy would affect the project’s payback period, the report says next to nothing about zoning, permitting or other regulations.

Still, the report made a strong case for a wind farm on the college’s Berlin Pass land, at least to Jay Shelton, Zars’ advisor on the project. Shelton pitched Zars’ idea to the Board of Trustees, and when that failed, to actor Robert Redford, who was the 1977 commencement speaker.  Zars says that the project “didn’t want for enthusiasm and support, at least at the grass roots level, in some corners.” But beyond those corners, he said, “It didn’t catch fire the way it had in our own minds.”