Ephs promote Berlin wind farm’s promise

The following is the second part of a three-part series on the plan for the College to build a wind farm in Berlin, N.Y.

Before Reed Zars ’77 left, he handed the project to Thomas Black ’81, a physics and philosophy double major with a concentration in environmental studies. Black, who co-founded the Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years (WOOLF) program for freshmen, wrote a physics thesis on the “Technical and Economic Feasibility” of a wind farm at Berlin Pass.

Black produced “wind measurements at the Pass that … served … as the basis of [later] estimates of how much electricity the site might produce,” said a student who later took up the charge. Black’s thesis found that the site was “a good candidate for wind energy” and estimated a twenty-year payback on the project. Black went on to earn a masters degree in environmental systems analysis from Harvard and a doctorate in groundwater hydrology from Stanford, but passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications.

After Black graduated, the Berlin Pass wind idea entered what Zars called a “period of quiescence.” Nationwide, interest in renewable energy dropped alongside electricity prices during the late  ’80s and ’90s. Without the financial incentive to conserve, Americans quickly increased their use of non-renewable energy after its dip in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, development of wind energy continued in California and Europe. With the introduction of a production tax credit through the Energy Policy Act in 1992 and the establishment of the National Wind Technology Center in 1993, renewable energy in America began to transform into the regulated, subsidized, multi-billion dollar industry that it is today.   

Two decades after Black’s report, the Berlin Pass wind idea resurfaced. Though the student body had turned over five times since Black’s thesis, faculty proponents of the proposal remained. One of these advocates was David Dethier, professor of geoscience, who taught a class in the early 2000s called Renewable Energy and the Sustainable Campus. It was through this class that Nick Hiza ’02 learned of the Berlin wind proposal.

“Hiza was one of these guys who appeared in class as an auditor, and I could see the clear light of insanity[in him],” Dethier said. Also present, he admitted, was “focus, intensity and brilliance.”

And so, in the spring of 2003, Hiza, along with Chris Warshaw ’02 and Fred Hines ’02, completed the third report on the feasibility of the Berlin Wind farm. Thanks to significant improvements in wind energy technology, Hiza et al. envisioned seven 1.5 MW turbines which would produce “140% of the College’s annual electrical power requirements,” to the tune of $10.3 million dollars and a payback period of six to eight years.

“More importantly,” Hiza noted, “power from the facility would displace electricity from fossil fuel burning plants, preventing the emission of hundreds of tons of sulfur and nitrous oxides, as well as tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, each year.”

By the end of Hiza’s time at Williams, student interest in the Berlin Pass wind idea caused the College to recognize it as a more formal project. Dethier became the principal investigator, and Hiza, who had just graduated, was paid to work for the project as a part-time research assistant. During the summer of 2003, Sam Arons ’04 joined the project as an intern.

Because Arons was “a physics major who could actually walk and talk at the same time,” recalled Dethier, he was able to gather people around him to work on the project.

That summer, Arons decided he wanted to pursue a thesis on the Berlin wind topic, and he hoped to erect an anemometer on Berlin Pass to measure wind speeds more precisely than previous student work, which used data from nearby Mt. Rainer extrapolated against meteorological data from Albany, had been able to. Hiza, Dethier and Jamie Art, acting as attorney for the College (now Director of Real Estate and Legal Affairs), appeared before the Berlin Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in the spring of 2004 to ask for a height variance and special use permit to construct a temporary 164-foot anemometer tower on Berlin Pass.

“The zoning board just tarred and feathered us and ran us out,” Dethier said.

Actually, the Berlin ZBA insisted that, in order for the anemometer to be approved, the College needed to present a complete environmental impact statement for the entire wind farm.  The ZBA was “probably…not at all within their rights for what they asked for,” Dethier said.

Perhaps, in the previous year, word had gotten out to the town of Berlin about the wind farm idea through a group of students in an environmental planning course at the College. This group, which consisted of Collins Canada ’03, Lindi von Mutius ’03, Sarah Wu ’03 and Vivian Schoung ’05, began to assess, yet again, the feasibility of a wind power project on Berlin Pass. This time, they focused on the legal and public opinion aspects of the project. Students set out on foot to interview residents they met on the street.

Amy Johns ’98, director of the Zilkha Center, claimed that rumors could kill a project before it begins. She reflected that in order to prevent a town from feeling that the College is going behind its back or shirking due process, the College must proceed “very carefully and deliberately,” which means not “talk[ing] about it until it’s time to talk about it.”

However, the students found that public attitudes were favorable. A strong majority of those surveyed said they would support a wind project either in their community, on Berlin Pass or in another community. To gauge the public’s aesthetic sensibility toward windmills, the group showed photoshopped images of local views with and without windmills and asked respondents to rate the attractiveness of the images. Though turbines negatively impacted ratings, the majority of respondents still rated images with turbines as “attractive” or “very attractive.”

Moreover, the environmental planning group found that a wind project on the Pass would increase the Berlin tax base –ikely through a payment in lieu of taxes – by roughly $130,000 per year. This 2008 estimate is nearly a tenth of the town’s total budget in 2016 ($1,345,973).

During the 2004 ZBA meeting, Hiza told the Board that, though the project would be exempt from taxation, payments in lieu of taxes “could be negotiated ” and would be roughly $55,000. These numbers are important to public opinion; as Nick Adams, current chair of the Berlin ZBA, said, the town is always “going to go ‘what’s in it for us?’”

Because the sole purpose of the anemometer tower was to gauge feasibility of a wind farm, it made little sense for the College to conduct an environmental impact analysis — a significant undertaking in itself — for an entire project that may or may not be financially or logistically feasible. Therefore, the anemometer was erected on the Taconic ridge crest in nearby Hopkins Memorial Forest (HMF) instead.

Arons forged ahead with his thesis — “Energy Yield and Visual Impact Studies of the Berlin Wind Project” — using the wind speed data from Hopkins Forest. Arons calculated that a seven-turbine wind farm at Berlin Pass would produce roughly 35.0 million kilowatt hours annually — 140-180% of the college’s electricity use in 2002-2003. Arons found that, although the turbines would technically be visible from heavily populated areas, they would appear so small “they might go unnoticed by all but the most careful observers.” Using ESRI ArcScene and Adobe Photoshop, Arons created static visualizations and animated GIFs of the proposed turbines from different viewpoints.

These visualizations, which were posted to a webpage, were all too convincing. “Some outraged citizens of Berlin called the college saying, ‘How could you build this without asking us?’” Dethier recalled. “It was amazing.”