College wind farm efforts recede as governmental, legal hurdles arise

The following is the final part of a three-part series on the never-consummated plan for the College to build a wind farm in Berlin, N.Y.

In 2007, the College made its first formal environmental commitment: to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Following this announcement, a donation by Selim Zilkha ’46 provided funding for the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. It was a “one-woman thing” at the time, remembered Stephanie Boyd. With a background in civil engineering and close ties to the facilities department, Boyd was that one woman, serving as director of the nascent Zilkha Center.

Enter JJ Augenbraun ’08, an enthusiastic physics major and environmental studies concentrator. During his first year at the College, Augenbraun became involved with the Zilkha Center as his campus job – he credits this experience with his current career at EnergySavvy, a renewable energy software company. In the summer of 2008, Augenbraun, an intern at the Zilkha Center, wrote yet another feasibility report for the Berlin Pass wind farm.

Augenbraun’s report used data from the Hopkins Memorial Forest (HMF) anemometer and, in fact, considered HMF as an alternate site for a wind farm before finding it less convenient in terms of access, grid connection and land-use regulation than the Berlin Pass site. According to Augenbraun, the College’s total electricity usage had grown to roughly 22 gigawatt-hours (GWh) by 2008, and three 1.8 megawatt (MW) turbines would be needed to meet this demand. Augenbraun estimated that the total cost of the project would be about $17 million – the highest estimate yet – with a payback period in the range of five to 10 years.

After Augenbraun finished his report, Boyd petitioned senior staff for a budget increase to pursue a professional feasibility study. They approved the request, and the Zilkha Center hired the environmental consulting firm Sustainable Energy Designs (SED), which has since rebranded as SunCommon, to further investigate the prospect of a wind farm. 

Why had the sixth student report on a Berlin Pass wind farm finally captured the attention of College administrators? In Augenbraun’s words, it was the “perfect storm of factors.”

Renewables had come back into the national conversation due to broadening awareness of climate change. The College had made sustainability an institutional commitment. Wind technology had become more efficient. A successful wind farm had been built in 2007 on Jiminy Peak in Hancock, Mass., bolstering a small-town coffer, and other local wind projects followed in 2011 on Bakke Mountain in Florida, N.Y., and Crum Hill Mountain in Monroe, N.Y.

With the SED study in progress, Boyd and Jim Kolesar ’72, assistant to the president for community and government affairs, began to gauge the town of Berlin’s attitude toward a potential project. Kolesar said that in conversations with “folks that were well ingrained in the community,” he sensed a shift since the 2004 zoning board meeting. People were “interested,” he said, even “very positive.” Kolesar, who was “totally befuddled” by this change, guessed that Berliners had noticed the success of projects in neighboring towns and the “financial boon” wind projects had become.

SED was “quite impressed with JJ’s work,” Boyd said. SED once again found the Berlin Pass site to be well endowed with a “strong wind resource.” The study predicted that that this resource could “translate into favorable financial returns.” 

The SED report proposed several possible wind farms, of either two or six turbines, with energy generation capacities that ranged from displacing only part of the College’s usage to making the College a net energy producer. It outlined several possible ownership models – bond, where the College owns the entire venture; joint ownership where the College would own 45 percent; and contract for differences, where the College owned none of the project, each with a different level of risk. Depending on the model chosen, SED calculated that the College could build a wind farm on Berlin Pass for as little as $8 million or as much as $27 million, all with a projected payback period of roughly seven years. Projected revenue, depending on the model chosen, could have been between $4.5 million and $13.5 million.

Less fortunately, SED predicted that “a significant expenditure of time, money and human energy” would be needed to obtain all necessary permits and recommended a “proactive” public outreach campaign. Even while SED compiled its report, the town of Berlin drafted a bylaw, adopted in 2012, to regulate wind energy conversion systems that stressed the need for proper siting of such projects, as ill-planned ones may, it claimed, harm property values, local infrastructure, birds and bats and the “health, safety, and welfare” of the general public.

Independent System Operators (ISOs), which run the electrical grids in delineated areas, proved to be another problem. New York state has an ISO that is separate from New England. SED found that the closest place of interconnection would be in Massachusetts, while the turbines would be in New York. “When our developer went to talk to the [New York] ISO about how to build a project in NY that Williams could use the power from, there wasn’t even a regulatory precedent to see how that could happen,” Amy Johns ’98, current director of the Zilkha Center, said.

Another challenge that SED predicted was physical access to the site. Because the most obvious route – from the Massachusetts side of the property straight to the suggested turbine sites – would be too steep to transport the turbines up, a north-south road along the crest was identified as the best option. However, this optimal route crossed public lands held by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). To build a permanent access road on this land would have required a land exchange with the NYSDEC. As of 2010, SED said that preliminary conversations with NYSDEC employees revealed it would be difficult but possible.

Despite ISO and regulatory hurdles to site access, SED wrote, “It is important to note that no fatal flaws have been identified thus far.”

In September 2011, however, Scott Abbett, now director of solar development at SunCommon, and Kevin Schulte, now CEO of SunCommon, represented SED and the College at a meeting with Robert Davies, director of NYSDEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, Christopher Amato, then NYSDEC assistant commissioner for natural resources, and Robert Messen. During this meeting, SED learned that the prospect of a land exchange between Williams and the NYSDEC would be more complicated than originally thought.

According to the NYSDEC, a land exchange “must be approved by the people in a constitutional amendment.” For such an amendment to pass the state legislature, Abbett learned that the College would need the NYSDEC to support its proposal. However, the NYSDEC preferred land exchanges resulting in a property of equal or greater appraised value coming under easement. According to Abbett, the NYSDEC staff members also worried that this wind project could set a dangerous precedent for other tracts of conserved ridgetop land.

Abbett learned that, because the Taconic Crest Trail runs through the land in question, the College would also need support from the Taconic Hiking Club (THC), a roughly 200-member group. To gauge whether support from THC would be possible, Abbett spoke with Colin Campbell, THC trails chairman, and R.J. Hydorn, then-president of the THC. According to Abbett, Hydorn questioned the necessity of the wind project and objected to moving the trail on aesthetic and logistical grounds. However, according to Abbett, Hydorn raised the idea that if the College could trade the THC help with trail maintenance, for example, perhaps something could be worked out. Hydorn also advocated for a College wind project on Mt. Raimer, according to Abbett.

Abbett also learned in the 2010 meeting with Davies, Amato and Messen that the College would need the support of the town of Berlin and a New York state assemblyman or senator willing to sponsor a land-exchange amendment. According to Johns, beyond Kolesar’s hopeful conversations in Berlin, neither she nor SED formally approached the town of Berlin about the prospect of a land exchange. Similarly, they did not contact any state assemblymen or senators, she said.

According to Abbett, in early 2013, Tim Roughan, Director of Product Management at the National Grid, spoke with people from the New York State Electrical Grid (NYSEG) about the potential Berlin Pass project. Although the 2010 SED study found that interconnection of the project to the grid would be physically easiest just across the border in MA, the NYSEG drew a “hard line” when speaking with Roughan, said Abbett, mandating that the project be interconnected in NY. According to Abbett, this may have increased costs for interconnection and lowered the value of Renewable Energy Certificates that the project would produce. According to Abbett,  however, Roughan mentioned the possibility that finding a champion for the project might sway the NYSEG.

Johns remembers hearing that the NYSDEC “didn’t say no out and out,” but “didn’t exactly make a path forward clear.” Johns admits that the discussion Abbett had with NYSDEC staff members was “a while ago,” and that the NYSDEC “could have changed their tune.” The meeting was not a formal statement from the NYSDEC and was not documented beyond some notes that Abbett took.

According to Johns, the College dropped the Berlin Pass wind farm idea in 2013. At the time, she said, they sought no alternate renewables projects.

In 2015, the Board of Trustees and President Adam Falk issued a commitment to “reduce [the College’s] net greenhouse gas emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” Like the College’s sustainability commitment in 2007, the 2015 statement was the result of student and faculty pressure. The 2015 statement claims that the College will “whenever possible … purchase electricity from renewable sources” and “invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions in our local region,” offsetting if not literally reducing the college’s emissions. Through “significant investments on our campus and beyond,” the College declared itself willing to spend “approximately $50 million over the next 5 years.”

When asked if administrators had considered a Berlin Pass wind farm when settling on the 2015 emissions reduction commitments, Falk implied that they had not, citing “insurmountable challenges both technical and regulatory.” Kolesar also said that a wind farm on Berlin Pass “in the end would be majorly complicated,” but conceded that “all these projects are.”

According to Johns, the College is now looking for a wind project in the New England ISO that already has its “ducks in a row in terms of access [and] permitting,” to which the College can sign on as an off-taker of the energy produced. Although the College would not be initiating a new source of renewable energy in this case, it would “provide extremely necessary funding” for such a project to proceed. “There’s an argument,” Johns said, that “the world’s renewable projects should be in places where the amount of money gets the most energy. And that’s not necessarily in the Berkshires.”

However, proponents of a wind farm on Berlin Pass argue that the locality of the project is crucial. Reed Zars ’77 said that a college-owned wind farm just a few miles from campus would be a selling point for the school with a “strong educational component.”

Many would like to “watch where [their] energy is being produced,” Professor of Biology Hank Art said, rather than outsource destruction to the coalfields of the West or mountaintops of Appalachia.

“I would hate to see the opportunity foregone forever,” Art said. He argued that, as wind energy continues to become cheaper and more efficient, the Berlin Pass wind farm idea should be periodically revisited and assessed.

The College is not currently investigating regulatory avenues for the Berlin Pass wind project to proceed. With current students unaware and longtime faculty proponents of the idea on the cusp of retirement, it seems that the forty-year dream of a local, College-owned wind farm may at last have died.

For his part, Zars – the kid that started it all – thinks this is a mistake. “You can buy CO2 credits with airplane tickets and feel pretty righteous,” he said, but “it’s a different thing entirely… for Williams to roll up its sleeves, get its hands dirty and try to deal with its energy use locally as much as possible.”