SAVOY — Bolstered by a new financial partner, a Berkshires wind turbine project proposed nearly 15 years ago may at last swing into life.
If a new timeline holds, the Minuteman Wind LLC venture would place five 425-foot turbines on a remote hill in Savoy next year.
The 12.5-megawatt project, valued at about $31 million, won key approvals from town residents and boards in 2008 and 2010, but then underwent a long challenge on environmental grounds.
Late last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection cleared the project and the town's building commissioner issued a permit. Wasting no time, Minuteman and a new partner, the Palmer Capital Corp., worked with landowner Harold "Butch" Malloy to break ground for a turbine foundation.
And on June 30, Savoy residents voted at a special town meeting to allow the Select Board to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan with the developer.
Though the issue had once drawn over 200 residents to meetings, the recent town meeting was sparsely attended. The article giving the Select Board authority to handle the tax matter passed 13-5, according to Town Clerk Brenda Smith.
For Malloy, a 35-year resident of Savoy, the progress validates his 14-year effort to provide a site for a wind-power project that embraces green energy, returns tax benefits to the town and provides his family with lease income.
"One hundred years from now, if the planet lasts that long, people will wonder why we waited so long to stop using hydrocarbons," said Malloy, who is 66 and has worked a variety of energy jobs over the years, from oil fields out west to the Bear Swamp hydro facility on the Deerfield River to nuclear power plants in Rowe and Vernon, Vt.
"The best energy job I've had to date is to get this wind energy project up and running. It's for all the right reasons," he said.
Malloy acknowledged the project has been divisive in Savoy. But he believes he and the developers have addressed concerns and can minimize its impact.
"The opponents kept coming back with all different things," he said. "We finally ironed it all out. Minuteman did everything that was asked of us."
One resident of Black Brook Road, speaking from his porch, declined to talk about the project, saying only that he had opposed it initially but now felt it was inevitable. Another resident said he is against the project but fears reprisals for speaking out against it.
Because the turbines will be close to the Hawley line, residents of that town raised questions for years and helped compel a wetlands review by the DEP. Officials in Hawley raised questions about the visual impact and effect on property values.
Trina Sternstein of Hawley spoke against the project at meetings in Savoy, believing wind turbines of this size are inappropriate in the Berkshires.
"We are all concerned about the planet, but frankly the government is pouring [money] into something that doesn't work and is terribly invasive," she said.
She says the expected output of electricity from the Savoy facility isn't worth the environmental and landscape damage.
"I think they have overlooked some things in the town of Savoy," Sternstein said. "I keep hoping that someone will stop it. It will be highly destructive to us and I don't think it will be very beneficial for the people of Savoy, either."
The turbines will stand as high as those in the Hoosac Wind project in Florida and Monroe, which began operating in December 2012. But because of the terrain in east Savoy, the West Hill turbines may be visible by fewer people, based on studies conducted for the developers by Epsilon Associates Inc.
The turbines will nonetheless be seen from large sections of Savoy and Hawley as well as parts of Charlemont, Florida, Windsor and Plainfield.
"Once they get to a certain height, you're going to see them, no doubt about it," said John Tynan, chair of the Select Board.
Edwin Wick lives near the foot of Harwood Road, soon to be rebuilt to accommodate construction vehicles. He expects the sagging and weather-beaten power lines that pass his Brier Road house will be replaced so they can carry power from the turbines to the grid.
The prospect of the turbines arriving cheers him.
"I want to see them because it's clean and renewable energy. It means a lot of money for the town," said Wilk, who is 85 and a good friend of Malloy, the property owner. "I just hope I live long enough to see it."
For years, it was representatives of Minuteman Wind who pitched the Savoy project. The group of eight partners, including lawyers, engineers, planners and consultants, lost three of its principals over the years.
Larry Plitch, an attorney who remains involved, referred questions to Palmer Capital. "They're really the ones driving the train right now," he said.
But he praised town leaders for sticking with Minuteman's proposal and working to shape a wind energy bylaw that won passage on a cold night in January 2008, when more than 200 townspeople crowded into the fire station to debate the issue.
That night, the bylaw that would specify conditions of a development on West Hill won the two-thirds majority it needed — and then some. The vote was nearly three-quarters in favor.
But in nearly a decade since then, as it faced other delays, some Minuteman founders dropped out. "There's only so much pain people can take," Plitch said.
Lindsay Deane-Mayer, a Palmer Capital Corp. project manager and analyst, is now leading the Savoy project. She said the company, a veteran of three similar wind projects in New England, is conducting final studies and developing a construction plan.
"Sometimes it just takes a little assistance to get over the finish line," she said of Palmer's involvement.
The company plans to order five turbines by the end of the year and take delivery in July, August or September of next year, with a goal of producing power by year's end.
Each of the turbines would be capable of generating 2.5 megawatts of electricity. In all, the installation would produce enough power to supply 2,800 to 3,750 homes, according to standards cited by the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Each megawatt of electricity would also offset the generation of about 2,600 tons of carbon dioxide annually, based on estimates from the office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The West Hill site sees average wind speeds of 15.6 miles per hour, according to AWS Truewinds, based on four years of local data.
Deane-Mayer said the project offers both local and global benefits, through tax payments to Savoy and the supply of green energy. The electricity would be sold to the grid. She declined to say whether the project has contracts for power sales.
But Deane-Mayer acknowledged the challenge of hauling in parts for turbines that will stand more than 40 stories tall.
"We are happy to answer questions and meet with people," Deane-Mayer said. "Wherever you live, it's going to impact you at some point."
Tynan, the Select Board leader, said Savoy's wind-power bylaw spells out conditions that protect the town's infrastructure and environment. For example, if the turbines exceed a noise level, they must be shut down and the owner called in to make repairs.
The developer must also hire an engineer to analyze how construction will affect Savoy's roads. Once building gets underway, the town and developer say they will provide regular updates on traffic and construction delays.
The town has hired a New Hampshire consultant to help it negotiate tax payments from Minuteman Wind.
At a meeting in 2007, Tynan said the figure of $220,000 a year in tax payments was mentioned. But with the passage of time, and with Palmer Capital now leading the venture, talks will start anew.
Deane-Mayer said that with greater use of natural gas to produce electricity, energy prices have come down. She declined to say whether the $220,000 figure was still a reasonable estimate.
"We're looking for stable income through the period of the permit," Tynan said of the tax agreement. "With renewable energy this is your best avenue to get something more favorable to the town."
A PILOT agreement, as it's known, can also benefit a developer by lowering initial payments, which would normally be high before depreciation reduces the value of the investment.
In similar agreements in the region, six-figure yearly payments are common. The town of Florida expected to receive more than $250,000 when its PILOT was negotiated for the Hoosac Wind project, according [to] The Eagle's archive. In Hancock, a turbine installation on Brodie Mountain was to bring in $156,000 a year, though that deal later fell into dispute.
Tynan was on the board when the issue came to a special town meeting on Jan. 3, 2008. Though sharply debated, the bylaw won more than enough votes after being amended on the floor. Minuteman Wind had already participated in six community meetings on the project.
People at the time were speaking about the importance of reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Tynan said Minuteman has been a responsible applicant. "They've always been good to work with ... they've never been adversarial or pushy," he said.
Slow time coming
Malloy dates the idea of wind power on his land back to 2001, two years after he bought the 293 acres on the hilltop. He can see the ridgeline from cleared land behind his home on nearby Chapel Road.
He'd read in a newspaper article that a University of Massachusetts department wanted to find landowners interested in wind power. That group, the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory, put him in touch with Minuteman Wind LLC.
Together, they went to speak to zoning officials in Savoy, well before wind projects in Florida and Monroe got underway.
"There was some opposition, but it was out of town," Malloy said. "People from outside our borders."
Over the years, he said people occasionally asked him whether the project was dead. "We're still working on it," he said he'd told them."We did exactly what the DEP needed us to do and what the opposition brought forward."
Malloy, who grew up in Adams, declined to say how much he stands to receive from lease payments, though that income is a factor in his decision-making.
"The purpose of this was for me to pay the taxes and make a little lease money and ease the tax burden on residents," he said, referring to PILOT payments yet to be worked out. He said he knows of long-time Savoy residents who struggle financially.
"It would be a huge help," Malloy said of new tax revenue.
He also stresses the green-energy credentials of wind power.
"It's sad to me we've taken so long to clean up our environment," Malloy said.
And he insists the project isn't something that caught people unaware.
At the outset, he said he visited with members of the Harwood family, who live closest to the project site. He says he sat on a log with them and explained what he had in mind. "If they said they didn't want it, I would have stopped right there," he said.
Before the January 2008 special town meeting, he said he and his wife Diane joined with Wilk and a member of the Harwood family to phone nearly everyone in town to remind them about the session.
At the meeting, Malloy stood to tell people that if they didn't like the idea of the project to vote it down.
"This isn't my town," he said this week. "It's our town."