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Turbine marketer promotes clean energy

Bob Smith

Bob Smith is a freelance writer and communications consultant in East Greenbush, N.Y.

Smog. Acid rain. Global warming. Gone with the wind? Would that those killing conditions could float away on a vagrant zephyr. But governments, the green-power market, and socially responsible businesses are linking up to harvest the wind, turn it into cleaner energy, and preserve hope.

And among the most hopeful is alternative-energy promoter Robert Downey ’86.

Downey, who lives and works in Burlington, Vt., is a market development associate for Wind Harvest Co., a California-based firm that makes the patented Windstar turbine for the production of electricity. At present, generating electricity with fossil fuel is the largest source of industrial air pollution, including the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide and the acid-rain ingredient sulfur dioxide. Wind-generated power, on the other hand, is clean and renewable. Since Downey became associated with Wind Harvest in 1997, he’s spent a good deal of his time preaching the clean and green merits of wind energy to firms like Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, a national leader in social responsibility as well as ice cream.

And Downey plans to practice what he preaches: in the next year he hopes to open a Burlington brewery/ restaurant whose operations will be indirectly wind-powered. Don’t, he advises, envision windmills in the Lake Champlain landscape–Vermont has very little wind-energy potential, as measured by the constancy of the prevailing winds. The breezes Downey has his eye on blow at 16 to 21 mph year round at the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, Calif., where the desert floor and hillsides are dotted with thousands of turbines. "We intend to put up enough Windstar turbines in Palm Springs to generate the equivalent of our power needs for the brewery," says Downey. "We obviously can’t pump wind power from California to our Vermont facility," he notes, but he explains how the process works: the brewery owns the turbines and sells the power they generate to an energy firm, which pumps the power into a central power grid in Southern California that also uses other sources, including fossil fuels. "By adding our wind energy, we take enough dirty oil and coal power off the grid to equal the brewery’s usage, and we use the income (from the sale of the power) for our own power costs in Burlington." Indirect, yes, but Downey asserts, "We’ll be doing our part to curb climate change and pollution."

The same processes and outcomes might apply to other green-minded businesses, says Downey, who hopes that a Wind Harvest proposal will be taken to Ben and Jerry’s board of directors soon. Downey says he can imagine the firm "parlaying its involvement in wind energy into public relations and product development"–for example, "we’ve even talked about an idea to create a wind-chilled ice cream."

Environmentally conscious Vermont seems a logical place to promote wind energy, but the industry is "booming" all over the U.S. and the world, according to Downey. When California deregulated the electric utility industry in 1998, it opened markets to renewable-energy companies that need wind turbines, he says. Pennsylvania deregulated soon after California; New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Texas "are on the brink" of doing the same. And in July, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that he wanted wind energy to satisfy 5 percent of the nation’s prodigious electric-power appetite (some 3.2 trillion kilowatt-hours annually) within two decades.

Downey says this has all created "enormous" opportunities for Wind Harvest, which hopes to capitalize on both the boom and the unique design of the Windstar, a vertical-axis, straight-bladed turbine that stands 80 feet high, compared to others that are 200 feet. "It’s a modern sculpture that captures winds differently than other wind turbines," he says. A showcase Windstar installation in Palm Springs is "performing outstandingly, exceeding everyone’s expectations," Downey reports. There’s also an installation in Wales, a proposal pending with a school in California, and ongoing negotiations in southern Africa, Puerto Rico, and Chile.

Downey’s work unites his interests in the environment, business, and law. A history major at Skidmore, he feels he achieved "absolutely" the right preparation for a start in business, in materials handling in New Jersey. At Vermont Law School he added a master’s degree in environmental policy to his J.D. in 1993. And in 1994 when family friend and former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Doug Costle asked Downey to join his campaign for the Vermont senate, Downey found he enjoyed working with businesses that "were giving back to communities from which they profit–doing right for the environment." That led to work with such companies as a land-use planner battling Wal-Mart and a banking firm financing energy and water conservation–and then to his position with Wind Harvest.

Downey clearly enjoys a "connection to the earth" and now he’s connected to a career that just might help save Planet Earth.


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