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When A ‘Windfall’ Isn’t Quite What It Seems

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 2, 2012

Not even the most ecologically minded are always keen on the prospect of giant wind turbines near their homes. But Meredith, N.Y., welcomed “Big Wind” when it first came whistling through town. That’s what makes Windfall so interesting: The documentary is the story of an education.

In some ways, Meredith seems a natural place for a wind farm. Situated in one of New York’s poorest counties, it’s in an agricultural area whose principal enterprise, dairy farming, has dramatically declined. But the area is mostly home to small landowners, with few large tracts that could be developed without affecting nearby neighbors. And some of those neighbors are refugees from New York City, where they learned to be skeptical and outspoken.

Director Laura Israel is among the Meredith residents who split their time between the town and the big city 160 miles to the southeast, which explains why she was able to follow the controversy over a year or more, as pro-windmill sentiments gradually shifted to anti-.

This is no first-person piece, though; Israel stays off camera, allowing her neighbors to speak. She doesn’t present the views of the wind-power developer, Airtricity (originally Eiretricity, before the Irish firm was sold to Scottish and German interests), but that may be because the company is a low-profile one that didn’t address the community collectively, and insisted on confidentiality agreements before it would even enter into negotiations with property owners.

As is often the case, the outside developer’s biggest asset was the local elite, which was certain it knew best. Farmer and town council leader Frank Bachler joined the town’s attorney in overruling a skeptical planning commission report about the effects of erecting the turbines.

Bachler and other supporters labeled the anti-windmill forces “a vocal minority.” But with an election looming, the pro-wind forces had to double-check their math. Even Bachler, one of the principal on-screen proponents of the turbines, would give the whole idea a second thought.

In Meredith, the case against wind turbines turned on their size — about 400 feet high and 600,000 pounds each — not to mention their grinding noise, their bone-shaking vibrations and the flickering shadows they cast, which disrupt light and sleep (and video games). One of the opponents, Ken Jaffe, is a retired doctor who looked into the high-tech windmills’ medical side effects.

Also, the turbines sometimes fall over, catch on fire or hurl dangerous ice projectiles. They kill birds and bats in large numbers. And there’s more.

To optimize the investment, wind-power developers tend to build a lot more turbines than they initially propose. In Tug Hill, farther north in upstate New York, a proposed 50 high-tech windmills became 195. As skeptics began to investigate, they learned that wind power is too unreliable to replace dirtier forms of generation, and that the wind business is based less on electricity than on tax credits: Big investment companies keep flipping the companies so as to restart the depreciation process.

A veteran film editor making her first feature, Israel emphasizes the area’s low-key beauty. She conducted most of the interviews outside to show the landscapes. When the movie finally gets to Tug Hill, the contrast is all the more striking. Meredith, N.Y., may not be paradise, but it’s clear why residents didn’t want to sacrifice its rustic appeal to the steady whomp of industrial windmills. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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