Film by Upstate New Yorker Documents Wind Power Impacts

Film by Upstate New Yorker Documents Wind Power Impacts
April 12, 2012

Meredith, New York seems like an idyllic place—patchwork farms roll tranquilly along the western foothills of the Catskill Mountains, interspersed with small ponds and temperate woodlands. Gentle breezes blow through the tall grasses, symbolizing the town’s serene lifestyle. 

That same breeze, however, has divided Meredith’s 1,529 residents over whether to embrace the industrial wind development that has come knocking on their door. Director Laura Israel, herself a resident of Meredith, documents this internal struggle in Windfall, her beautifully crafted debut work.

Israel speaks almost exclusively to the town’s residents, allowing them to tell the story of how the community slowly turned against industrial wind power.

Pitfalls of Wind Power

Meredith has seen better times. Sitting in Delaware County, one of the poorest in the state, the town has been hit hard as the dairy industry contracted from more than 100 farms in its heyday to no more than 20 at present. Town supervisor Frank Bachler thought struggling landowners would welcome wind power as a way to supplement their income and do their part to increase the nation’s energy independence.

Many residents initially welcomed the development, but they were shocked to learn wind power was not what they imagined. The film methodically demonstrates the many pitfalls of wind power: its intermittency, its cost, its inefficiency, the difficulties of connecting it to the grid, and the way it can destabilize the grid once it is connected. 

Even more interesting was the focus on wind power’s local impacts. What were viewed from afar as stoic symbols of the future were seen up close for what they are: 40-story-tall industrial energy facilities. Residents voiced concerns about shadow flicker (the strobe-like effect caused by the shadows of the moving blades) and ice throw (the scattering of chunks of ice that can be flung from the turbines under certain winter conditions). They worried local officials would not have the capacity to respond adequately to accidents. 

Aesthetics and noise pollution also play a major role. As one resident remarked, the problem was “not that [the turbine] was so loud, but that it was forever.” 

Modern-Day Carpetbaggers

Wind development in Meredith was driven by state and federal tax incentives in addition to New York’s renewable energy mandate that requires utilities to generate 30 percent of their power from qualified renewable sources by 2015. These financial handouts and demand requirements have enabled wind developers to invest less money in the projects than is forcibly invested by taxpayers and ratepayers.

Far from being small operations, the wind farms involve multinational corporations backed by funds from major financial institutions seeking to exploit the resources with little regard for the people. In the director’s notes, Israel recounts she did not purposefully seek to keep the developers out of her film, but they were never present in the town meetings to begin with, and thus their scarce presence on camera was necessary to portray the people’s experiences accurately.

Outside of the salesmen who came to Meredith to sign contracts under conditions of strict confidentiality, the wind company did not conduct much outreach to the people most directly affected. It was this sense that led many in the town to believe that when the turbines were constructed, the corporation would be even less responsive. 

Wind Power Propaganda

Town Supervisor Bachler did not foresee the coming turmoil that would divide the community, pitting friends and neighbors against one another as factions developed and fought for what they believed to be right. Although money definitely had a role to play, the supporters are shown as truly believing their actions would “help the world.” 

The wind industry, enabled by the mainstream media and political allies, have brainwashed the public into thinking their product is beyond criticism. As one Meredith resident put it, “Saying anything against wind is a crime.”

In reality, towns like Meredith are coming to the realization that the costs of such developments are much higher than the tiny reductions in greenhouse gases or advances in energy security they are supposed to provide.

For more information on the film, visit www.windfallthemovie.com.

John Monaghan (jmonaghan@heartland.org) is the legislative specialist for energy and environment issues at The Heartland Institute.