We can all agree that energy independence is a worthy objective, right? Alternative energy sources like solar power can help free the United States from fossil fuels and the grip of unstable Persian Gulf states. And wind power – wait, not so fast, says “Windfall,” Laura Israel’s urgent, informative and artfully assembled documentary. An account of rural Meredith, in upstate New York, when wind turbines came to town, the film depicts the perils of a booming industry and the bitter rancor it sowed among a citizenry.
In 2004 residents of this once-flourishing dairy center were approached by companies offering to pay a nominal fee to erect turbines on their property while insisting on confidentiality agreements (to keep competitors ignorant of costs). Economically beset, some people, like Ron and Sue Bailey, jumped at first. But others, like Keitha Capouya, now the town supervisor, dug into the research and sounded an alarm.
Turbines are huge: some are 40 stories tall, with 130-foot blades weighing seven tons and spinning at 150 miles an hour. They can fall over or send parts flying; struck by lightning, say, they can catch fire. Their 24/7 rotation emits nerve-racking low frequencies (like a pulsing disco) amplified by rain and moisture, and can generate a disorienting strobe effect in sunlight. Giant flickering shadows can tarnish a sunset’s glow on a landscape.
People in Lowville, N.Y., farther north, express despair on camera at having caved to the wind companies’ entreaties; Bovina, N.Y., banned turbines entirely. Meredith is riven by the issue, which pits the Planning Board against the Town Board and neighbor against neighbor. Former city dwellers escaping urban anxieties are surprised to see themselves as activists. Concerns like setback (the distance of turbines from a property line) are debated.
Government officials are seen only in glimpses of television talk shows. Conspicuously absent are representatives of corporations like Airtricity, Enxco or Horizon Wind Energy (though the financier and wind advocate T. Boone Pickens comes off as a wolf in good-old-boy clothing). And despite Ms. Israel’s inspired use of a local demolition derby as a metaphor for Meredith’s struggles, her accelerated pacing almost overheats.
But the film’s implications are clear: The quest for energy independence comes with caveats. Developers’ motives must be weighed, as should the risks Americans are willing to take in their own backyard. Despite BP’s three-month blanketing of Gulf of Mexico beaches in crude oil; the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan; and the possible impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the water table, energy companies remain eager to plunder nature’s bounty in pursuit of profit.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Laura Israel; narrated by Chuck Coggins; director of photography, Brian Jackson; edited by Ms. Israel, Stacey Foster and Alex Bingham; music by Hazmat Modine and Barbès Records; produced by Ms. Israel and Autumn Tarleton; released by First Run Features. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. This film is not rated.
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