Documentary makers are always hoping that their film will come out at just the right moment, when a favorable news cycle and popular sentiment are converging so that the public is primed for their message.
In 1989, Michael Moore made his career with “Roger & Me,” a documentary that pinned the decline of his hometown – Flint, Mich. – on General Motors. By focusing his fire on GM’s chairman, Roger Smith, Moore tapped into the public’s anger at tone-deaf corporate bosses as well as the growing disenchantment with the American car industry.
Laura Israel’s new film, “Windfall,” has the same sort of fortuitous timing. Her documentary – which focuses on the fight over the siting of wind turbines in the small upstate town of Meredith – premieres at the same time that “green energy” stimulus failures fill the news, and the wind-energy industry faces an unprecedented backlash from angry rural residents.
Consider this Nov. 1 story from The Village Market, a news outlet in Staffordshire, England, about 150 miles northwest of London. The paper’s reporter, covering the staunch local opposition to a proposed wind-energy project near the tiny village of Haunton, wrote, “Huge numbers of people in rural areas are rising up against the technology, despite government assuming they would support it.”
Throughout the UK – indeed, all over the world – fights against large-scale wind-energy projects are raging. The European Platform against Windfarms lists 518 signatory organizations from 23 countries. The UK alone now has about 285 anti-wind groups. Last May, some 1,500 protesters descended on the Welsh assembly, the Senedd, demanding that a massive wind project planned for central Wales be stopped.
Although environmental groups like Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace claim that wind energy is the answer when it comes to slowing the rate of growth in carbon dioxide emissions, policymakers from Ontario to Australia are responding to angry landowners who don’t want 100-meter-high wind turbines built near their homes.
Last September, CBC News reported that Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment has logged “hundreds of health complaints” about the thumping noise generated by the province’s growing fleet of wind turbines. In December, government officials in the Australian state of New South Wales issued guidelines that give residents living within two kilometers of a proposed wind project the right to delay, or even stop, the project’s development.
Back here in the States, many communities are passing ordinances that prohibit large-scale wind energy development. On Nov. 8, for instance, residents of Brooksville, Maine, voted by more than 2 to 1 in favor of a measure that bans all wind turbines with towers exceeding 100 feet in height.
Meanwhile, the promoters of Cape Wind, a large offshore wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound, are still hoping to get their project built. But they continue to face lots of well-heeled opposition, including, most notably, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Well-known for his advocacy of renewable energy, Kennedy opposes the wind project – because it will be built a few miles from his family’s estate in Hyannis Port.
As “Windfall” is premiering this week in New York, wind-energy lobbyists in Washington are desperately hoping to convince Congress to pass a multi-year extension of the 2.2-cent-per-kilowatt-hour subsidy for wind energy. Without it, the domestic wind business, which is already being hammered by falling natural-gas prices, will likely end up becalmed.
Israel’s portrayal of the bitter feuding that happened in Meredith over wind-energy development is similar to fights that have occurred in numerous other rural communities around the world. The battle in Meredith (population: 1,500) pitted landowners who stood to profit by putting the wind turbines on their property against those who didn’t. Israel interviews one couple, Ron and Sue Bailey, who took money from a wind company, a move they soon came to regret. The couple said they “were blinded by the money” and “never thought about what our neighbors across the road would think.”
The landowner faction in Meredith was led by the town’s supervisor, Frank Bachler. Israel portrays him as a well-intentioned man who, in favoring the wind development, is trying to help the area’s struggling farmers. Bachler dismisses the opponents of the wind project as “a minority of people who are very aggressive.”
But Bachler is proven wrong. The anti-wind faction quickly gains momentum and the resulting feud provides a textbook example of small-town democracy. Three wind opponents run for election to the town board with the stated purpose of reversing the existing board’s position on wind. In November 2007, they win, and a few weeks later pass a measure banning large-scale wind development.
Israel’s film also features a colorful interview with Carol Spinelli, a fiery real-estate agent in Bovina, a town of about 600 people located a few miles southeast of Meredith. Bovina passed a ban on wind turbines in March 2007. Spinelli helped lead the opposition, and she nails the controversy over wind by explaining that it’s about “big money, big companies, big politics.” And she angrily denounces wind-energy developers “as modern-day carpetbaggers.”
That’s a brutal assessment. But it accurately portrays the rural-urban divide on the wind-energy issue.
Lots of city-based voters love the concept of renewable energy.
But they are not the ones who have to endure the health-impairing noise that’s created by 45-story-tall wind turbines, nor do they have to see the turbines or look at their red-blinking lights, all night, every night.
So many want to make the world green – so long as it’s not them who have to suffer for it.
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