The documentary movie “Windfall” opens with a shot of a farm in upstate New York. Next to the barn is an old-fashioned windmill turning in the breeze. It’s about 30 feet tall.
That’s what most people think of when they think of a windmill. And that misconception leads directly to the strife that Laura Israel documents in the film she directed about a European company’s attempt to bring wind power to the Catskills.
Israel grew up in Morris County and now lives in Jersey City, but she has a log cabin in Meredith, N.Y.
“I like to go there to look at stars and read,” Israel told me. “I’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.”
In 2006, she began reading in the local papers about a plan to start placing wind turbines on the hillsides.
“What motivated me at first was that I wanted to get one,” she said. So did a lot of other well-intentioned people who thought wind power was a benign source of green energy. The movie, which had its theatrical release last week, is about the education these people got in the reality of modern wind power.
That education begins with a formula you might recall from high-school geometry: The area of a circle rises in proportion to its radius squared. In other words, if you multiply the size of a windmill blade by 10, you don’t get just 10 times the power. You get 100 times the power.
At 30-feet, a windmill might be able to run a water pump. At 380 feet it can provide electricity for 500 homes. Unfortunately, it can also make life miserable in quite a few homes as well.
“How far is far enough away?” Israel asks. “A mile?”
Even a mile might not be far enough, she concluded after doing the research for the movie. That research entailed visiting Tug Hill, N.Y., where there are hundreds of giant turbines.
“People says the sound is like sneakers in the dryer or a threshing plant or a jet that never lands,” she said. “If you close the windows and doors to keep out the noise, things are still going to vibrate.”
The tips of the turbine blades can reach speeds of 150 mph, killing lots of migrating birds. Meanwhile the air-compression effect makes bats’ lungs explode. But the worst effect of wind turbines may be the discord they create in towns like Meredith.
The area used to be a center for dairy farming. But that’s a dying business. The farmers liked the idea of earning $5,000 a year by hosting a wind turbine.
This pitted them against the townspeople, many of whom moved to the town for its natural beauty. They started doing research on websites like “wind-watch.org,” which documents the negative effects of wind power from northern Scotland to South Australia.
“The thing about farmers is they own a lot of land and they don’t appreciate things that people from the city might appreciate,” said Israel. “People from the city say, ‘I see a lot of stars,’ and the farmers are like, ‘Who cares?’”
Similar clashes seem to occur wherever wind power is proposed. Israel noted that when the film was shown on Martha’s Vineyard “They had to have a mediator to keep the two sides apart.”
In Meredith, the fighting culminated in an election showdown. The opponents of wind power won in a landslide and proceeded to redraw the zoning to effectively outlaw the turbines.
Similar fights are going on all over America. Most illustrate the paradox of wind power. The same educated, environmentally inclined people who would seem the most likely to support it end up being its biggest opponents once they learn about its effects on quality of life.
The result represents a lesson in economics rather than environmentalism. Wind power turns out to represent a classic example of the rule espoused by economist Milton Friedman that has come to be known as “TANSTAAFL’ – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
And there ain’t, at least not when it comes to this form of alternative energy. Wind power was marketed as an alternative to conventional electricity generation. It’s turning out to be an alternative to the peaceful enjoyment of nature.
If you doubt that, go see “Windfall.”
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