When I was in junior high school, my family relocated from Denver to a tiny speck of a town on the Eastern Plains of Colorado; a part of the state that’s inhabited by few and appreciated by fewer still – four hours from the nearest ski slope.
It’s the High Plains in the truest sense of those words – more than a mile above sea level, flat and treeless. There are nothing but wheat fields and perma-brown pastures as far as the eye can see, and boy, can the eye see far. A tourist trap along the highway makes the dubious claim that one can see six states from its rooftop: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, melancholy, desperation and despair.
The wind blows. Constantly. It’s a running joke that snow doesn’t fall during the winter; it comes into town sideways. And it’s that trait that has completely changed the face of eastern Colorado and other formerly pristine swaths of the Heartland.
Like taxpayer-subsidized weeds, hundreds of white wind towers have risen from the barren earth over the last few years, each with a little red light on top. After dark, they blink in unison, making the entire county look like a setpiece from “Close Encounters.”
A thousand Devils Towers.
The windmills are there not because they make sense for the companies which operate them. Power generation from wind farms is dependent on the whims of Mother Nature, so energy providers have traditionally eschewed billion-dollar investments in favor of sources that, you know, work all the time.
And then there’s the question of cost. The U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration estimates that wind energy costs 23 percent more than natural gas on a per-kilowatt-hour basis – a number that looks even worse when you factor in the need for a redundant backup source. A study by the Institute for Energy Research last year pegged the full cost of wind energy at nearly three times higher than gas when those factors were considered.
And still, the towers keep expanding at a rate that puts your local cottontail colony to shame.
Blocs of urban and suburban voters keep upping “Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards” in four-fifths of American states – including ultra-conservative Texas – which require a baseline of renewable resources. Driving these votes, it seems, is a vague sense of environmentalist-inspired guilt: Better to vote yourself a higher electricity bill than to suffer some far-off, undefined and unknowable fate because of power plant emissions.
Those same voters who drive in their late-model minivans to vote at their kids’ brand new elementary schools will pay a portion of the cost of their vote through higher power bills, sure. But it’s no coincidence the resulting wind farms are never built in their backyards.
Political scientists call it the tyranny of the majority: Millions of people assuage their guilt at the ballot box, but it’s the rural minority that has to wake up every day and go to work amid a sea of giant Popsicle sticks. Countless acres of land that generations have farmed with their fathers and grandfathers have been forever blighted by the eyesore embodiment of big city contrition.
It’s not hard to read between the lines and discern the unspoken logic of metropolitan voters. “That’s throw-away land out there. At least now it’s good for something.”
Willa Cather is probably misattributed to have said, “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” And while few things sap the soul like a view of nature sullied by the crisp lines of human development, the Sierra Club never staged a protest over wheat fields. For most people, lack of trees is lack of value.
So the towers keep growing. Four hours from the nearest ski slope.
NATE STRAUCH IS A COLUMNIST AND REPORTER WITH THE SHERMAN-DENISON (TEXAS) HERALD DEMOCRAT.
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