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Blowin' in the Wind by Stanley Fish

NY Times
August 26, 2007

When the issue of energy came up in the debate among the Democratic presidential contenders on Aug. 7, the candidates began talking about “renewable” energy and one of them (Chris Dodd) mentioned wind power. Seems logical. Why spend all the effort and money to build huge electricity plants when the wind is always blowing? Who could argue against a technology that promises to derive energy from a renewable, and free, resource?

Everyone I know.

For five months of the year, I live in the very small town of Andes, N.Y. Each year has its signature event — floods, drought, road construction, caterpillars. And 2006 to 2007 has been the year of the wind turbines.

Like many of the other towns targeted by the wind turbine industry, Andes is a rural community that over the years has lost its economic base. At one time the hills and valleys were home to many small dairy farms, but most of them are no longer in operation, and no industry, light or heavy, has taken their place. Now the area relies for its revenue on retirees and second home owners who are educated, relatively well off and tend to be teachers therapists, lawyers, artists and social workers. In short, liberals. They are all soldiers in Al Gore’s army, into organic foods, hybrid cars, clean air, clean water, the whole bit.

They are also against wind power.

Their reasons are the ones always given by those who wake up to find the wind interests at their door. Even if large wind farms were in place throughout the country, the electricity produced would be a very small percentage of the electricity we use. Because the turbines are huge, 400 feet or more, installing them involves tearing up the ridges on which they are placed. Once in operation, they cast shadows and produce noise. Their blades cause a “flicker” effect, kill birds and interfere with migration. The outsized towers ruin scenic views and depress real-estate values.

These last two reasons are seized on by wind proponents who say that a few elite newcomers are putting their aesthetic preferences ahead of both the community’s welfare and the national effort to shift to green energy as a way of slowing down global warming.

It’s a nice line, but it won’t fly. The wind companies may advertise themselves as environmentalists, but they are really developers, which means that they do things with other peoples’ money — yours. Wind farms are attractive as an investment because the combination of tax credits, tax shelters and accelerated depreciation rates means that investors reap large profits in a few years. Meanwhile, those in the community pay twice for their electricity; once when their taxes go to subsidize the wind interests and a second time when the monthly bill arrives. And that bill will likely be larger than it would have been had the turbines never been erected.

Then there are the issues of “de-commissioning.” What happens when the turbines are no longer profitable and are shut down or fall into disrepair and become postmodern ruins larger than Stonehenge? Who fixes them? Who takes them down? Who repairs the ridges?

Don’t ask the original developers. Before the special tax and depreciation breaks have run their course, they will be long gone, either because they have sold the project to another developer or because they have just decamped and moved on to the next town.

So what do you do? Some towns have done nothing; they think it can’t happen here. Other towns take the developer’s money but extract promises that the turbines will be set back so many yards or miles. (Good luck if the promises aren’t kept; developers never return your calls.)

Others across the country have done what we did in Andes — organize. We formed an alliance, incorporated, raised money, sent out flyers, took polls, sponsored forums, wrote a zoning ordinance, presented it to the town council and planning board, and finally saw it pass. It was democracy in action.

But it’s not over. The Spitzer administration has been working on a plan to shift the authority for land use control from local communities to a state commission. Local zoning ordinances would be countermanded and communities like Andes could get wind farms even if they didn’t want them.

Perhaps the governor and his colleagues should be reminded of the company that made wind power into a big, profitable business in this country. It was called Enron.

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