NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In a tiny upstate New York hamlet called Meredith, amid the abandoned barns and fallow pastures of one of the poorest counties of the Northeast, a civil war was recently fought over one of the catchphrases of the ecology movement -- wind power. Now, when I use that phrase, I'll bet most people react as I used to, with a kind of warm, cozy feeling, as befits a clean, renewable source of energy that can get this nation off our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. It's enough to make one break out the sandals and granola. Remember all the breathless praise that greeted T. Boone Pickens when he embraced alternative energy resources, including a (subsequently abandoned) plan for an immense Texas wind farm? But behind the bucolic image of clean energy and forward-thinking moguls is a crass reality that exemplifies one of the themes of our age -- capitalism run amok, abetted by misguided government policies.
In reality, wind power is an immense and often dreadful business, with adverse affects on local residents and economies that can be just as adverse as the horrors that hydrofrackinghas brought to the Marcellus Shale regions of the rural Northeast. And it's a story that investors need to watch carefully, because solar power and other alternative energy stocks have alternately fascinated and disappointed investors, just the way hydrofracking and natural gas stocks like Chesapeake Energy ( CHK - Get Report) have benefitted and sometimes burned investors. There's a human story behind the often-grim numbers. That story is told in fascinating, eye-opening detail in a documentary that is currently having a limited run in Manhattan. It's called Windfall, and it's the story of what happened when wind power came to that little town I just mentioned, Meredith. It's a really excellent film that has gotten some rave reviews, and I was surprised that my wife and I were the only people in the audience at a recent late-night showing. This is a documentary that needs to be seen. It's a story that's compelling on a number of levels, but to me it's a classical tragedy, the story of a struggling community desperately seeking economic salvation, and in the process being ruthlessly exploited by faceless (they are never shown) corporate interests.
There are obvious parallels to hydrofracking, the toxic natural-gas drilling method that is currently casting a dark shadow over the rural Northeast. Like hydrofracking, wind farms are ostensibly a foolproof way of liberating us from the yoke of dependence on unreliable, dirty, expensive oil sources in the Middle East. As in hydrofracking, unscrupulous "land men" scour the countryside for cash-strapped landowners, mainly dairy farmers having a hard time scratching out a living. In the case of Meredith, located in bucolic Delaware County in the Catskills foothills, the landowners were also part-time town officials. So what ensued was the kind of neighbor-against-neighbor warfare that has erupted throughout the rural areas of New York and Pennsylvania, where gas drillers have used much the same methods to get their way. Director Laura Israel isn't quite as flashy as Josh Fox, who dramatized the dangers of fracking in his Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. But she is quietly effective as she takes her cameras to an immense wind farm on Tug Hill in Lewis County, N.Y., where the constant clamor of hundreds of immense windmills has made life hell for local residents. Wind power can have significant effects on wildlife, and the constant din of the wind turbines has caused medical problems for people living nearby. It's a far cry from the image of wind power of being as being as benign as hanging out the clothes to dry. The whirling turbines, standing on immense towers 400 feet high, and whose blades speed around at 150 miles an hour, have been known to collapse and catch fire, with the poorly equipped local fire departments unable to do anything about them. During the winter they throw off chunks of ice. The rotating blades cause the sunlight to flicker, all to the monotonous drone of white noise. Israel shows how this divisive issue split this tiny community in two. The wind-turbine promoters had chosen well; Delaware County has no zoning to speak of, and the local governments are poorly financed part-time panels. There is not even a full-time town manager, as can be found in many communities elsewhere in the Northeast.
So the corporate invaders play divide-and-conquer, as if this was the British Raj in India, playing off the farmers against the more recent residents and weekend homeowners. It's a strategy that worked well in Meredith for a time, as the town board disregarded its own planning commission to allow the wind turbines at pretty much the terms that the wind-turbine developers wanted. In one astounding scene, the town attorney is shown responding to concerned citizens, worried about ice being cast off by the turbine blades, by quoting unsubstantiated, self-serving claims by the developers, which she accepted as gospel. Fortunately, at least for the citizens of Meredith, this tale has a happy ending. Opponents of the wind turbines gained control of the town government, and the wind turbine plans were deep-sixed. This is a classic tale of corporate greed, for here you had landowners and town officials who themselves were exploited by the very people they were defending -- for they were getting only a pittance in return for the rights to construct massive wind turbine farms that would permanently blight their properties. It's also a story of crony capitalism, because those wind turbines are largely paid for by alternative-energy tax credits. Yet the benefits of wind power are, to say the least, questionable as a method of getting America off its dependence on foreign oil.
To be sure, there are differences between hydrofracking, which has desecrated every community it has afflicted, and wind power. In remote regions of the West, far from habitations, wind turbines would have little of the impact that they would in the Northeast, where there simply aren't the same kind of wide open spaces. Wind turbines could certainly be deposited in New Mexico's and Nevada's vast deserts without creating much difficulty, at least as far as the human residents are concerned (wildlife issues still may be worrisome). After all, atomic bombs used to be detonated there. What we do know is that, just as with hydrofracking, this is an area in which government needs to become vigorously involved -- and by that, I don't mean the feeble, part-time local governments that can easily be swamped by well-financed, unscrupulous corporate interests. Meredith escaped from the clutches of the wind turbine horrors just by the skin of its teeth. Tug Hill wasn't so lucky. If there was ever a better argument for government regulation as a counterweight against uncontrolled corporate greed, I can't find one. Gary Weiss's forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on February 28, 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @gary_weiss.
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