Windfall (2009)

Director: Laura Israel

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Just a few days ago, The Daily Beast and the Transparency International (TI), a global anti-corruption research organization, examined 500 global companies to determine how corrupt they might be based on their ethics and anti-corruption policies. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that utility companies had the fewest protections against corruption of any industry they examined, including the investment sector.

In case you think The Daily Beast and TI might be mistaken, consider how you feel about wind energy. You’ll certainly never have to clean up an oil spill from it. Or might you, indirectly? Industrial-size windmills are the only form of energy that uses energy from the grid—which runs on natural gas and fossil fuels—and there are no data on whether they return more energy than they use. It’s safe for people, of course. Except that numerous health effects have been noted, including ringing in the ears, interrupted sleep, and headaches that have driven people from their homes. The turbines also throw ice from their blades that can injure and kill, and they have been known to fall over or catch fire from lightning strikes and shed debris. It’s good for the environment—except for birds who fly too close to the 7-ton blades of the 400-foot-tall towers and bats, whose lungs literally explode because of an air vacuum that the blades leave in their wake.

Wind energy on an industrial scale is hazardous, unsightly, a noise polluter, and probably consumes more energy than it generates. But most people don’t know that, and that’s by design. The citizens of the tiny, impoverished town of Meredith, New York, certainly didn’t when the wind energy salespeople came to town to offer financial relief in exchange for leases to build wind turbines there. The people of Meredith went from naïve nature lovers to big-time skeptics, and from neighborliness to bitter division. Windfall is a cautionary tale of underhanded business dealings, small-town corruption, and laissez-faire citizenship that had to give way under the imminent threat of an irreversible intrusion into their rural idyll.

Meredith is a community in upstate New York that has seen its thriving dairy farms go from more than 1,000 to less than 10. When the energy companies came to town, they made offers to lease land, primarily to the largest landowners because of the need for at least 15–30 miles for a profitable siting. They offered a profit split to the town. A few people got on board, but had to sign confidentiality agreements that they would not discuss the deal with anyone but their attorney.

Nonetheless, word leaked out that wind turbines would be coming to Meredith when a test tower went up on John Hamilton’s property; Hamilton, one of the few dairy farmers still left, felt villified by the wind energy skeptics, who organized The Alliance for Meredith to do fact-finding on the commercial proposals and consider a town-owned commercial wind project by which all the benefits from a single turbine would accrue to the citizens of Meredith.

As this film shows through interviews, footage of planning board and town board meetings, a visit to a neighboring town that rejected wind energy and one that accepted it and saw the project balloon from a planned 50 turbines to 195 with none of the benefits to the town they expected, the fight over wind power is a painful and difficult process. Because of tax credits for alternative energy offered by the national and state governments, and a complete lack of regulation, wind energy is incredibly profitable for investors and energy companies. Lessors get about $5,000 and neighbor agreements go for $500. Municipalities get about 1–2% of the profits—when all is said and done, local governments might get enough money to buy a single fire truck.

We also see how Meredith’s town board, comprised of the largest landowners, could pass laws that would personally benefit them financially. Instead of accepting the findings of the planning board, per usual, that wind turbines should not be sited in Meredith, the town board chose to establish a Wind Energy Review Board appointed by and answerable to them alone. This show of arrogance inflamed the citizens of Meredith and set up an election season that for the first time in a long time, was a real horse race.

Windfall is a comprehensive look at a largely misunderstood technology. It is must-viewing for environmentalists and for small towns who might find an energy worm burrowing into their midst. Clean, safe energy is everyone’s wish. Let’s just make sure we don’t jump at the first carnival barker with a miracle solution. l

The May 7 screening of Windfall is sold out. A second screening has been added on May 8 at 11:00 a.m. at Next Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, Illinois.

  • Tinky spoke:
    4th/05/2010 to 7:57 pm

    Wind energy is a big deal in my neck of the woods. There are lots of proposed sites–why, I have no idea, since we have so very many hills. It’s fascinating to see all these dimensions to the problem. As my father would say, oy………

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/05/2010 to 8:02 pm

    They do like them on hills. The higher up the turbine, the stronger the wind. Please be sure to do all your research. This is not an efficient or effective energy source when applied on a large scale. The problem of sound pollution is a real health hazard.

  • Greg F spoke:
    5th/05/2010 to 6:08 am

    Wind turbines are needed in voluminous amounts to even be effective. Back in 2008, when hopes were higher, they said it would take about 260,000 for the U.S. and they’d need to be operating at full capacity (with high winds) around the clock, which will never happen. More often than not they sit dormant. So the accurately accepted numbers now are that you would need millions to build up enough energy to provide it during the dormant periods. Imagine millions of these turbines.

    I remember reading an interview with a huge supporter of the technology, Cristina Archer of The Carnegie Institution for Science, who said concerning the turbines’ appearance, and I quote directly, “People fought the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, claiming it would ruin the landscape. Now it costs more to have a house with a view of the bridge.”

    With a capacity for bullshit like that, she should really run for public office.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/05/2010 to 7:28 am

    Ha! Great comment about Cristina Archer.

    This film shows that even if you don’t have turbines sited in your state, you could have hundreds of new electric towers, which are needed to transmit the energy to other parts of the country. The grid for wind power on top of the current electric grid! It boggles the mind. People need to get educated about this.

  • Conserv4all spoke:
    12th/05/2010 to 1:14 pm

    I would love to see this film. This is a very hot topic in my area right now. How can we get a screening of it where I live?

    My family, friends, and relatives are currently knee deep in the wind farm issue. We have been strugling for several years to get the public and government educated about the real threat to citizens. My house would be at ground zero if we lose the fight.

    If anyone can help please contact me (Fran) through the web site
    Thank You.

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