'Tilting at windmills': new documentary on wind development in upstate NY lacks broader perspective

Documentaries present stories and dilemmas that use a variety of available media and first-hand interviews from real-life events. The recently released documentary, "Windfall," gives "us a firsthand look at rural Meredith, in upstate New York [more specifically the 'Southern Tier' region] when wind turbines came to town, the film depicts the perils of a booming industry and the bitter rancor it sowed among a citizenry" (Andy Webster, New York Times).  

Before diving into the finer points of the story and information presented in "Windfall," I think it's important to take a step back to not lose sight of the bigger picture regarding energy extraction activities that have taken place in the broader Appalachian region where "Windfall" takes place. Starting with perhaps the most insidious activities still taking place today, there's mountain-top removal (watch: "The Last Mountain"), coal mining and combustion for electricity (watch: "Coal Country"), and hydro-fracturing and drilling for natural gas (watch: "Gasland").  We also did a lot of dam building in the last century.

TVA Norris Dam   small strip mine near Buffalo Mtn, TN

With this perspective on the bigger picture of energy development and extraction in Appalachia, let's now go a little deeper into "Windfall".  The biggest shortcoming of the documentary may be the fact that the film's director, Laura Israel, provided us with no wind industry representation (or serious attempt to contact them).  New York Times film reviewer Andy Webster makes the point:

Government officials are seen only in glimpses of television talk shows. Conspicuously absent are representatives of corporations like Airtricity , Enxco or Horizon Wind Energy (though the financier and wind advocate T. Boone Pickens comes off as a wolf in good-old-boy clothing). 

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at least provided representation from all sides of the matter in a creatively titled piece (it's pretty darn funny, too), "Fowl Wind," for a wind energy development dilemma in Florida last summer.

If you're curious what the inside of a wind tower looks like

checking the anabat ultrasonic bat detector at the top of the wind turbineYours truly on the top of the nacelle of the wind turbineI have first-hand experience working at a major 'utility-scale' wind turbine site -- the first one ever constructed in the Southeast U.S. -- at Buffalo Mountain, Tennessee (just north of Oak Ridge, TN).  It was a summer internship I had with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 2003.

I worked with a small team of scientists studying bird and bat populations at the wind site.  I would spend upwards of 20-hours/week directly below the wind towers, searching for bird and bats that might have collided with the towers or blades, conducting bird & bat counts in specific spots near the tower footings, and changing out batteries (35-lb marine batteries to be exact) to run the bird & bat-detecting equipment.

There is no denying that utility-scale wind turbines are tall and unique features in any given landscape.  They do produce sound when wind hits them.  They create a faint shadow when it's sunny (but like any shadow, it falls behind the sun, which moves across the sky each day and variates position seasonally, so it's never in one spot for more than a few minutes).  And yes, there are occasional bird and bat collisions that occur.

Stepping through the human health and environmental impacts more systematically:

(If you prefer listening to these matters over reading, I spoke about wind energy and environmental impacts, and the state of renewable energy development more generally, on Florida Public Radio's Radio Green Earth this past November.)

Sound: Typically, two people can carry on a conversation at normal voice levels even while standing directly below a turbine. Often the loudest sound heard is the whooshing sound of the wind hitting the blades—similar to the sound of a flag in the wind. Basic guidelines have been developed for locating wind farms as well as local agreements keep turbines at safe distances from homes and businesses.  

Shadows:  Shadows from moving wind blades typically lasts just a few minutes near sunrise and sunset in bright sun conditions, and can be addressed through the location of turbines and plantings. German researchers found that flicker would affect residents for 100 minutes per year under the worst conditions and 20 minutes per year under normal circumstances. The rate at which wind turbine shadows flicker is far below the frequency that, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, normally is associated with seizures. A 2007 report by an expert panel for the National Academy of Sciences found it to be "harmless to humans."  

Overall Health Impact:  An independent expert panel established by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health in January 2012 gave wind a clean bill of health, based on analyzing all available scientific studies. The agencies reported that,          

There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a 'Wind Turbine Syndrome.'…we conclude the weight of the evidence suggests no association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.”  

Environmental Impacts: Authorized through the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees all federal environmental review procedures, more generally known as the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and review, for all proposed wind energy development.  

Birds and Bats: Acknowledging that bird and bat collisions do occur with wind turbines, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has developed "Bird-smart" review guidelines for wind energy development.  (NRDC is leading the way in Smart-from-the-Start siting.)  For broader perspective it's important not to lose sight of the fact(s) that direct bird and bat kills caused by wind energy pale in comparison to other infrastructure and human-created activity:

Updated bird death comparison chart

           Table source: How Stuff works and updated figure from ABC

Although "Windfall" has its shortcomings in providing a fair and comprehensive view from all sides of the dilemma,it does, however, tell a story that fits within the broader, age-old narrative that energy development is a messy and complex problem.  Abundant, free and carbon-less renewable energy from the wind and sun require that we build infrastructure in the form of wind turbines and solar arrays to capture it.  NRDC is facing this challenge head on by laying the policy groundwork that will guide us to make good and fair decisions through 'smart-from-the-start' siting principles, maps and tools.  In closing I leave you with this quote from my colleague, Johanna Wald, who I believe best articulates the nature of this tough new dilemma we face: 

" ... our changing climate is changing everything, including conservation goals. We no longer have the luxury of picking between the obvious good and unmitigated evil. We are faced with hard choices, and those choices entail trade-offs.  Our challenge today is to make the choices that provide the greatest environmental benefit and result in the least possible environmental impact. ... We face many difficult decisions, but we will have to pick among them as wisely as we can. There is no reasonable alternative.  As the planet changes, we must change with it.  The traditional conventions – and those include some traditional conventions of the conservation community – must yield to the new realities."

  Wind turbines and daisies

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