Film on wind farms replays familiar conflicts
An award winning narrative documentary entitled “Windfall” by filmmaker Laura Israel drew an audience of approximately 90 islanders last Sunday evening, Aug. 28, just after Irene’s winds had begun to subside. At a second showing the next evening, 40 viewers attended.
The 83-minute movie, winner of Best Documentary at the 2011 Woods Hole Film Festival, uncovers some stark divisions within the rural village of Meredith, N.Y., over the potential installation of 400-foot turbines on private land. For many attending, the screening echoed the contentious nature of the global debate over wind energy as communities consider the ramifications of embracing it — evidenced here in conflicting responses to a proposed six- to eight-turbine wind farm to be sited a few miles offshore.
A dairy farming community for many generations, Meredith is a town experiencing a period of economic reversal. Farms go out of business and farmers feel the pinch of the economic slowdown. As a result, several families decide to supplement their incomes by leasing their property to corporations developing wind energy.
Some of the contracts have confidentiality clauses that restrict people from disclosing their plans to neighbors, who only learn about them accidentally. Consequently, misunderstanding and conflict develop among individuals who have for years thought of themselves as friends. It is this divisiveness that the film focuses on.
A place to see the stars
Reached on Tuesday at her home in Jersey City, N.J., Israel explains what sparked her desire to make the film. For 20 years she has owned a one-room log cabin in Meredith, a place she describes as a wonderful retreat, saying “It is a place I go to see the stars.” A few years ago, reading in the local paper about the turbines coming into the community, Israel decided, “I wanted a wind turbine.”
She adds, “However, once I got started doing the research, it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.” From her initial excitement, she became concerned about size and siting, started asking questions and going to town meetings. She says, “I saw how people were struggling over this issue.”
She adds that “the people in the film illustrate the same transformation I went through.” Some refer to themselves as “reluctant activists.”
Shot against a backdrop of lush rolling hills and pastoral vistas, Israel’s story unfolds from the point of view of residents. Initially, most agree on the need for “going green” and are open to the use of wind energy. In accepting turbines on their land, several people believe they are “doing something good” for their neighbors, while taking steps to curb national dependency on fossil fuels.
Others who emerge as opposed to the local wind projects continue to support other alternative energy projects. In both groups disillusion seems to come from undisclosed information. Some are horrified by the enormity of the turbines’ size — each the height of a 40-story building.
Yet others accept the scale of the turbines, maintaining that the project is necessary because it is “green” and will infuse needed funds into the economy of the region.
Surprise at contentiousness
One former dairy farmer, a long-term resident of Meredith, says he’s always been interested in the development of wind energy, so he was very receptive when a company based in Ireland offered him a contract. When he puts a test windmill up, he is surprised to learn that “wind is a very contentious issue.”
A couple living in the area since 1971 also thought they “were helping the world” and signed a lease. However, driving to the site of a wind farm, sitting in their car just below it, the wife says, “I was horrified by the continuous grinding sound and the idea that it was forever.”
They ultimately get out of their lease and write letters to their neighbors. They speak about corporations “playing the neighbors off against each other” and feel that laws are needed for regulating the siting of turbines.
Several townspeople, initially interested in wind as an alternative form of energy, begin to learn things they’d never thought to worry about. They are overwhelmed by the very large scale of the turbines in relation to the landscape, concerned about a potential “flicker effect,” and worried about the turbines’ vulnerability to fire and ice.
Wind farms as “positive change”
On the other hand, a local engineer sees “developing wind farms as a positive part of change in our country.” He says, “I like buying as much food as I can locally and would also like to derive our energy from local sources.”
Some of the residents find the turbines beautiful while others think of them as “monstrosities.” Some of those protesting the project call the acceptance of a 40-turbine wind farm a “violation of pristine nature, the peace and tranquility that people come here for,” saying that they need to be careful not to spoil the very areas that drew them to the area.
Another community member sums it all up: “Everybody’s doing what they think is right and that makes for conflict.”
Things come to a head at a series of town council meetings where residents question decisions on siting and scale and encounter resistance from the council members. A number of townsfolk express apprehension about containing the number of turbines that might be installed in their community.
In the end, with many residents feeling officials are not listening to their point of view, a new slate challenges the incumbents and eventually replaces them on the town board.
The reactions of several audience members divide along lines drawn in the film.
First Warden Kim Gaffett thought the film interesting. “It definitely showed one side of the issue, and we can all benefit from observing what has happened in other communities, though I don’t think the film exactly described what’s going on here.” On the issue of divisiveness, Gaffett said, “Certainly there’s a potential for that here, but I don’t think we’re there yet and hopefully we won’t get there.”
Calling the film a “very evocative tool,” Gaffett stressed differences with the island, especially those of numbers and scale, which she believed would never get out of control here. She added that a community forum in October would address the issues of scale and what the people want at a community level before becoming as contentious as depicted in the film.
George Mellor found the film presented a “very interesting tale,” although he was unsure about how it applied to the island. On the other hand, he said much depended on economics, adding, “A wind farm 12 miles offshore seems more feasible” than what’s being proposed.
What the film did show, he said, was that when the people “differ from their officials, they can elect someone else.”
To Bill Penn, the film was well made, presenting perspectives around on-land wind projects “very vigorously.” He hoped that the island discussions on renewable energy would “center on the energy component of the town’s comprehensive plan.”
He also stressed the importance of attending the Oct. 22 forum, explaining that though details of time and place remained to be determined, there would be two sessions — morning and afternoon — moderated by representatives of the Consensus Building Institute, a joint venture between Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bill McKernan assessed the film as “very thought-provoking and interesting in a couple of ways.” He said the experience of some of the townspeople in the film paralleled his own thoughts. When he first heard about renewable energy, he said, “Good idea.” Then the more he learned the more skeptical he said he became.
McKernan was concerned with distribution issues and adverse effects on the landscape. He described a trip out West that he’d taken. There along interstate highways, the size of the turbines did not seem as jarring as when closer to residential areas. “I still remain very skeptical and have many questions,” he said.
Rosemarie Ives said she felt the documentary was important because the experiences of residents of an upstate New York community paralleled those on the island. She saw it as a prod to “getting people to really think. We want people to get engaged in the issues.” She hoped the forum in October would provide an opportunity for all perspectives to be given a serious hearing.
Finding the film “a depressing, yet touching and very well made documentary,” Jon Emsbo thought its screening was clearly arranged “to highlight the drawbacks of wind power.” The characterization of an upstate New York community of “nice and friendly people” being exploited by large corporations seemed to repeat for Emsbo “the same controversy as when the railroads acquired land for rails across this country.”
He said he hoped that “cool heads will prevail on Block Island and point out how dramatically the sad story of ‘Windfall’ differs from projects discussed on the island. After all, other civilized countries with equal aesthetic and environmental awareness have done it successfully for decades.”
Israel’s film has been shown at festivals throughout the country and around the world. She says she been hearing from people everywhere — Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Hawaii — who tell her “that could be my town.” She feels they are grateful for getting their story out.