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New Documentary Examines the Drawbacks of a Clean Energy Source

Film Review: Windfall

Wind power has been heralded as form of renewable energy that can wean America off of its disastrous dependence on fossil fuels and help save the planet from climate change. But is it really a safe, nonpolluting, and viable alternative to coal, natural gas, and nukes? These are the questions being asked by some contemporary Don Quixotes who are tilting at 400-foot-high windmills in upstate New York, the subject of the new documentary film Windfall.

The Knight of the White Moon against whom they’re jousting is named Airtricity. The Irish energy company is building the world’s largest offshore wind farm (the 500-megawatt Greater Gabbard project) 14 miles off of the coast of Suffolk, England. Many townsfolk in the Catskill Mountains village of Meredith fear a proposed Airtricity project for their farming community. The Airtricity plan would install 40 behemoth poles with 600-pound turbines and blades up to 180 feet long, weighing 22,000 pounds each.

Windfall is a case of slicing blades versus the sylvan glade, as residents of the rural Delaware County town and of Tug Hill, NY — which has already approved a wind farm that mushroomed from 50 to 200 towers, sprawling across 21,000 acres — express anxiety about the technology’s alleged effects. Windfall’s insurgents aren’t “drill, baby drill,” pro-fossil fuel troglodytes or global warming deniers. One dissident insists, “We’re not against alternative sources of energy. We’re against these monstrosities.”
 
The biggest concern: A perpetual din of “rumbling and vibrations” caused by the churning, whirring propellers, which one woman in the film says “sounds like the noise is in the wall.” A neighbor echoes her worry, claiming the whooshing sound adversely affects his sleep. Others grouse about constant shadows flickering on homes and roads, a “strobing effect” that impacts activities from driving to playing videogames.

Others worry about the turbine blades hitting birds or killing migratory bats. Some upstate residents complain that the gargantuan towers are eyesores that ruin their Arcadian vistas. Potential hazards include lightning strikes, ice balls flying off the blades, and fires. The last raises the question: Exactly how does one extinguish a blaze 400 feet up?

But many other locals in Meredith are happy about Airtricity’s arrival. Airtricity salesmen offer $5,000 cash payments to residents who lease their land, serious money in a community that’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. The proponents also tout wind power’s green credentials as a renewable energy source.

The dispute begins to tear apart the community of 1,500 inhabitants. Advocates of the Airtricity scheme deride dissidents as a “minority” of “Downstaters” — an attempt to divide longtime residents with roots in dairy farming from the city slickers who have moved upstate from New York City. Airtricity opponents charge that the members of the town board act in an authoritarian manner and that some are guilty of conflicts of interest, voting for a venture that’s given them payoffs.

Windfall’s “High Noon” moment comes when dissension over the proposed project leads to a contentious vote for the town board. The election pits the so-called “minority” opponents of the windmills against both a heavy handed board and a self-proclaimed “majority,” with surprising results. The electoral outcome instill viewers with the hope that government by the people is still alive in our corporate-dominated society.

Photo providedWindfall is a case of slicing blades versus the sylvan glade.

That scene is one of the high points of this deftly directed, briskly paced, and always absorbing exposé directed and co-produced by Laura Israel. The NYU film school grad’s well-made documentary falls short, however, by failing to tell Airtricity’s side of the story. I was interested to hear Airtricity’s response to the charges made against it and its technology. In the film’s press notes, which Israel cited in an email, the director explained why the Irish company’s point of view is not strongly presented in Windfall. She says she intended to make the film “entirely from the point of view of people from the community” who “didn’t have a lot of dealings with the wind companies.”

Israel says, “I needed to show that. The wind companies initially sent out salespeople to sign contracts, and afterwards became entirely scarce to the townspeople. People who signed wind contracts also had to sign confidentiality agreements so they couldn’t talk to their neighbors about it as well. This created an air of secrecy and paranoia in the town. The wind developers were referenced as a source of information for the town board during the process of creating a wind ordinance … but the developers didn’t show up at the public town meetings. If they had, they would have been in the film. At one point, Meredith town supervisor Frank Bachler even asks, ‘Where are the wind companies, why aren’t they here?’”

The film is also short on solutions. If we can’t solve our greenhouse gas problem by harnessing the wind, what carbon neutral form of energy can rescue us from climate change? Solar? Nuclear fusion? Or should wind farms be exclusively placed in uninhabited areas and/or take different shapes? The only idea suggested by one of Windfall’s interviewees is reducing energy consumption.

Cervantes would be shocked by Windfall’s denouement: The Quixotes (spoiler alert) win. The residents of Meredith who are opposed to the windmills triumph in their campaign against Airtricity. But the victory is overshadowed by mixed emotions. As a foe of the power poles wonders: “How can something so good like the wind… be so bad?”

 Windfall opened at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema on February 3. Visit www.Windfallthemovie.com  to find other showings across the US.  

Former CBS News presenter Fred Friendly called Ed Rampell “the only journalist in America named after Edward R. Murrow.” Rampell has reported for ABC News, Reuters, AP, LA Times, The Progressive, and many other US publications. He has co-authored four books on the Pacific Islands.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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