Wind Energy in Lowville, NY
The Associated Press circulated a story about Lewis County, NY this past weekend. The piece, entitled “Windmills Split Town and Families,” casts John Yancey in the role of a prototype Lowville citizen who opposes the Maple Ridge wind project. As the article explains, energy developers have built 195 wind towers in Lewis County over the past 3-4 years, which makes the wind project the largest in the state and a major energy supplier for New York and other statewide urban areas.
Not everyone finds this growth to be sustainable, however. Yancey complains in the article that his own father sold him out, allowing developers to build wind towers on his family’s farmland. “I just want to be able to get a good night’s sleep and to live in my home without these monstrosities hovering over me,” he says. The price of clean, renewable energy, in Yancey’s mind, is not just Tug Hill’s skyline, which is now dominated by the hulking towers, but also that the towers themselves have permanently destroyed familial and communal relationships that have existed for decades, i.e., its social fabric.
Having lived near and worked in Lewis County for several years, I am not unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding the towers. Many people complain that they are an unsightly intrusion on Lowville’s unspoilt pastoral vistas, while still others cringe at the fact that Lowville’s rural land is being leased by energy corporations to provide electricity for the far-away metropol. It’s the classic conflict between the country and the city, and many people have seen this binary relationship as inherently exploitative.
Meanwhile, those in favor of the wind project appreciate the jobs and sense of purpose that have come to Lewis County since 2004. I know several farming families in the region who gladly have let developers build wind towers on their land, not because of the financial compensation due them, but rather because they see the task of investing in renewable energy resources as a worthwhile endeavor and a way to fulfill our spiritual mandate of environmental stewardship.
Reading the article from Lexington, KY, a city that is far afield from Lowville, forced me to understand the complexity of our energy crisis in a new way. Enlightened liberals living in a downtown region–I consider myself a member of this demographic–feel that wind energy is a no-brainer. We need it. Our survival as a species depends on our ability to change our energy consuming habits and overhaul the ways we produce energy and the types of it we consume. Politicians like Barack Obama hedge their reputations and platforms on green energy; his campaign advertisements are frequently laden with montages of wind towers and solar panels and complimented by the promise that the hands that got us into the mess we’re in can also be used to construct our way out of it.
If only it were so simple. I cannot help but wonder if the Herald-Leader included a story about wind energy in Lowville because it speaks to many of the same country-city energy issues that exist in Kentucky. Currently, Kentucky Utilities customers in Lexington enjoy the cheapest (in terms of the U.S. dollar, at least) electricity in the entire nation because of the coal it extracts from rural eastern Kentucky mountains. Through the process of mountain top removal, essentially blasting the peaks and shoveling away the debris, energy companies can mine massive amounts of coal in short spans of time. The victims are, of course, the residents of eastern Kentucky, who must deal with erratic coal trucks driving on narrow mountain roads, noise pollution, species extinction, water pollution, and the destruction of their land. And, as in Lowville, the coal mining industry has severed father from son and brother from brother.
I don’t think it’s fair to equate the exploitation happening in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia with the Maple Ridge wind project in Lowville. However, we must recognize both instances as examples of the city’s intrusion on the country. We all remember the aggravation of getting stuck behind a wind turbine truck on 177, and we can all respect the legacy of farming and dwelling that has sustained the community of Lewis County for decades. However, eventually we’ll all have to reconcile, one way or another, the fact that wind and solar energy (or other types of renewable sources) are an essential solution, even if these sources are unfair.
So is the Maple Ridge wind project a sustainable one? It would seem, at first, that the obvious answer is, “of course!” The tripartite criterion to decide whether something is sustainable or not includes three questions: does it make environmental sense (i.e. is it damaging to our biosphere in any way?), does it make economic sense (or does the cost of the endeavor render it prohibitively expensive?), and does it make social sense? Are people on board with the change in lifestyle and community that the endeavor requires? Until everyone, cosmopolitan liberals and rural farmers alike, can ascertain the need to change the way we approach energy, projects like wind energy may never fully warrant the label, “sustainable.”