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Wind Energy in Lowville, NY

August 20, 2008

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.

Nature intrudes upon culture on the Tug Hill plateau

Nature intrudes upon culture on the Tug Hill plateau

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.”


From → Environmentalism

  1. Mike Judd permalink

    Good points and great questions. There will always be a trade off with energy, but I agree with you that this really is a no brainer. I actually find the giant turbines beautiful in their own way. Honestly, when I read the story in the Watertown Times this weekend I had this feeling of “this is ridiculous…are you serious?”

    A more serious question for debate in Lewis County is why did our legislaters not take advantage of this opportunity to provide cheaper power to Lewis county residents and businesses? Sure, my kids’ school is getting tons of State money as a result of the windmills, LACS can now by all sorts of electronic gadets for the classroom, but the local economy would have benefited so much more by a county-wide cheap power program…perhaps enticing businesses back to the north country, reversing a decades-long trend the other way.

    Hope you are doing well Andrew. Say hi to Starla as well. Camp is coming to a close…2 more days of Day Camp and that is it! It has been a great summer.


  2. Mike…

    Thanks for the comment. I agree completely. I sense a beautiful, almost sublime aura from the wind towers when I drive into Lowville on 177. To me, it’s a symbol that we are willing to change and that we actually can garner electricity from sources other than atomic energy or fossil fuels. I personally don’t understand how people see these towers as unsightly.

    I too had the same “you’ve got to be kidding me” reaction when I read the story this Sunday. I just can’t imagine John Yancey losing any sleep over the towers. Still, I think I respect his sense of community. This whole issue reaffirms my decision to study our culture’s relationship to nature though. It seems that Yancey and others are upset because these “unnatural” objects are ruining our “natural” views and experiences in Lewis County. No one complains about farm silos though, and certainly no one raises a fuss over the massive corporate farms, which are certainly “unnatural” as it comes, either.

    And finally, I couldn’t agree with you more. Local areas need to be compensated generously for the goods and services they provide. Lowering electricity costs, especially in an area riddled by poverty, would certainly be a move toward redistributive justice in Lowville. Unfortunately, it’s probably more realistic to think that people far away from Lewis County will reap the immediate financial benefits of this newfound energy source.

  3. I have ties to Tug Hill, and have watched closely as the windmill project was developed and built. I said from the beginning that the landowners should organize and get something back in return, like low cost power that would encourage local industrial development. Unfortunately, it was “every man for himself” with the farmers, and the wind energy people exploited that.
    I personally do not think the windmills are ugly, or an “abomination”, as one person commented, but I think they could have done more for the community and thus made them more acceptable. And for all the monies supposedly going to the local and county governments and the schools, it seems the property taxes just keep going up.

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