Teaching STS: Windmill Farms and Windfall (the documentary)

Visit to a windmill farm followed by a viewing of “Windfall,” the only anti-windmill documentary that is available; the juxtaposed experiences should provide more than adequate resources for a rousing discussion about people, wind, energy, and the environment.

Today, Friday, March 22, my STS class (Topics in Science, Technology, and Society) went to the windmill farm in Cresson, PA, which was built by Gamesa and is currently Pennsylvania’s largest operating windmill farm (more about Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm).

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At 22 degrees Fahrenheit being the warm part of the morning, we enjoyed a windy and snowy experience. This is unsurprising, though, given that the mountain ridge we visited was specifically selected for its high winds. These windmills were truly impressive up close, and the students were, despite the cold, the wind, and the snow, full of questions. While the oscillation of the blades did make an audible sound, even at some distance, we were all surprised by how violent the blades seemed to rotate as compared to how quiet and motion-less the bases were … it was almost tranquil, we agreed.

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The ridge, which is expansive, hosts 40 turbines, which are 2MW generators. While the return on investment for a free-standing windmill like the ones pictures is about 5 years, the ones we viewed had an ROI of nearly 20 years because of early quality control issues with the blades (they were splitting apart like bananas). According the farm’s website, “Estimated annual production: 200 GW.h (for an equivalent of 2,500 hours of full load/year)” which is impressive.

Our guide was great; his name was Michael Barton, a local forester and wind expert.

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About Michael Barton:

He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Forest Science (Forestry) from Penn State University in 1983. … In 2007, he received the “Sustainable Energy Education Award” in Pennsylvania sponsored by Gamesa Energy, USA. In 2008, Michael was the co-chairman of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) – Allegheny Section summer meeting entitled “Forest Land Issues Related to Wind Energy.” For that effort Mike was presented with the SAF Award for “outstanding service, dedication and effort for a successful Allegheny Society summer meeting.” (available here).

He told us today that this was his 248th tour of the wind farm, all of which he has done as a volunteer. I have taken students on these trips for half a decade, and will continue to. As a forester and environmental consultant, it is quite important to show students the significance of water quality on these ridge-lines. Of significance, the spot we are standing in this next photo is on the ridge that splits one-way to the Ohio Valley, and, thus, the water ends-up in the Mississippi River, and the other way to the Chesapeake Bay. Contamination on this site would pollute both directions. Barton helped oversee the environmentally safe work that went on here … also of note, this spot, it is perhaps 4FT from where a 35FT wide 1 million pound crane would have passed; cranes which are necessary to assemble the turbines). The water on site, was crystal clear.

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A final point of interest is that we would not have been able to take the tour earlier in the week because of the ice, rain, and snow. But not for reasons of travel. Instead, as Barton told the students, windmills of this caliber throw ice.

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“I’ve seen a sheet of ice as thick as my hand embed itself into the driver’s seat of a pick-up truck,” then Barton said, “if you had been sitting there, it would have probably cut you in half.” I noted the silent pause…

In all, it was a great experience. We are all in Barton’s debt for his good work.

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That said, later today we are going to starting viewing the only anti-windmill documentary that I have been able to find.

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The film is about:

Wind power… it’s sustainable … it burns no fossil fuels…it produces no air pollution. What’s more, it cuts down dependency on foreign oil. That’s what the people of Meredith, in upstate New York first thought when a wind developer looked to supplement the rural farm town’s failing economy with a farm of their own — that of 40 industrial wind turbines. WINDFALL, a beautifully photographed feature length film, documents how this proposal divides Meredith’s residents as they fight over the future of their community. Attracted at first to the financial incentives that would seemingly boost their dying economy, a group of townspeople grow increasingly alarmed as they discover the impacts that the 400-foot high windmills slated for Meredith could bring to their community as well as the potential for financial scams. With wind development in the United States growing annually at 39 percent, WINDFALL is an eye-opener that should be required viewing for anyone concerned about the environment and the future of renewable energy.

We will see how it goes.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

2 thoughts on “Teaching STS: Windmill Farms and Windfall (the documentary)

  1. Pingback: Teaching STS: Windmill Farms and Windfall (the documentary) | Undergraduate Research Blog

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