Letter from the Lake: It’s probably not totally coincidental that in the northern reaches of Wayne County, Pennsylvania, where bears are more common than window-unit air conditioners, reminders of our country’s gluttonous consumption of energy are frequently seen from the road.
Forty years ago, when I first began driving around the back roads of these so-called Endless Mountains in search of a little rest and relaxation in and around Wrighter Lake, one of the natural wonders was a stretch of barren ground along Route 6 between Carbondale and Scranton. By day it looked like a lunar landscape; at night it came alive with a long, flickering blue-hued band of light — it was the flame of long lingering fires in abandoned coal mines. At one point this vast stretch of otherwise undeveloped land had been coal country.
By the 1970s and ‘80s the coal mine fires had been extinguished. Now the roadside was dotted with signs opposing the “energy park.” The energy park was the dream of a consortium of electric power companies, which hoped to transform several thousand acres of mostly unpopulated land near the town of Ararat into a teeming village of power plants — up to 20 nuclear and 20 coal-fired plants. Instead of fighting 40 “NIMBY” battles over power plant location, the companies could have one grand shootout in a part of the country where there were very few backyards to begin with. As it turned out, the few prevailed and the energy park remained a dream.
So last year, when I first noticed the sleek towers and giant three-blade rotors spinning gently in a cool summer breeze, I was not entirely surprised. Sure enough, the newspapers up in northeast Pennsylvania have some good news to talk about: The area around Waymart, just north of Route 6 and east of Route 171, is now home to the “wind farm,” a cluster of 43 windmills put up by a Florida-based power company, the FPL Group, and said to be the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi.
It’s an odd sight, this wind farm. Driving north of Route 171 between Carbondale (aptly named for its coal mining heritage) and Forest City (the area from which the timbers were cut to shore up the mines in Carbondale), the windmills spread out in a silent procession along a ridge. If you were in Central Park in Manhattan and saw such a sight you would immediately say “Christo!” and marvel at the latest contraption the artist had managed to meld into the landscape.
Given the scale of the landscape in this corner of the country, these 270-foot high structures, with 115-foot propellers, seem as artfully placed as a Seward Johnson sculpture at the Grounds for Sculpture. When the wind is blowing right, they are capable of producing 60 megawatts of power. At a cost of $60 million, the wind farm doesn’t come cheap, but the American Wind Energy Association and other groups are pushing for an extension of a soon-to-expire federal tax credit that would stimulate more wind farms. Up in northeast Pennsylvania two more wind farms are already in the works, with the promise of another 39 windmills dotting the landscape.
Up here in Wayne County people don’t think of Christo when they see the windmills. They think jobs. While the windfarms themselves are not likely to employ busloads of workers (it’s mother nature that does the heavy lifting on these farms), there is talk of possibly a turbine manufacturing facility coming into the region and the prospects for several hundred new jobs. (That’s always good news in these parts. The other day I was in line for boat license at combination gas station and marine repair shop. The man in front of me was getting licenses for bear — and snakes. One of his freelance activities was responding to residents infested with rattle snakes. For a fee he would capture the snake and then release it in a further reach of the land.)
Given that these behemoth windmills are situated on the highest ridges of land in isolated areas, the only back yards from which opposition could spring would be the high pastures of docile dairy cows. But while this is northeastern Pennsylvania, it is still America and — sure enough — some environmentalists came forward with some concern.
No, it wasn’t lightning — the towers are especially grounded to contain any bolts that may pay a visit. Small aircraft flying over the mountains at night are protected by lights on the propellers to announce their presence. The concern was for bats — some wildlife protection people discovered that several hundred bats showed up dead shortly after the opening of a wind farm in West Virginia. The bats may have been confused by the sound emanating from the windmills, an ecologist speculated.
But the bats do not seem to have much of a following up here. Jobs and clean energy seem more compelling. For now, people in northeastern Pennsylvania are living happily with the windmills — no one up here is tilting at them.