She is a stocky woman, a strong woman and her voice is shaking. On the back of her T-shirt are the words, “Save the Sandhills” circling an image of a wind turbine struck through with the universal sign for “not allowed”. She is from Cherry County in the Nebraska Sandhills, a place I have written protectively about in this space before. She is testifying before the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee on LB1054 — a piece of legislation drafted by her state senator to reverse legislation passed two years ago and signed into law by our governor.
This is hard for her, the situation and the testifying before a horseshoe of suits.
Costumes mean different things to different people. One man who testifies in favor of the bill will scoff at the “suits” (gesturing to wind power developers who have testified against the bill) worn by those who only care about money. I don’t think he means to rope in all the senators but this is how stereotyping often fails us — it always ropes the innocent with those perceived guilty. The senators wear suits presumably to show their seriousness, their respect for the privilege of serving (though there are other ways to do this too). Same costume, different meaning.
Suits aside, I have testified before a legislative committee — it can be intimidating.
The legislation passed two years ago made it easier for Nebraska to attract wind power developers, a piece of the renewable energy puzzle, the latter of which I am keen to solve. It is also a piece of the rural economic development puzzle — an ongoing brain teaser for county governments.
The woman is here to speak truth to power, flanked by several ranching neighbors who have traveled hundreds of miles to the capital. She wants to reinstate a provision the earlier bill removed, that private wind development projects be authorized only after review by the state board that is charged with regulating public power in Nebraska.
There’s the rub, or part of it. Does a private wind development project fall under the auspices of Nebraska’s Power Review Board? Two years ago, the legislature said no. The stated charge of the board, as established in 1963, is “to regulate Nebraska’s publicly owned electrical utility industry.” On its surface, it would seem they made a reasonable decision, consistent with the stated charge.
There’s an old saw, right? You don’t know what you don’t know.
Without direct experience of a change, it is hard to know what might become critically important once you gain experience. The woman testifying, her hand raised now, a trembling finger tracing an arc across those senators’ chests, hopes passing LB1054 will give local residents a stronger voice than their county board seems willing to offer.
The chair of the committee asks the woman when her county board is up for reelection. The woman at first seems confused, uncertain what this has to do with the matter at hand, then answers. The senator suggests (and he clarifies he doesn’t mean to sound flip) putting up candidates who will better represent the interest of the landowners present.
She is here to speak truth to power and I want her to know this matters, to validate her.
And, I understand where the chair is coming from. During the hearing, I submitted my email contribution to the gathered testimony in which I wrote in part:
“As I listen to testimony …I am struck by the fact that those communities who seem to be testifying in favor of the bill are the victims of poor local representation and/or nonexistent zoning. While I’m mindful of and care about the impact to individual land owners, I oppose the bill in part because I don’t feel our state should be called upon to redress local political dysfunction.”
I spent this morning looking at documentary material on YouTube capturing the reactions of farmers in Wisconsin (Fond du lac County). Here I got to see what one of the ranchers from Cherry County had mentioned in his testimony — the phenomenon of “shadow flicker”. During the testimony, I had heard the reference and thought, how bad could that be? I got a much better sense of it on the videos.
If you have ever had a fire truck parked outside your home, you know what shadow flicker is on steroids — that pulsing play of light that temporarily overtakes any windowed room facing the street — can’t miss it. Shadow flicker from a turbine is a subdued version of that minus the colorful lights. And, the flicker is slower — as slow as the blades turn, blocking and unblocking the sun, casting an amplified shadow of those sculpted blades round and round, three times per revolution.
Alfred Hitchcock would have loved filming a movie in a house near a turbine!
What I don’t know is what part of a day (a week, a month) those rotating shadows overtake someone’s living room. Does it matter? I think it does matter or it might. In fact, I would argue in a world full of people, nobody gets a pass on being annoyed part of the time. In the city, it might be a barking dog (or two or four), a neighbor’s teenagers (and their friends) who drive loud cars and play loud music, the guy down the block who insists on using his smoker without considering that you don’t prefer to be enveloped by smoke, the one with musical Christmas lights, the other one with a taste for fireworks that exceeds yours by about four hours (or four days), the high school band up the hill practicing at 630 AM, the kids joy-riding on the main drag more than a mile away, the neighbor who ages or falls on hard times and can’t any longer maintain his/her property and on and on. City dwellers don’t enjoy these “wrinkles”. Living in a city has its pros and cons too. We don’t choose our neighbors; if we could they’d be perfect angels — like us.
Even so, I also wrote in my email:
“As an active member of Citizens Climate Lobby, a volunteer, bipartisan organization working to promote legislation on the national level to ease the effects of climate change, I’m here to listen and learn…I am learning a lot.”
Is there a limit to what a property owner should have to accept? One of the dismayed property owners in Wisconsin said he could live with a turbine a mile from his home but not 1000 feet. A mile is 5,280 feet. That’s a big difference. Could sitings accommodate it?
Turbine placement has turned neighboring ranchers and farmers against one another; the rancher who chooses to rent land for the placement of a turbine may be alienated by those who choose not to do so. The fabric of rural life tears a little and many who embrace that life feel it is already worn thin in too many places. Yet, the mayor of Broken Bow testified to the rejuvenation of a central retail hub in rural Nebraska and spoke against the bill. So-called wind farms had turned that small Nebraska town around.
I waited for concerns to be outlined about the precious Sandhills, but they were mentioned only in passing. The importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels was not mentioned at all. It was the personal encroachment that rankled the most and the feeling of their concerns falling on deaf ears at home. I hope one of them runs for their local government and finds what I hope every elected official does, that nothing looks as straightforward behind the public desk as it does behind the private one.
I left realizing anew how hard the job of a thoughtful legislator is, how numerous their constituents’ concerns, how truly impossible it is to please everyone and how critical it is for all of us to be in respectful, continual, candid and transparent dialogue.