Article by Adam Goodheart, Photos by Mitch Epstein
Infinite power from the wind is an American dream almost as old as the country itself, an idea that has entranced generations of scientists, artists and visionaries. In the early 19th century, when most labor was still done by human hands, an immigrant inventor named John Adolphus Etzler, pondering the windmills of his native Europe, sat down to scribble out some calculations. When he finished, he declared that wind power could be harnessed to liberate mankind from toil, providing as much energy as 40 trillion workers, or about 40,000 times earth’s population at that time. Imagine the glorious — and languorous — future that awaited!
All that Etzler’s plan required was a grid of 200-foot windmills crisscrossing every continent and ocean of the globe, in hedgelike rows set a mile apart. The perfect place to begin was in the wide-open spaces of the United States.
Perhaps fortunately, Etzler’s dream hasn’t come to pass, at least not yet. But recently, wind turbines — the modern equivalents of his miracle contraptions — have become ever-more-familiar features of the American landscape. From upstate New York to the Iowa prairies to the mountain passes of California, they sprout like pale and slender flowers.
Political leaders, too, cherish plans for a future liberated by the wind: President Obama speaks of doubling alternative energy by the end of his first term, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg conjures visions of a Manhattan whose skyscrapers bristle with turbines, like the windmills that once dominated the skyline of Dutch New Amsterdam. (Last year alone, according to industry figures, the nation’s wind-power capacity increased by 50 percent, although the recession and lower oil and natural-gas prices have slowed growth significantly since then.)
But will the spreading fields of giant pinwheels help safeguard the environment — as their advocates maintain — or mar it, aesthetically at least, for posterity? In many areas where wind farms are built or planned, neighbors rally against them, warning that America’s majestic vistas are being spoiled by high-tech eyesores.