A tale of two towers

“Look at these towers, passerby, and try to imagine what they really mean—what they symbolize—what they evoke.”

-Elie Wiesel

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

This is a tale of two towers.

Both stand near Montfort, Wisconsin, a small village in the southwest corner of the state. Both towers speak volumes, but they’re not saying what I thought for years they were saying.

The smaller tower is a railroad coal tower, once used to feed coal into the steam locomotives which snaked across the prairie connecting people with other people and products with customers until the middle of the last century.

The larger tower, of course, supports a modern wind turbine, part of an array of 20 that make up the Montfort Wind Energy Center.

I’ve driven past these two towers almost weekly for the past several years and every time I have marveled at how each one, standing only a few hundred yards from the other, seems to symbolize two very different eras. One tower is gigantic, new, elegant, clean in both appearance and operation, quiet, iconic, a seeming poster child for the new green economy. The other tower is shorter by more than half, blocky, dilapidated and dirty in appearance and (once) in operation, a puzzling relic of the dark days of the old, waning fossil fuel economy.

I now realize this was mostly wishful thinking on my part.

Someone once said we can tell what’s most important to a civilization by its tallest structures. For centuries, temples, mosques, churches and cathedrals dominated the profiles of  human settlements, implying that God (or gods as the case may be) was what really mattered to people. At the beginning of the twentieth century, sky-scraping towers of commerce began to overshadow places of worship (or maybe what we worshipped changed?) A few communication towers now dwarf many of those skyscrapers, but the office buildings still rule in sheer number and mass.

In small-town America today, a water tower or grain elevator is likely to be the tallest structure. In my community it’s a toss-up between our two water towers and the flagpole at the Mueller Sports Medicine Company (the grain elevators are now a mile or more out of town and the cell phone antennas are bolted to the water towers). I’ll leave it to others to speculate on what this might say about me and my fellow Sauk Prairieans.

The railroad tracks to Montfort went the way of the town’s fort; they were torn up years ago. Today a vast web of concrete and asphalt has largely replaced railroads in this country, and the locomotives that remain run on diesel oil. Nevertheless, we burn more coal than ever. Because our energy system has become so centralized, most of us don’t see it, but in a few communities in Wisconsin tall stacks belching the climate-changing byproducts of incomplete coal combustion dwarf everything for miles around. If I climbed to the top of that flagpole in our town, I could easily see the smokestacks of the coal-fired Columbia Energy Center near Portage some thirty miles distant. Set side by side, those smokestacks would make the 330-foot windmills in Montfort look like children’s pinwheels.

After the flagpole and the water towers, the next-tallest structures in my community are also the most numerous: electrical transmission towers. It’s this way in towns all across Wisconsin. These towers carry dirty, coal-generated energy into almost every home and businesses within our borders. Wind turbines are still conspicuous for their rarity, making it easy to forget that more than 60 percent of electricity generated in this state still comes from burning coal. When you add in natural gas, carbon-laden fossil fuels account for well over two-thirds of the energy Wisconsin generates.

The fossil fuel economy is hardly waning in Wisconsin. Utilities want to build even more coal-fired power plants in Wisconsin. This is more than a little embarrassing for a state that prides itself on its progressive and environmental heritage — we’re the home of the father of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, after all.

There are some who say we need more of those transmission towers and lines to convey power to and from Wisconsin. One recently-proposed transmission line could run right through the heart of Sauk County. There are some who even argue that we should have more new transmission lines so we can bring more renewable power onto the grid. But few people want these giant towers on or near their property. Unlike wind turbines, they’re ugly. Stray voltage can affect the milk production of cows and, some say, cause cancer and other illnesses in people. To make room for all those towers, huge swaths of forest need to be clear cut.

But these problems are as dwarfed by two other problems as those Montfort windmills are dwarfed by those smokestacks near Portage. The first big problem is this: coal is the genocidal dictator of the fossil fuel world. But instead of an iron curtain, it has spread a black carbon curtain over the entire globe. Two black curtains, really. The curtain in the atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide and soot. The CO2 stays up there for decades holding in solar radiation that might otherwise escape into space. Most of the soot falls to earth relatively quickly, forming a second black curtain that melts glaciers, sea and lake ice, decreasing the planet’s albedo — its ability to reflect solar radiation back into space — which only exacerbates global warming. These are crimes for which coal has been tried and found guilty, and not just by a single judge or jury; the verdict was reached and read out years ago by an overwhelming majority of scientists. And yet coal is still on the loose, violating the planet, killing tens of thousands of people every year and driving species extinct.

The second major problem is our centralized, profit-driven system of energy production and distribution. That wind farm near Montfort was built and is owned by an energy company based in Florida. The electricity generated at the dam owned by Alliant Energy a mile upstream from my town is fed into the continental grid; for all I know it’s helping to light casinos in the Nevada desert.

Such a far-flung, wasteful, and bottom-line-motivated energy system makes us all extremely vulnerable to overloads and blackouts that can affect entire regions of the country. It also makes us susceptible to sabotage by terrorists.

My town buys its electricity from Alliant. Like most utilities, Alliant seeks the biggest possible profit for its shareholders. That means it needs to produce electricity as inexpensively as possible. Burning coal is still the cheapest way to do that, but only if you externalize (i.e. pass on to the public and their descendants) some or all of the environmental and health costs, which companies like Alliant always do. And we let them do it. Our taxes and laws encourage it.

It hasn’t always been this way. Just forty miles or so north of Montfort, a historical marker along Highway 14 near Richland Center stands on the spot were, on a spring day in 1937, the first farm in Wisconsin began receiving power from a rural electric cooperative. Such cooperatives generated and distributed power locally on a not-for-profit model. Or rather, everyone in the community profited because every member had access to the power at reasonable rates and no distant corporation or group of shareholders needed to get a fat dividend. If by chance a dam had to close for repairs once in a while, or a boiler blew, the whole state wasn’t blacked out. We rely on a steady flow of electricity far more than they did 7o years ago, and our vulnerability has increased almost in direct proportion to that reliance.

In the same way we’re starting to re-localize agriculture, we need to begin to re-localize energy. Some call it distributed generation: power generated close to where it’s used. I prefer the term borrowed from the farmers: Community Supported Energy (CSE). As Bill McKibben points out in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, it not only makes ecological sense to generate your power close to home, it makes financial sense. About 10 percent of an American community’s money is spent on fuel, and most of that goes to countries like Saudi Arabia and companies like BP and Alliant Energy. Building those new transmission lines costs as much as $10 million per mile, according to Ian Bowles, energy secretary for the state of Massachusetts. Contrast that to a 2008 study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showing that half of all American states could meet their energy needs entirely within their borders, and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage of their needs.

But the big utilities aren’t going to surrender their monopolies without a fight. They’re backing bills that subsidize construction of multi-billion-dollar, centralized solar and wind farms despite a large body of research that shows it’s faster and cheaper to build renewable systems close to the demand for them. Most estimates put the amount of electricity lost in moving all those electrons through wires between 8 and 10 percent, which doesn’t sound like much until you imagine one-tenth of American cities without any power.

We could certainly have more wind farms in and around Wisconsin communities, but we could also have solar panels on almost every home and business. New hydroelectric systems exist that do not interrupt the flow of rivers or impede fish migration and spawning. There are geothermal systems like this one in Fond du Lac that can heat and cool our schools, factories and office buildings.

The Unites States has barely dipped its toe into the green economy. A report just out shows that for every subsidy dollar renewable energy gets, the government (that is, us) gives the fossil fuel industry $12. Nevertheless, strides are being made right here in southern Wisconsin. A new state-of-the-art Cardinal Glass factory I toured in Mazomanie as part of the Southwest Wisconsin Homegrown Renewable Energy Tour, organized last year by the Wisconsin Farmers Union and other groups, has been manufacturing high-tempered glass for solar panels since April of 2009. They soon expect to have over 100 employees on the payroll. Wausaukee Composites in Cuba City makes nacelles and blades for wind turbines. Renewable energy companies like these in my own community of Sauk Prairie are ready and waiting to grow, but they need much more help from state and local leaders to do it. Combined with increased energy efficiency, we could make huge leaps forward to power our own communities, increase our energy security (and national security) and dramatically shrink our carbon footprint. Like Greensburg, Kansas, we could be a poster child for the leaner, greener economy, attracting residents and businesses that put a high value on conservation, creativity, energy independence and innovation.

My hope is that someday soon that smokestack near Portage might stand as a decaying monument to an era that is truly dead and gone — the era of centralized, dirty, wasteful and holocaustic energy — and that millions of new monuments to the new homegrown renewable economy will spring up in communities all across our state in the form of rooftop solar panels, windmills, biogas and biomass generators.

What we elevate really does say a lot about us. Right now we’re elevating great quantities of greenhouse gasses and particulate pollution, via huge centralized coal-fired power plants — straight into the heavens where it is rapidly warming the planet and causing climate chaos here in the Midwest and all around the world. To me that says we don’t, on the whole, care much very much about our future, our children and grandchildren, or the rest of the world.

We could change that by demanding that our leaders in Madison and Washington tip the balance of research and development dollars away from fossil fuels like coal and oil and toward truly homegrown renewable energy. By demanding that they end the huge subsidies to coal and oil companies. By calling our city and town council members and educating them about the enormous potential of Community Supported Energy. By conserving more energy ourselves.

If we don’t, before long it won’t much matter what we elevate. All our towers will be tombstones, grim monuments to our failure to meet the greatest crisis the world ever faced.