“The Electric Windmill” (Part II)

Ed. note: This completes a two-part excerpt from Tom Bethell’s “inadvertent autobiography,” The Electric Windmill (1988: pp. 105–06). Part I was yesterday.

“I asked the gentleman from Vermont why the [wind turbine] blades were whirring around so smoothly in such still air. ‘It’s not working off the wind,’ he said. ‘It’s plugged into the power outlet.’ It wasn’t demonstrating the production of electricity. Electricity was demonstrating it.”

“Somehow, at that moment, the sun went in. And the rock music stopped. But the windmill went on turning….”

… someone named Bob Zdenck appeared eventually and told me how the fair was put together.

“First, we wrote a proposal for funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Housing and Urban Development, Department of Labor, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, and the Community Services Administration,” he said. “In September 1978, we got a $19,000 planning grand for the Department of Energy. We hired Michael Duberstein in October to begin planning and logistics. Then we hired two outreach workers and an administrative assistant.

“The next thing was we got a $17,000 grant from ACTION [a new -ish Federal agency that includes the Peace Corps]. We held a very important meeting with Bill Holmberg from the Office of Consumer Affairs., the Department of Energy, and he agreed to help us with a lot of in-house cost.

“Then we got numerous other grants: $15,000 from the Economic Development Administration, $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, $15,000 from the National Center for Appropriate Technology, $5,000 from the Small Business Administration, $2,500 from HUD, and a lot of in-house from the National Park Service.

“We have a core staff of five people. But the Department of Energy is paying for others. The Baltimore County CETA Consortium made the building facades. And we had public service announcements on television in ten states.”

I asked Bob where Michael Duberstein was to be found. “Showing Senator Tsongas round the fair,” he said.

Tsongas! So! He too was implicated. I thought he might have taken up residence in Tanzania by now, the better to act as Julius Nyerere’s public relations man. Didn’t know he was involved in this solar malarkey. Next thing you knew, Ralph Nadir himself would come loping down a path with a file folder under his arm, wearing his conscientious frown.

I decided to take a look at the windmill, a large three-bladed propeller on top of a tall tower. The propeller was churning around merrily, although there was little or no wind at ground level. On the way I stopped at the “bio-gas” demonstration and was informed that the people here received a Community Services Administration grant of $150,000. (It was beginning to look as though Bob Zdenck had underestimated the taxpayers’ unwitting contribution.)

At the foot of the windmill a rather well-bred Vermonter was explaining everything about the contraption. The windmill cost about $4,000 to buy and install, he said. It would save about half your electricity bill–if you lived in a windy spot. Using his figures, I concluded it would take at least 20 years to pay off the investment–if it never broke down. The prospect of shinnying up the mast to repairing worn-out bearings was not at all enticing ….

Plainly, I was contemplating a rich man’s toy. Federal tax credits make it less so, however, at the same time encouraging the diversion of capital into economic channels of dubious merit. The Vermonter waxed enthusiastic about Wisconsin’s progressive congressman, Henry Reuss, who had installed a windmill in his backyard. I believe he also pushed through the tax credit.

I asked the gentleman from Vermont why the blades were whirring around so smoothly in such still air. “It’s not working off the wind,” he said. “It’s plugged into the power outlet.” It wasn’t demonstrating the production of electricity. Electricity was demonstrating it.

Somehow, at that moment, the sun went in. And the rock music stopped. But the windmill went on turning, and the Federal money, I am sure, still pours down on these artful dodgers of the 1970s, the residue of the counterculture, who have discovered that Big Daddy in Washington has the credit card now, and is ready to put it at their disposal until they decide what they want to do when they grow up.

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July 21, 2021 at 01:04AM

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