Clean power is a dirty business

Everyone knows that power corrupts; unfortunately, it seems that the old adage applies to wind power, too. An investigative piece on the front of yesterday’s New York Times found that wind companies looking to gain a foothold in upstate New York had apparently created “an epidemic of corruption and intimidation” as they rushed to acquire land for new wind turbines.

In the town of Burke, near the Canadian border, two Town Board members signed private deals leasing property to wind companies, even as they deliberated over the zoning laws that would allow the companies to erect turbines. Another board member openly bragged about the fortune he stood to make selling concrete to build bases for the new towers. Meanwhile, opponents of the turbines say they’ve been repeatedly threatened, and one activist says her car’s windscreen has been smashed twice.

The same story is playing out across a broad swathe of upstate New York, as wind companies scrabble for land - and local residents vie for lucrative land-lease deals, which can bring in tens of thousands of dollars a year. “It really is renewable power gone wrong,” said Franklin County DA Derek Champagne, who’s been investigating wind-power corruption since last spring. “It’s a modern day gold rush.” Now New York’s state Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, has taken up the investigation, and is looking into allegations that wind companies sought to improperly influence local officials and quietly conspired to keep land prices low.

Over in Washington, meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi is also coming under fire for her ties to Big Wind: it’s emerged that the House speaker has invested up to a quarter of a million dollars in the Clean Energy Fuels Corporation (CLNE) - the business end of Texas oilman-turned-wind-evangelist T Boone Pickens' plan for a renewable-energy revolution. That’s led to predictable squeals of fury from the right-wing blogosphere, where conservative pundits are already accusing Pelosi of conspiring to keep conventional energy prices high so that she and T Boone can make a quick buck.

In fact, there’s almost certainly less to Windmillgate than meets the eye; Pelosi has long been a supporter of renewables, and it’s fatuous to suggest that her recent efforts to promote clean energy have been specifically aimed at boosting CLNE stock. Still, like the Burke brouhaha, Pelosi’s investments are a reminder that Big Wind and Big Solar aren’t inherently any less corrupt - or corrupting - than Big Coal and Big Oil. Sadly, the more money flows into the clean energy sector, the more it will begin to look as dirty as any other industry.