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Detox for the body politic

Early South Carolina windmill (Charleston Public Library)

It was just a geeky science story, but a vice president was telling me not to write it. He was not my boss, but my sources reported to him and wouldn’t utter a peep without his say-so. The topic was toxic, he said.

I sat in his office and gaped at him, dumbfounded. Only in some alternate universe would the topic of wind turbines and power grids be toxic.

Patiently, the VP explained to me the alternate universe of South Carolina politics. According to doctrine in that realm, decent Americans pledge allegiance to fossil fuels and nukes. Only weirdo liberals truck with solar and wind.

So Clemson University could build and operate, in North Charleston, a fabulous new facility for testing wind turbines and simulating their use on the grid. And we could bank some big grants and contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy and companies such as General Electric to do the work. We just couldn’t write about it.

Think like a native

Clemson gets about ten percent of its budget from the state. Apparently, that tithe entitles the elected representatives of decent Americans to pin their academic leaders to a clothesline and beat them like dusty rugs. So I didn’t blame the VP. Fortunately for us both, he found another job and left. So I dusted off the story and pitched it up the line. I promised not to quote Al Gore. My boss swallowed hard and said sure, go ahead.

Insurgents afoot in an alternate universe rely on stealth. To save my boss a world of hurt, I would have to think like a native. And in South Carolina, the natives take pride in their history.

So I dug up some history. Three centuries ago, windmills designed by Dutch engineers powered the saws that cut the lumber that built a city called Charleston. The windmills also drained swamps and ground corn. So wind energy was nothing new. It was heritage, deeply rooted as indigo or rice. I had my lead.

And who needs Al Gore, if you’ve got a clear-eyed engineer crunching the numbers and surmising, “Hey, this will work."

My motives in this case weren’t political. Honest. The science was the story: How do you tune up a big, flighty turbine to play nice with a crotchety electrical grid? I wanted to witness that dance first-hand. But if you happen to share my opinion that renewable energy is a frugal and inherently conservative idea, you don’t want the body politic launching antibodies against it. You want to twine it with the native DNA. So you try to inoculate a few decent Americans, and you hope the insurgence moves into their blood.

For the story, see “Defining the Wind” (thanks for the title, Scott Huler)

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