“Corrosive Communities”: How A Facebook Fight Over Wind Power Predicts the Future of Local Politics in America
In small towns around the country, wind turbines are doing something to the locals.
Bad vibrations abound. Many of them are obvious: We can sense them, measure the damage they do, try to counteract or avoid them. Others exist in a range outside the limit of normal human perception. Most of us go about our lives oblivious to these. But sometimes a person gains a new kind of awareness, one that gives form and name to the hidden forces in the air, in this country, at this moment. Such a person may become obsessed, tormented, desperate. Such a person may feel obligated to act.
Erik and Chantelle Benko live in rural Sidney Township, Michigan, about 45 minutes northeast of Grand Rapids. They moved there in 2016, to a ramshackle ranch on 40 rolling acres, where they planned to breed American quarter horses and set up an equine-assisted psychotherapy practice. Getting the place in shape took several hundred thousand dollars, they said. But it was worth it to raise their two boys in a place where people knew each other and treated each other with respect, where kids got the first day of hunting season off from school, where you couldn’t pump gas without making friends with the clerk. The first night in his new home, the sky was so clear, Erik Benko said, “you felt like you could reach out and grab a handful of stars.”
One day in October 2020, a post on the Facebook page for the Sidney Township Neighborhood Watch seized the Benkos’ attention. Jeffrey Lodholtz, a member of the township planning commission, had published a screenshot of a text message from Jed Welder, a local farmer and township trustee. Like hundreds of rural and agricultural communities across the country, Sidney Township, open, gusty, and short on cash, was receiving interest from a wind energy company. Wind farms can bring municipal tax benefits, construction jobs, and payments for fallow or devalued cropland. The planning commission was considering a new law to set standards to encourage development.
“Have a vested interest in this project,” Welder wrote. “I’ve already gotten my first check.”
“There are multiple things that need to be changed before we can just implement it,” Lodholtz responded.
“So how long before you think we can get this thing signed!?” Welder asked.
Wind energy companies lease land from individual owners and pay royalties based on the electricity generated by the turbines they build there. As Erik Benko read it, a township trustee was pressuring the planning commission to approve a development for his own profit. Other members of the Facebook group saw it this way, too. The comment section filled up with dozens of residents — dozens being a significant number in a township with a population of roughly 2,500 — outraged over this “vested interest.”
For the Benkos, the post was a window onto a world they didn’t know existed: self-dealing and cold. A big corporation, Apex Clean Energy, had been skulking around their new home “in the shadows,” as Erik Benko said he came to realize, “wining and dining township officials” and making plans for the land. The Benkos began to educate themselves, and what they found was infuriating.
“If you google some of those terms,” Erik Benko said, “this whole seedy underbelly opens up.”
The Benkos learned that turbines were nearly as tall as the Washington Monument, with 160-foot-long blades. They learned the turbines produce a mechanical hum that never stops. They learned there were people around the country, in communities just like theirs, who claimed, with ever-more-distressing certainty, that turbines destroyed their property values, kept them up at night, made them sick, gave their children epileptic seizures, caused their farm animals to miscarry, drove them insane. These anecdotes weren’t supported by medical evidence, necessarily, but they were so numerous — it seemed to the Benkos that so many people couldn't all be wrong. The Benkos pictured the huge blades that were already cutting through the air in neighboring Gratiot County, the farms below dark under their long shadows. It was unnatural, wrong. And if the people on Facebook were right, a corporation had been conspiring with the government to erect these steel monsters all around the county. (In a statement, Apex said, “For the Montcalm Wind project, and many other projects in our portfolio, Apex Clean Energy uses a community-based lease that guarantees equal treatment to all people.” It said Michigan had clear rules about whether local officials should recuse themselves over a “vested interest.”)
“We felt like we were going to lose our entire life,” Chantelle Benko said. “Everything we worked night and day for.”
“We felt like we were going to lose our entire life.”
The Sidney Township neighborhood watch page was a place where a post about a lost dog ordinarily made for big news. The admin told the angry commenters to knock it off. But there was so much energy; it needed a place to go. Erik Benko knew that something had to happen. Someone had to act.
On Oct. 29, the Benkos started a Facebook community page to raise awareness about — and fight — the development of wind energy in their area: “Montcalm County Citizens United.” Over the past year, it has grown into a political force in the area, joining a national network of such pages, all dedicated to organizing against wind energy projects at the local level.
Like higher-profile local battles over mask mandates and critical race theory, disagreements over wind policy have become intensely antagonistic and frequently hysterical. But unlike those issues, opposition to turbines isn’t neatly polarized along red–blue lines: It often pits conservatives against conservatives and liberals against liberals. Nor does it revolve around a once-in-a-generation event, like a global pandemic. Instead, it’s elemental — quite literally, in the air. In this sense, it may offer the purest example yet of the power of social media to warp local politics in 2021, to make a single emotional issue stand in for and subsume all others. For the future of civic life in the United States, Montcalm County is a dark forecast of the way the winds are shifting.
The first industrial wind turbines in the United States started spinning in the early 1980s in California. Early wind farms were built far from people, in places like the arid Tehachapi Pass, which connects the San Joaquin Valley to the Mojave Desert, and the Delaware Mountains of Culberson County, Texas (pop: 2,188). From 1997 to 2009, the majority of American states enacted policies that require electrical utilities to use some clean sources — solar, hydro, wind. These, combined with federal tax credits for wind-generated electricity, helped create a $90 billion global wind turbine market as of 2019. Today, there are industrial-scale wind power facilities in 40 states, producing about 7% of the nation’s power. A plot of the nation’s wind turbines resembles a wide sash from the Upper Midwest, southwest through the plains, and finally into Texas.
Once curiosities glimpsed through the window of a moving car, today wind farms are for many Americans fixtures of the environment. The United States Geological Survey counts more than 70,000 industrial turbines in the country. By the end of 2015, 1.4 million US homes were within 5 miles of a wind project, a more than 300% increase from 2010. This trend is set to continue. To address the climate crisis, President Biden has called for the country to eliminate carbon-producing energy sources by 2035, and wind power is expected to be a cornerstone of the renewable energy transition. In October, the administration announced a plan to build enormous wind farms along much of the US coastline.
For the most part, Americans who live close to wind turbines either like them or don’t care. A 2019 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that among wind turbine neighbors — people who live within about fives miles of an industrial wind farm — those with positive feelings toward the turbines outnumbered by 7 to 1 those with negative ones. Negative feelings toward turbines are associated with being able to hear the machines with the windows shut, thinking that the turbines don’t fit well with the landscape, and feeling that the planning process was unfair.
Americans who don’t like wind projects have a way of making themselves heard. In 2001, a proposal for 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound drew opposition from an all-star cast of wealthy Massachusetts property owners, including Walter Cronkite, historian David McCullough, Bill Koch, Ted Kennedy, and Mitt Romney. “We cannot trash this extraordinary resource," then-governor Romney said in 2004. "I've seen wind farms, and they are not pretty.” Donald Trump has been an outspoken, conspiratorial critic of wind farms ever since the Scottish government announced plans to build one in view of one of his golf courses. And for the past several years, a coalition of Hamptons residents including Estée Lauder heir Ronald Lauder and actress Edie Falco have fought against a proposed wind farm 35 miles off of Montauk.
Modern wind turbines are big and getting bigger; the new GE Haliade-X 13MW is about twice the height and diameter of the London Eye Ferris wheel. Lots of people — like Mitt Romney — simply do not like to look at them, or are worried that the gargantuan devices will lower local property values. This has led many, including wind energy developers, to characterize opposition to wind projects as simple NIMBYism. It is a bipartisan phenomenon, as most NIMBYism is. And one of the most frequent objections to wind farms is aesthetic — that they will spoil the look and feel of a landscape.
But for some, the objection comes from a deeper and perhaps less calculating place. Folk superstition has long assigned certain winds enormous powers. The Foehn, which whips across the Alps, is blamed by some Swiss for headaches, nosebleeds, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. And France’s bitter Mistral is said to induce madness — including, notoriously, Vincent Van Gogh’s.
In 2009, a New York pediatrician named Nina Pierpont self-published a book called Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment. Based on two dozen interviews with people who live near wind turbines, the book hypothesizes that wind turbines create a combination of infrasound — sound waves with a frequency below what humans can hear — and low-frequency background noise (think: your dishwasher) that can cause an alarming array of maladies, ranging from sleep problems and dizziness to panic and irritability. In May 2010, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health released a report averring that “no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont’s work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias.” But the book caught on, and over the past decade, anti-wind advocates added epileptic seizures, certain forms of cancer, and heart arrhythmia to the list of ailments.
Something like wind turbine syndrome is real — it’s just not caused by hearing wind turbines.
The largest and most thorough epidemiological study of wind turbine noise was published by Health Canada in 2014. Notably, it is the only study of turbines that has ever supplemented self-reports of negative health effects with objective health measures, including blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples. In more than 1,000 households at varying distances from wind farms, Health Canada found no link between exposure to turbine noise and illness, chronic disease, stress, or sleep quality.
Crucially, though, it showed a correlation between increasing wind turbine noise and reports of annoyance. A 2011 paper in the journal Environmental Health suggested that “self reported health effects of people living near wind turbines are more likely attributed to physical manifestation from an annoyed state.” Another way of putting this is that something like wind turbine syndrome is real — it’s just not caused by hearing wind turbines. Rather, some scientists have suggested, it’s caused by hearing about how bad wind turbines are, producing what they call the “nocebo effect.” Indeed, the Health Canada study found that annoyance levels were significantly lower in people who materially benefitted from wind development, suggesting that a person’s prior associations with turbines play a major role in determining how disturbing they perceive them to be. The World Health Organization’s most recent environmental noise guidelines for Europe, published in 2018, conditionally recommend that turbines not rise above a weighted daily average of 45 decibels, about the volume of moderate rainfall. Noise levels above this, the report states, carry a 10% risk of a “highly annoyed population.”
Over the past several years, like most every other area of human concern, wind opposition groups have moved onto Facebook, where they have networked, sharpened their rhetoric, and broadcast their annoyance. On hundreds of community pages like “Stop These Things,” “Great Lakes Wind Truth,” and “Montcalm County Citizens United,” people trade frightening images of turbine blades on fire, excerpts from Pierpont’s work, stories of friends of friends who have supposedly moved into their farmhouse closets to block out the drone of the turbines, PragerU videos that claim to debunk the promises of the renewable energy industry, and secondhand testimony from a French farmer who swears wind turbines damaged his livestock. (“My beasts just kept dying.”) Some of the pages have thousands of members and feature dozens of new posts a day. Many of them are misleading or false — and Facebook marks the odd post as such. Members almost never openly dispute the need for clean energy, and in fact they count some environmentalists among their ranks. Instead, they focus on the alleged greed of the green energy industry, the alleged corruption of local officials, and the nitty-gritty process of defeating wind development.
Noise levels above this carry a 10% risk of a “highly annoyed population.”
These Facebook pages have become powerful incubators of local political action. Members share community board meeting schedules, .pdfs of wind leases signed by landowners, plans to oust unsympathetic local politicians, and rubrics for the restrictive local zoning laws that can temporarily or permanently block wind projects. A report by the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative, free-market think tank that receives funding from fossil fuel interests, counted 317 US municipalities, from Shasta County, California, to Reno County, Kansas, that had “rejected” wind power, often through insurmountable requirements. Many of these “rejections” have associated Facebook community pages.
But the effect of the pages goes far beyond blocking wind farms. In some places they have contributed to a culture of civic mistrust so profound that it has attracted the attention of sociologists. Their research has put the problem on a par with the breakdowns in communities that have suffered through enormous disasters like a chemical spill or a bridge collapse. A photo posted in August to an anti-wind community page for Madison County, Iowa, depicts two silhouetted figures raising their arms in triumph in front of a burning turbine. “We will celebrate!!! Death to industrial wind turbines MidAmerican Energy,” the caption reads. In Texas, a county commissioner who supported tax breaks for wind developments resigned after receiving threats that made him fear for his life. In Vermont, the chair of a town select board resigned after receiving a menacing note about his support for a wind project.
And in Montcalm County, Michigan — home of Erik and Chantelle Benko — the planning commissioner for Pine Township resigned suddenly before an August 2021 special meeting over a proposed wind ordinance. After the meeting, the township chair explained to a reporter from the Greenville Daily News that the official had resigned because he was, well, getting “a hard time on the internet.”
After they started Montcalm County Citizens United, Erik and Chantelle Benko discovered that Apex Clean Energy had already signed leases in several of the county’s 20 townships, including their own. The state of Michigan comprises 1,240 such townships, local governments that have broad authority over planning and zoning. So while a developer may plan wind farms for a county, a project can be contested at a more granular scale. Neighboring townships can set completely different standards for wind, a fact that expresses itself dramatically as one drives through the state, from pastoral landscapes with no turbines at all to ones suddenly dominated by their swooping blades.
So while the Benkos were starting from behind, there were multiple battlefields on which to fight. Chantelle reached out to friends and colleagues from her old job as a therapist at a prison in nearby Ionia. Erik drew on his degree in marketing. “I know enough about the algorithms to know you need regular posts with a lot of likes,” he told me. “You need at least one a day — ideally something that will drive clicks and engagement, including goofy memes. That’s what keeps the lights on some days.”
Two people Chantelle Benko contacted immediately were Norm Stephens and Kevon Martis, a retired school teacher and a contractor, respectively, from the other side of the state. They are, as Benko put it to me, the “Luke Skywalker and Yoda” of opposition to industrial wind power in Michigan. Both men had helped defeat wind proposals in their own townships years earlier, and have moved on to helping other local anti-wind groups do the same. Martis gives presentations across Michigan about the alleged negative impacts of turbines. Stephens attends public meetings around the state urging townships not to move forward with wind developments without thorough research — research he’s happy, of course, to furnish. Only a few days after the Benkos started Montcalm County Citizens United, or MCCU, Stephens supplied a list of 32 “Negatives of Wind Energy,” which the Benkos then turned into a pamphlet. It included “NEGATIVE IMPACT ON PHYSICAL & MENTAL HEALTH,” “RED FLASHING WARNING LIGHTS,” “AESTHETICS: 600’ EYE SORES,” “BAT & BIRD KILLS,” and “MERCY FLIGHT INTERFERENCE.” Chantelle Benko posted it to the group. At the same time, she posted in MCCU that Martis would be available to take questions.
Among his foes in the wind industry — who variously call him “he who shall not be named” and “K-Mart” — it is assumed that Martis is an agent of the fossil fuel industry, waging a faux-populist war against clean energy in the Upper Midwest; why else would one man tilt at so many windmills. They point to the sheer amount of travel he does, to townships around the state and to states around the region, as proof that he has a significant income source outside his day job. Martis claims that his anti-wind organization, the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, has received no donations from corporate energy interests and that he has lost money on his anti-wind work over the past decade. He categorically denies financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Martis does hold the title of senior policy fellow at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, a think tank funded by the Koch brothers and the coal industry that once strategized a national PR campaign against wind power. When he accepted the fellowship, Martis told me, he was having trouble getting Michigan newspapers to print his op-eds, and he thought the credential would help. He acknowledges that it gets Republican legislators to take him more seriously; he regularly testifies in front of the Michigan and Ohio legislatures. But he is adamant that he has no active involvement with the institute, which, he said, “has never asked me to do a single thing, ever.”
When I asked Martis about the motivation behind his work, he told me that poor rural people deserve to fight wind developments with the same level of organization as rich people. He started to tell me a story about an old farmer who had asked for his help. Then he stopped and began to cry. “Most of these townships have 1,000 or 1,200 people in them,” he said. ”We don’t see development pressure from Fortune 500 companies, ever. Suddenly they come in with lawyers and engineers. As a Christian, my understanding of the Bible says if you have the means to help, you should.”
Martis did not initiate the wind debate in Montcalm County, though he did try. His anti-wind organization posted on its Facebook page back in November 2019 that Apex was planning a development there. But it was only a full year later, after the “vested interest” post, that the Benkos started MCCU. And once it got going, local residents made the noise. Stephens and Martis chimed in frequently in the comments.
The MCCU moved quickly from online organization to physical action, finding that many of the tactics for shaping a debate online applied to old-fashioned community politics. In a post on Nov. 8, 2020, only 10 days after starting the group, Chantelle Benko encouraged its members to make their presence felt at a Sidney Township board meeting the following day.
”If you come to the meeting,” she wrote, “please highly consider voicing your OPPOSITION to these wind turbines coming into our area so the board members can hear our voices say NO TO BIG WIND!!! Looking out and seeing nodding heads doesn't carry nearly as much noise as they need to be hearing from us!!! YOUR SILENCE = CONSENT to those who are listening.”
These meetings typically drew an audience you could count on the fingers of one hand, but on Nov, 9, 140 people showed up. Crowded under a wood pavilion at dusk, they listened to Albert Jongewaard, a senior development manager at Apex, speak for almost 90 minutes. Handsome and polished, Jongewaard extolled the benefits of revenue for participating landowners, a larger tax base, and, potentially, jobs for a county that had been hurting for them since an Electrolux factory closed in 2006. Then he began taking questions.
“Is it just me or do those sound like shill questions?”
As dusk turned to dark, Erik Benko stood up, thrust his hands in his pockets, and stared at Jongewaard for several minutes as the rep spoke.
“Is it just me or do those sound like shill questions?” he said, finally. Benko produced a piece of paper. “I’m going to read this, because I’m not as smooth a talker as this guy,” he said.
“No one has the right to destroy the peace and serenity of nature in our lifestyle here. We do not want these things in our township, plain and simple,” Benko read, his voice rising in a flat Michigan accent. He called on the township board to “Say no to these things. Write an impossible ordinance for wind turbine placement and let’s all get back to living our lives in peace.” As he finished speaking, the pavilion erupted in cheers. It was like a small, local version of brigading, the online practice of swarming a contested topic in order to give the impression of unanimous public opinion.
In the weeks after the meeting, MCCU took off. People from around the county joined: office managers, steel fabricators, court clerks, transportation maintenance workers, medical marjiuana marketers. So did sympathizers from other anti-wind groups throughout the country: Altamont, Kansas, and Knightstown, Indiana, and Nantucket, Massachusetts. Norm Stephens and Kevon Martis posted every day, or close to it. Albert Jongewaard became “Apex Albert.” Apex Clean Energy became “Apex Predators.” The Benkos started getting direct messages every day from people worked up about turbines. They were spending so much time answering questions from new members that they wrote a FAQ, and then rules for the group, like “Be Kind and Courteous,” and “No Foul Language.”
But more importantly, Erik Benko told me, was a moratorium on partisan political discussion — no left versus right. The reasons people express for opposing wind projects span the political divide. In progressive communities, they tend to focus on the environmental impact, like the potential harm to bats and birds. In conservative ones, they tend to focus more on the alleged imposition of the liberal green agenda. Libertarian-leaning conservatives themselves, the Benkos didn’t want to risk alienating anyone opposed to Apex. Plus, they were so much less interested in national politics now. All they found themselves caring about was preventing wind turbines in Montcalm County.
As winter moved in and COVID precluded in-person gatherings, township board meetings convened online, making it easy for MCCU members to attend meetings outside their own townships. Astonished officials and local reporters saw meetings swell to more than 100 participants. Unaccustomed to video calls and baffled by the sheer amount of anger in what had long been sleepy gatherings, officials grew frustrated and defensive. Recrimination and name-calling filled Zoom text chats.
“The meetings were chaos,” Elisabeth Waldon, the news editor of the Greenville Daily News, told me. “Everybody had their video screen on and nobody knew how to mute.”
“If audience members could refrain from asking fellow attendees in the Zoom chatroom, ‘everyone unmute and start talking’ in the middle of a meeting,” Waldon wrote in a Feb. 6, 2021, column, “that’d be helpful.”
“They could’ve put poison into our milk.”
The local mood had turned sour and then paranoid. At a January meeting of the Douglass Township planning commission, the chair reported that earlier that week a masked figure had come to his farm and dropped off a parcel of letters from citizens concerned about wind power. The chair compared the intrusion to “domestic terrorism.”
“How do I know they didn’t go into our milk house?” he said. “They could’ve put poison into our milk.”
The hysteria perhaps testified to just how quickly the activists had organized in a community completely unaccustomed to such intense advocacy. The Benkos built a separate website to share anti-wind resources and take donations. They signed up coordinators for almost every township and drew up plans to put several wind-friendly ordinances throughout the county to referendum. Signs now dotted lawns throughout the county. “Say No To Big Wind In Montcalm County!” read some. “2 Tall 2 Close 2 Loud” read others.
On July 8, 2021, the Sidney Township board approved 4–1 an ordinance that forbade placing turbines within 3,000 feet of any road right of way, making it effectively impossible for Apex to build there. When the decision was announced in the township hall, cheers rang out and someone blasted a horn. Erik and Chantelle Benko had won. But the fight in Montcalm County was only starting.
Sociologists of disaster have historically distinguished between natural disasters and technological ones. The former are acts of God: earthquakes, eruptions, tornados. The latter are human-made: bridge collapses, nuclear meltdowns, oil spills. (More recently, floods, fires, and other disasters related to human-made climate change have complicated this dichotomy.) In the 1997 paper “Contamination, Corrosion, and the Social Order,” the environmental sociologist William Freudenburg argued that technological disasters can be far more damaging to social cohesion than natural ones. That’s for a few reasons: Someone is usually at fault for a technological disaster, a fact that encourages blame. The harm of a technological disaster is often ambiguous or difficult to quantify, encouraging differing interpretations. That ambiguity makes it hard to know when the disaster is over, encouraging a persistent state of perceived danger.
“A pervasive uncertainty may be coupled with an intensification of residents’ need to act,” Freudenburg wrote. “In a case involving possible toxic contamination, there will often be no real way for anyone … to know how much toxicity is present, or was.”
Social groups under this kind of stress fit into a model Freudenburg called “Corrosive Communities,” which are defined by three characteristics. The first is the perception of an ongoing threat to human health. The second is “recreancy,” a technical term in sociology that refers to the feeling that experts and institutions can’t manage the new risks created by technological development. The third is litigation. These characteristics feed on each other. A heightened perception of risk leads people to wonder why experts and institutions aren’t doing their jobs. A sense of recreancy tends to generate litigation. Litigation raises awareness of risk. Such communities may be harmed as much or more by the social dynamics that follow a technological disaster as they are by the disaster itself.
Last year, Jeffrey Jacquet, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, was part of a research team that applied the corrosive community model to two prominent anti-wind Facebook community pages in central Ohio, one in a county with a proposed wind project, and the other in a county that already had a wind farm. The authors coded 800 posts in the two groups for the three characteristic themes of a corrosive community. They found that around half the posts in both groups highlighted the theme of recreancy — distrust in government, scientists, and developers; that 40% of posts in one group and 24% of posts in the other concerned litigation (wind companies sometimes sue municipalities over restrictive ordinances); and less than 20% of posts in the two groups concerned health and physical effects. While posts about health were less common, members engaged with them more than any other kind of content.
The authors concluded that the pages were highly effective at two things: building social connections among anti-wind groups around the country, and contributing to erosion of social bonds within the local communities themselves. In other words, not only did the Facebook pages themselves have these corrosive characteristics, but the people in them also appeared to be spreading these characteristics into their physical communities.
Had there been a disaster in Montcalm County?
The research raises a question: If communities often corrode in the aftermath of a disaster, had there been a disaster in Montcalm County? Or was it possible to create a post-disaster community simply through the right kind of networked communication? In Montcalm County, there was certainly diffuse blame, harm that was difficult or impossible to quantify, and an atmosphere of persistent threat. That’s why Jacquet thinks it’s a mistake to dismiss what’s happening in places like Montcalm County as simple NIMBYism. These communities have been primed to perceive wind turbines as a vector of distress and disease.
“A dripping faucet won’t hurt your eardrums,” Jacquet said. “There’s nothing in the dripping faucet that will physically harm you. You might not even notice it until someone points it out to you and tells you how pissed off you should be about it. However, given the right circumstances it could totally drive you crazy. Especially if you can’t control it, and someone else is making money from the drip. That could cause all sorts of issues.”
Jed Welder was raised on a corn farm in Sidney Township, which he left at 17 with no intention of coming back. He joined the Marines and eventually served as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq. After two combat tours, he decided that he wanted to see something grow. So in 2008, he returned to the family farm, which he now runs. In 2014, he was elected to the Sidney Township board, replacing his former Sunday school teacher as the only farmer trustee.
Welder’s first six years on the board had been largely uneventful. In 2019, like many other farmers in the county, he signed an exploratory development lease with Apex. His situation was relatively common. As longtime residents, farmers and descendants of old farming families frequently serve on township boards and planning commissions in Michigan, and because they own expanses of open land, they frequently attract wind developers. Anyways, it was his property, Welder reasoned, and he could monetize its resources as he saw fit. For five months there had been open county meetings about a potential wind project, but as ever, no one came. It just didn’t seem like a very big deal. Then, one night while unloading corn, Welder sent the text message (“Have a vested interest in this project.”) that would change his life.
On a chilly morning this past October, I clambered into the cab of Welder’s John Deere combine. It was an impressively modern chamber: sealed tight, quieter than the inside of a moving sedan, and lined with touchscreens that displayed the corn yield in real time. Welder is an efficient person. He wanted to explain how he had become a villain to hundreds of people in the county where his family had lived for 50 years, but it was also harvest time. He wanted to double-task.
Welder insisted the phrase he used in the fateful SMS, “vested interest,” referred not just to the income he stood to gain from a few turbines on his land, but from the potential tax benefits for the township — which, as a member of the board, he knew could use extra money for roads and sheriffs. Plus, Welder pointed out, the average land lease pays farmers less than $10,000 a year per turbine. On a farm like his, this amounted to a nice chunk of change, but hardly top-line income. The corn Welder had harvested while we were talking was worth $1,000 alone, he said.
But Jeffrey Lodholtz, the planning commission member on the other end of the text, saw it differently: “Unethical as all get out,” he told me. Welder had thought of Lodholtz as something of a friend. Their children went to 4-H together, and Lodholtz had once come to Welder’s farm to shoot guns. But Lodholtz thought he was being bigtimed, a former officer leaning on a former enlisted man. (I asked why Lodholtz had posted the text on the internet rather than discussing it with Welder. He said he no longer thought he could trust anything Welder had to say.)
Pulling clear of a field of corn stubble, Welder turned the combine onto a paved county road. After a few minutes, he pointed out a property festooned with yellow anti-wind signs: Erik and Chantelle Benko’s ranch. They were neighbors, and they had history: A petty dispute over whether Welder had stolen a cool-looking boulder from the Benkos’ property.
When the Benkos started MCCU, Welder assumed some of the anger was due to this run-in. That was why, he thought, they had sicced the Michigan Townships Association on him — its attorney had advised him to recuse himself from any discussion of wind energy in his role as a trustee. That was why the Benkos had immediately put up dozens of anti-wind signs on the edge of their property line, across from Welder’s field. The farmer thought if he posted a straightforward note to the MCCU page that cooler heads might prevail.
“My family has farmed here for half a century,” he wrote on Nov. 1, 2020. “I would never support anything that would have a negative impact on the place that we live and love... We all live here, we are all neighbors in a small township, I believe it's important that we are able to talk to each other, face to face and disagree without resorting to name calling and conspiracy theories.”
“Sidney Twp needs to become a very uncomfortable place to live for all these creeps selling out their neighbors.”
But the post seemed to make things worse. Comments under the note were suspicious, accusatory — and led by Norm Stephens, the prominent anti-wind activist.
“I don't know Jed,” Stephens wrote. “His integrity might be A+...but his attendance and involvement at meetings will do nothing but create hard feelings and the destruction of the social fabric in your township.”
The comments were also, Welder thought, slightly threatening.
“Sidney Twp needs to become a very uncomfortable place to live for all these creeps selling out their neighbors,” read one.
Several days later, Welder got in his F-150 and drove it to the road opposite the Benkos’ property. There, at the limit of his land, he posted signs touting the benefits of the Montcalm wind project. Then he planted a single pinwheel in the ground. He thought it was appropriate — a cheeky response to over-the-top vitriol. The Benkos did not. They captured Welder in action with a zoom lens and posted the photos to MCCU.
“Is this a THREAT to your constituents that you will place a turbine across the street from their (our) house if you get your way!?!?!?!?” Erik Benko wrote on the Facebook page.
Somehow, things deteriorated further. Members of MCCU began to call on Welder to resign from the Sidney Township board. Welder’s children were harassed at softball games. Angry and scared, members of his family quit Facebook. On MCCU, people accused Welder of making up the harassment — gaslighting. Despite being advised by the Michigan Townships Association attorney from attending board meetings about the wind proposal, Welder logged into one under another name. In the comments section, he referred to Erik Benko as “little eric” and told Norm Stephens, zooming in from his house in the thumb of Michigan, to “go home.”
In small municipalities, tiny voting blocs can have an outsize influence.
Meanwhile, the Benkos suspected that Welder had started a whisper campaign about them. (Welder denies this.) A rumor was going around Sidney Township that they had dug up a married couple who owned the ranch in the 1970s — they were buried on a single-acre property within the Benko ranch, along with their Great Dane and their prize bull, Bob — and moved their bodies. In fact, the dead and their animals had been excavated and relocated, but the Benkos had no idea why; the plot wasn’t even their land. To the Benkos, it was more proof that Welder had to go.
In small municipalities, tiny voting blocs can have an outsize influence, which anti-wind groups have leveraged to great effect. In Michigan, a petition signed by one-quarter of the number of people in a township who voted in the previous gubernatorial election triggers a recall. In Sidney Township, 1,097 people voted in the 2018 election; Montcalm County Citizens United has 3,220 members. On July 8, 2021, the same day the Sidney Township Board voted for a restrictive zoning ordinance, Jeffrey Lodholtz created the Facebook page “Recall Sidney Township Trustee Jed Welder.” On Nov. 12, he submitted a recall petition, and started collecting signatures soon after.
“Let's show these self-serving conflicted officials and Industrial Developers that we will not be bullied or sold to the highest bidder,” Erik Benko wrote in a post to MCCU. “*** THIS IS OUR HOME; OUR HEALTH AND SAFETY ARE THE PRIORITY AND OUR COMMUNITY IS NOT FOR SALE!!! ***”
Sitting in the combine with Jed Welder, who is fighting the recall, I asked him about Erik Benko. Why did he think he was so angry? Benko, Welder told me, “works from home and is on the internet all day long.” Then he caught himself and smiled. The former Army Ranger said that he tried to keep in mind a line from Max Ehrmann’s prose poem “Desiderata”: “As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”
Local anti-wind groups have all the tactical advantages of an insurgency. They live in the contested territory. They have deep social connections with the local population. They know which messages will resonate with them. They keep track of collaborators. They exert social pressure. And they are aided by the real enough perception that an outside force with massive resources has come to build and profit.
In early October, the private equity behemoth Ares Capital Management announced that it had acquired a majority stake in Apex Clean Energy, a fact that was not lost on the MCCU.
“‘Ares’... like the Greek God of War? ,” Erik Benko wrote under a post announcing the sale.
According to Sarah Mills, a senior project manager at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute, wind energy companies have tended to collect leases first and worry about local opposition later. Recently, though, these companies have started working on a playbook to win hearts and minds. The Michigan Conservative Energy Forum — a clean energy lobbying group funded by wind developers and energy companies — has been dispatching conservatives throughout the Midwest to do dinner table diplomacy since 2018. But they usually show up too late.
“By the time we get a phone call, shit has already hit the fan.”
“By the time we get a phone call, shit has already hit the fan,” Ed Rivet, the forum’s executive director, told me.
On Nov. 10, 2020, 11 days after the Benkos created MCCU, Apex built a competing Facebook page for Montcalm Wind, which posts a few stories a week about the benefits of wind energy. As of November 2021, it had almost 500 followers. But the almost exclusively negative comments under the page’s posts suggest a lot of that traffic was hate-reading. Since the summer, Apex has held a series of open houses at the Montcalm Wind office space, where they distribute literature and answer questions. These are reliably picketed; one Apex employee who asked not to be named claimed that an MCCU member once went through the parking lot taking pictures of the license plates of attendees’ cars.
When I visited the office recently, I was greeted by Albert Jongewaard, the polished Apex senior development manager who had been shouted down by Erik Benko at the Sidney Township meeting. Alone in the one-room building, he had the air of a diligent but slightly beleaguered colonial administrator. It was a hectic morning. Jongewaard was helping to organize a “health and safety” event that evening put on by the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum. He had just gotten word that one of the speakers, a neurologist and specialist in sleep medicine named Jeffrey Ellenbogen, had received a menacing text message from an anonymous number.
“Get the FUCK out of our state,” it read, in part.
Undeterred, the doctor showed up to the Montcalm County Fairgrounds that night, along with a farmer from a neighboring county who had turbines on his land (“They’re coming whether you like it or not”) and a sound acoustics expert via video conference. So did a dozen members of the MCCU, who unfurled a barn door–sized banner by the side of the road. As the event got underway, a few of the protesters filed into the back of the room, where they sat with crossed arms and stern expressions.
Ellenbogen, whom Apex frequently flies to such events, stressed to the audience of several dozen people that the best available science showed no connection between wind turbines and negative health effects. Behind sensational stories of people suffering from living near wind turbines, he said, were usually another chronic health condition that had gone undetected. The acoustics expert explained how sound is measured, how decibel averages are calculated, how the dreaded “infrasound” of wind turbines is also produced by everything from ocean waves to moving cars. He agreed that turbines do make noise, the effects of which are a matter of perspective.
“Audibility is highly objective. Annoyance is highly subjective.”
“They can be audible, and some people find them annoying,” he said. “Audibility is highly objective. Annoyance is highly subjective.”
The point of the meeting was to put people’s minds at ease over wind turbines, and for people who are reassured by experts, it may have done just that. Apex thinks these sessions can reach what it believes is a nonvocal majority whose moderate opinions are obscured by the activism of groups like MCCU. But annoyance is indeed a subjective condition, the cure for which is rarely being told to chill out. The entire context of wind development in Montcalm County — from the stakes of the climate crisis to the fury of the MCCU to the clumsiness of Apex — was making people more aware of wind turbines and more sensitive to, well, just about everything. A digital infrastructure that runs on attention was at odds with a physical infrastructure that people, in some sense, will need to just tune out.
And Montcalm County had reached a state of corrosive distrust. It had become an inflamed nerve.
The antagonism seemed to be accelerating. Jed Welder suspected someone was investigating his service record. Members of the resistance had filed Freedom of Information requests to see if local townships had communicated with Apex. Lawyers for Apex had filed their own requests to determine if the Benkos, Kevon Martis, or Norm Stephens had colluded with the Sidney Township. Several townships were expecting litigation; wind companies have sued municipalities over similar ordinances for violating fair business statutes. I heard from a few residents who felt the anger and division over the potential construction of 75 wind turbines — machines that would bring some money to some people, maybe help pave the roads or pay for an extra sheriff, and play some tiny part in averting the climate apocalypse — were orders of magnitude stronger than they were during the 2016 or 2020 presidential elections.
I asked Jeffrey Lodholtz, the township official whose post of Jed Welder’s text set off the entire ordeal in Montcalm County, what he thought about the events of the previous year. He told me he thought there had been “hogwash” on both sides of the wind fight, but that it had been good for the community, because it got people involved in local politics who had never paid attention to them before. It was good that people were showing up, good that people were debating, good that people were taking an interest in their community. All this concern had even reinvigorated the local paper, he pointed out — what could be a stronger sign of local democracy in action?
Wind opponents frequently make a version of this claim, and there’s a certain logic to it. How do politics begin, in some sense, without people noticing their surroundings? Squint really hard and you could maybe even see in the raucous MCCU and its ilk something like one of the voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville claimed made the United States unique, and great.
But it was also true that in the case of the wind fight, as in the local fights over critical race theory and mask mandates, it was a particular type of association that kept forming, one with a kind of irritably conservative worldview. The underlying theme uniting these conflicts is the desire to preserve a romantic American vision, one of a society that doesn’t see race, for example, or one where individual action exists in a vacuum from collective responsibility, or one in which green farmland stretches unbroken into the horizon. That was the frequency of politics the MCCU and groups like it seemed to emit.
The closest turbines to Montcalm County are a 20-minute drive due east from Greenville, outside Carson City. There, they tower silver-white over the electric lines, the old wooden farmsteads, and the roads, other human technologies that must have, at some time and to some people, seemed strange and even threatening. I parked my car at the edge of a field, about 500 feet from a turbine, got out, and sat on the hood. At first, I thought it sounded like a hair dryer on the high setting two rooms over — a noise that might require you to turn up the volume on the TV, but a noise you would almost certainly get used to. The longer I sat there thinking about the humming gears, though, the more I was sure I detected subtle changes in pitch and intensity. The noise started to sound more like a plane landing, or taking off, or somehow doing both at the same time, on and on. It sounded like an endless transition. It sounded like an action in search of a resolution. ●