Two popular Instagram photographers set out to document what wind power looks like in America right now.
In recent years, wind turbines have been springing up across the United States with increasing rapidity. Alongside solar, wind is the fastest-growing energy source in the country. There are entire cities that now run nearly entirely on wind power, states that get one-quarter of their electricity from wind, and massive tech companies whose server farms will soon rely on wind.
But wind power nonetheless inspires some skepticism. You'll hear the talking points on conservative talk shows, from fossil fuel lobbyists, and from people who are legitimately wary of the large structures going up in their backyards—they're too noisy, too expensive, or just too ugly.
To help familiarize the public with the ascendant power source—and in an effort to demonstrate that wind power can both help populations prosper and serve as an aesthetically beautiful addition to the landscape—the American Wind Energy Association sent two popular Instagram photographers, Ashley McKinney and Brad Romano, on a country-spanning tour.
The pair, who have 200,000 followers between them, made stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wyoming, and turned out what, taken together, makes for a compelling portrait of what wind power looks like in America right now.
"We both grew up and lived in Boston prior to working on this project, so we didn't have a lot of exposure to wind farms besides a few single turbines spread throughout the state," McKinney told me in an email. "What we came to understand in visiting the various facilities across the country was how they operate, the impact they have on the surrounding communities, and the environmental benefits of renewable energy."
"What we learned about the power of renewable energy was pretty mind blowing," Brad Romano said. "Each year wind energy in the US prevents the consumption of tens of billions of gallons of water and offsets roughly 100 million metric tons of CO2 emissions," he said. "After learning all of this during the project, the only thing we were left wondering was why it has taken so long for wind energy to emerge."
They visited farms that hosted turbines, a manufacturing plant, and towns with community-owned wind power.
"Most of the wind farms we visited were in rural, farm communities," McKinney said. "While the communities were in line with our expectations, what we weren't expecting to encounter were the turbines among rolling hills, mountainous landscapes, and across multiple properties and towns."
"In addition to environmental benefits, a lot of the communities received additional PILOT funding that went directly to schools and public safety," Brad told me.
Both photographers told me that the turbines appeared to prove a minimal disruption to the land and way of life.
I asked what their favorite image from the trip was.
"It would be difficult to select one image," Brad said, "but we both felt the most striking images we captured were during a beautiful sunset at the Glenrock Rolling Hills Wind Farm in Wyoming. We loved photographing this location because we felt that it really symbolized the change that is happening with energy."
"Not only was the farm constructed on a former coal mine, giving the land a second cleaner life, but the operations supervisor, Don, was a long-time energy industry employee who moved to wind. During our tour of the farm, Don's love and appreciation of the beautiful landscape and wildlife that roamed the farm was clearly evident, bringing a deeper emotion to the photos," Romano said.
"The turbines at the locations we documented were integrated with the land and didn't seem to cause a lot of disturbance. During the project we found wildlife, crops, farm animals, ATV parks and even hunters on the farms, all coexisting without disturbance," Romano said.
"After seeing the environmental and economic benefits from wind, and the number of leading tech companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft moving their data centers to Iowa for low-cost, renewable energy powered by wind," Ashley said, "we hope it's only a matter of time before the rest of the nation moves in the same direction."
Congress has just approved a five-year extension of the production tax credit (PTC) as part of its most recent budget deal (that will, unfortunately, also open the US to oil exports for the first time in 40 years). It means the wind industry will receive a solid, predictable boost for the next five years, which should stimulate further growth and investment, and that we can expect the scenes Ashley and Brad captured above to proliferate. Expect wind power to only continue to integrate into the Americana, in other words.
"We finished this project more optimistic about the future of energy than when we began," McKinney said.