03/19/2006 02:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


The last time I drove through the countryside that my farming ancestors tried to eke a living from, I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode. The Tug Hill Plateau in northern New York, famous for its rocky terrain and fierce winters, was populated by more abandoned houses and barns than I had ever witnessed on one stretch of highway. It was a sad and eerie sight. But now, the forces of nature that made it so tough for farmers of old, those howling lake-effect winds that blew in off Lake Ontario, are being harnessed for energy and the farmers who remained on the land are experiencing a windfall of another sort.

Spurred on by Governor Pataki's goal of having 25 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2013, a utilities surcharge on energy bills, and a rising awareness in the business community that eco-friendly investments are not only smart but profitable, a new and higher consciousness is blowing through the north country.

Goldman Sachs, the company behind Horizon Wind Energy, has partnered with PPM Energy of Portland, Oregon to create the Maple Ridge Wind Farm on Tug Hill. They've put up 120 new wind-turbines on the plateau, and have plans for 75 more, making it the largest alternative energy project east of the Mississippi. Each turbine can generate enough electricity to power about 500 homes. When the project is completed, the wind towers will generate a total of 320 megawatts of pollution free electricity, the equivalent of a midsize power plant. And the best part is it's free--another great example of triple bottom line thinking: good for the earth, good for the people, good for business.

Goldman Sachs is committed to environmentally friendly technology, but not at the risk of profit. They are looking for both/and, not either/or solutions--signs of an enlightened approach to business--and wind is definitely paying off for them. While the completed Maple Ridge project will cost between $450 to $550 million, once the turbines are built, fuel costs are nothing.

Individual farmers are cashing in on the deal by leasing their land for the turbines, getting anywhere from $5000 to $10,000 per tower, depending on the energy generated. For the cash-strapped northerners--where there's no industry nearby but a Kraft Foods Plant and a bowling ball factory--these dollars are translating into futures they couldn't have imagined. They can now get that much needed pickup, or pay their kids' college tuition, or retire when the time is right. Some are even leaving windmills to their children in the their wills.

We don't call her Mother Nature for nothing.