Thursday, August 11, 2011

Anti-wind lobby: Farming fear, uncertainty and doubt

The ABC’s Four Corners on July 25 showcased the national debate around wind farms’ alleged negative health effects. It patiently allowed the anti-wind power Waubra Foundation to walk the audience through their case that wind farms are a health hazard. Many people I have met are curious to know if there is any truth to their allegations.

Though less emotive than the anti-wind campaigners, the scientists who were interviewed in the program put a far more authoritative case: there has still not been found any causal link between wind farms and ill health, and in the newest study revealed on the show, not even a statistical correlation in the population around wind farms.

Four Corners interviewed Randall Bell, the President of the Landscape Guardians, the community-mobilising anti-wind power campaign. Just for one second he let his guard slip and confirmed that his campaign is political and “you use any weapon you can to win that” in the reporter’s words.

I had the interesting experience of sitting through a recent Landscape Guardians meeting, with a panel of their “experts” including Randall Bell, in the small community of Barunah Park, west of Geelong. “Any weapon” is what they use, and FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) tactics are their specialty.


The meeting heard a range of dubious, false and/or hysterical allegations about wind farms (see below). They included everything but the kitchen sink. Wind farms don’t work, don’t reduce CO2, make your power bills increase, cause a mind-boggling array of serious medical symptoms, cause fires that farmers may end up liable for, cause job losses. Most of this was from unverified sources.

People are naturally worried about their health. The blaming of “infrasound” – sound frequencies so low you can’t hear them – is well chosen for FUD. If you can’t hear it, how do you know when it’s there? It’s an invisible, silent threat like radiation – only infrasound has no demonstrated health risk.

There is no mention from the anti-wind lobby that we get higher levels of infrasound from the beach, traffic, or even our own body. Perhaps next, solar panels will be blamed for health effects caused by “infrared” radiation?

The Guardians veil their intentions with the rhetoric of protecting the landscape. Yet they only protest wind turbines. Bell, a Geelong lawyer who was once on the National Trust board, did not as far as I can tell protest the huge Geelong Bypass freeway that now slices through the rolling hills and valleys on Geelong’s western border.

Bell introduced himself to the meeting as a climate skeptic, while noting that the Guardians have no policy on the subject themselves. He said we should make up our own mind, while dropping the absurd “fact” that humans have only contributed 1% of the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Kathy Russell, also at the Barunah meeting, directed people to pick up a leaflet from the far-right front group the Australian Environment Foundation – yet denied any formal link to this pro-nuclear, climate change denial group who have helped bus supporters to Guardians’ meetings in the past.

Former Howard government minister Michael Wooldridge sits on the board of the Waubra Foundation, which was set up by Peter Mitchell, a businessman who was involved in oil, gas and mineral exploration companies. Mitchell had previously been involved in setting up the Landscape Guardians, a group that we now know would use “any weapon” – like creating health fears, perhaps? – to help people such as him keep the views from his country mansion free of wind turbines.

Less scary, but perhaps more convincing in a smoke-and-mirrors kind of way, Bell’s offsider Reg Brownell gave a series of convoluted economic figures to argue that wind turbines don’t cause any emissions reductions, because of backup gas power plants that run on standby at all times in case the wind drops off.

He cited the head of WA’s Verve Energy (the state owned electricity corporation) who, he said, told a Senate committee “that CO2 emissions are unlikely to fall as a consequence of the use of solar and wind and other renewables following on from a carbon tax.” Brownell went on to explain that UK energy companies (hardly an unbiased group!) have told the UK government they will need to build 17 new gas power stations to back up their wind. Brownell encouraged the use of gas, not wind, as a way to reduce emissions.

At this meeting, wind company representatives were told they weren’t allowed to speak or distribute their own information because they were biased, yet Brownell was blatantly citing gas industry sources in support of… the gas industry.

To blame wind turbines for a choice to use gas as backup is hardly fair. In Australia, wind only makes up 2% of our energy grid; any fluctuations in this supply are dwarfed by fluctuations in energy demand. For grid management purposes, available wind power at this level (and much higher) is treated as just a deduction from the (always fluctuating) demand for power.

The only people I can think of that could lose out from this, interestingly, are peak power suppliers like gas peaking power stations who might conceivably lose some of their market to wind at the peak demand periods when they are able to reap windfall profits from skyrocketing wholesale electricity prices.

Sandi Keane has outlined the political links of the Guardians in more detail at the Independent Australia blog.
We have enough information to say that the Guardians are part of the murky network of climate deniers, fossil fuel lobbyists, and hard right Liberal party types. Their president has acknowledged they are in a political battle against environmentalists. How close their links are to specific fossil fuel, Liberal factional, or nuclear interests is not the point. They’re a part of the mix, and another weapon in the war being waged to stop action on climate change.

Sadly, for communities that are genuinely concerned that wind developments may cause them problems, the appearance of these manipulative political campaigners will only drive a wedge into communities and divide them worse than the developers ever could. And sadly, not only can those communities lose the financial benefits of hosting wind turbines, we all lose as action to reduce carbon emissions is set back once more.

Points of fear
The following allegations were made during the Barunah Park meeting.
  • Wind farms cause little or no drop in CO2 emissions, as they require gas-turbine power stations to operate turning on standby in case the wind drops off, meaning that wind farms have almost as high CO2 emissions as simply using gas. This would be news to South Australia, which has reduced its emissions by 20% by the use of wind power.
  • This duplication (gas plus wind turbines) means a doubling up of the cost
  • Through a back of the envelope calculation, wind was said to cost at least $175 per tonne of CO2 abated , and with no explanation for it, “maybe” up to $500 per tonne, or even (given that it apparently doesn’t reduce CO2 anyway), an “infinite” cost per tonne of CO2 abated.
  • Three unspecified studies in Italy, Spain and the UK (“two of them from universities”) show that for every job created in renewable energy, “something like 2.7, maybe three jobs are lost in the real economy”.
  • Workers on wind farms are usually imported from abroad, because of the example of the Portland wind farm where “only four” locals were employed in construction and all the others came from overseas. News to many construction workers in western Victoria!
  • Living near a wind farm produces an astounding range of acoustic effects, including ‘jackhammering”, bleeding ears and noses, high blood pressure, migraines,  “electromagnetic” spasms of the muscles across the top of the skull, shaking of the body (and more such as diabetes and blurred vision according to other allegations from Sarah Laurie).
  • Wind farm noise allegedly causes stock to hide away from the turbines (I’ve seen cows happily grazing 50m from a turbine spinning at full speed!)
  • Children taken to abandoned farmhouses near wind farms wake up in the middle of the night (really!), and children have no “preconceived bias” (surely they would never listen to their parents!) so this means it must be taken seriously!
  • Wind turbines catch fire (true, but rare); then they can throw fire hundreds of metres, the fire brigade can’t approach and put it out, and your neighbour will probably sue you for the fire because the wind company may just be a shelf company with $2 in the bank and won’t be able to pay them out.
  • Proximity to wind turbines will cause your land value to drop 30% “as predicted by one of the national sales manager of a major rural real estate company” (no, we weren’t told which one)

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