The Blowback Against Big Wind
After years of successful marketing and lavish subsidies from taxpayers, the global wind industry now finds itself facing an unprecedented backlash. And that backlash – largely coming from rural landowners – combined with low natural gas prices, and a Congress unwilling to extend more subsidies, has left the American and Canadian wind sectors gasping for breath.
A new and thoughtful look at the fight against Big Wind is Laura Israel's new film, Windfall, a documentary that focuses on the fight over the siting of wind turbines in the small town of Meredith, New York. Indeed, Israel's film underscores an essential question: what, exactly, qualifies an energy source as "green" or "clean"? If you listen to President Obama, nearly every energy source qualifies as "clean" with the notable exception of oil.
For liberals here in the US, along with groups like the Center for American Progress, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council, wind energy has been deemed "clean" because it is renewable. But that belief requires a steadfast and prolonged decision to ignore a lot of inconvenient facts. It also requires the dismissal of rural residents like those in Meredith. Why? Well, the logic is obvious: any rural resident who opposes having a source of "clean" energy near their homes – never mind that it's a 45-story-tall wind turbine that flashes red-blinking lights all night, every night — must be a NIMBY, right?
Indeed, Windfall provides a good representation of the rural-urban divide on the wind-energy issue. Lots of city-based environmental groups and lobby organizations actively promote the concept of renewable energy. (It's healthy! It's green! No smokestacks!) But they are not the ones who have to endure the health-impairing noise that's created by the turbines, nor do they have to see them.
Lest you think that NIMBY claim is only being uttered by brain-dead liberals and wind-energy lobbyists, consider this: last summer, Energy Secretary Steven Chu used that same smear. During a brief conversation with Chu about renewable energy, I mentioned the growing rural opposition to large-scale wind projects. Chu didn't waste any time before he dismissed those objectors as "NIMBYs."
That kind of lazy thinking – which is truly lamentable in a person who's been awarded the Nobel Prize — is all too typical. But a myriad of examples are available that demonstrate how the backlash against Big Wind is playing out both here in the US and around the world. Consider:
- The European Platform against Windfarms lists 518 signatory organizations from 23 countries.
- The UK now has about 285 anti-wind groups.
- In Canada, a group called Ontario Wind Resistance lists about 40 anti-wind groups.
- Newspaper stories from Missouri, Oregon, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Britain, Australia, Canada, Taiwan, and New Zealand, indicate the wind-turbine-noise problem is global and that the frustration among rural landowners is growing.
- In 2010, the Copenhagen Post reported that "state-owned energy firm Dong Energy has given up building more wind turbines on Danish land, following protests from residents complaining about the noise the turbines make."
- Last May, some 1,500 protesters descended on the Welsh assembly, the Senedd, demanding that a massive wind project planned for central Wales be halted.
- Last June, in the Australian state of Victoria, the government responded to two years' of complaints about noise generated by turbines at the Waubra wind project by announcing that it would enforce a two-kilometer (1.25-mile) setback between wind turbines and homes. The state's planning minister said the setback was needed for health reasons. Australia's mainstream media has paid serious attention to the turbine-noise issue, including a 2010 TV report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that focused on the problems at Waubra.
- Last July, Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal held an inquiry into a proposed a wind-energy facility known as the Kent Breeze Project. Although the officials allowed the facility to be built, they said:
- In August, in a peer-reviewed article published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. Carl V. Phillips, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. who now works as a researcher and consultant on epidemiology, concluded that there is "overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder type diseases, at a nontrivial rate." That same issue of the journal carried eight other articles that addressed the issue of health and wind-turbine noise.
- Last September, CBC News reported that Ontario's Ministry of the Environment has logged "hundreds of health complaints" about the noise generated by the province's growing fleet of wind turbines.
- Alec Salt, a research scientist at the Cochlear Fluids Research Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has written extensively about the health effects of wind-energy projects. He flatly concludes that wind turbines "can be hazardous to human health."
- In October, a peer-reviewed study of wind-turbine-related noise in New Zealand found that residents living within two kilometers of large wind projects reported
- In October, Frank Lasee, a Republican state senator in Wisconsin, responding to complaints lodged by his constituents about noise generated by wind turbines that had been built near their homes, filed legislation that would require the state to investigate the health effects of the noise produced by industrial wind turbines. If passed, the bill — the first of its kind in the U.S. — will impose a moratorium on new wind projects until the study is completed.
- On November 8, residents of Brooksville, Maine voted by more than 2 to 1 in favor of a measure that bans all wind turbines with towers exceeding 100 feet in height. On that same date, voters in Cushing, and Rumford, Maine passed similar measures. More than a dozen other towns in Maine now have anti-wind ordinances.
- In December, government officials in the Australian state of New South Wales issued guidelines that give residents living within two kilometers of a proposed wind project the right to delay, or even stop, the project's development. The issue: excessive noise created by wind turbines.
- In January, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian province's biggest farm organization, said that the push for wind energy had "become untenable" and that "rural residents' health and nuisance complaints must be immediately and fairly addressed."
- On Sunday, Sir Simon Jenkins, the chairman of the National Trust, one of Britain's largest and oldest conservation groups, called wind energy a "public menace." He went on saying "We are doing masses of renewables but wind is probably the least efficient and wrecks the countryside and the National Trust is about preserving the countryside."
There's no way that Israel could have anticipated today's headlines. She did the filming for Windfall back in 2007 and 2008. But her portrayal of the bitter feuding that happened in the town of Meredith over wind-energy development is similar to fights that have occurred in numerous other rural communities around the world. The battle in Meredith (population: 1,500) pitted landowners who stood to profit by putting the wind turbines on their property against those who didn't.
The landowner faction in Meredith was led by the town's supervisor, Frank Bachler. Israel portrays him as a well-intentioned man who, in favoring the wind development, is trying to help the area's struggling farmers. Bachler dismisses the opponents of the wind project as "a minority of people who are very aggressive."
Bachler gets proven wrong. The anti-wind faction quickly gains momentum and the resulting battle provides a textbook example of small-town democracy. Three wind opponents run for election to the town board with the stated purpose of reversing the existing board's position on wind. In November 2007, they win, and a few weeks later, pass a measure banning large-scale wind development.
Israel's film also looks at the opposition outside of Meredith. In doing so, she provides a colorful interview with Carol Spinelli, a fiery real estate agent in Bovina, a town of about 600 people located a few miles southeast of Meredith. Bovina passed a ban on wind turbines in March 2007. Spinelli helped lead the opposition and she nails the controversy over wind by explaining that it's about "big money, big companies, big politics." And she angrily denounces wind-energy developers "as modern-day carpetbaggers."
That's a brutal assessment. But it accurately portrays the rural-urban divide on the wind-energy issue. The Green/Left is desperate to portray the future of our energy mix as a fight between hydrocarbons and renewables. And in their desperation, they attempt to vilify anyone and everyone who dares to point out the myriad problems with renewables in general and wind energy in particular.
The American Wind Energy Association has denounced Windfall as offering "the greatest hits of misinformation." And as is usual with AWEA, the group ignores the facts presented in the film and instead repeats its usual talking points about how the general public loves wind energy, i.e., "over 80% of Americans support wind power."
On Saturday, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a critique of Windfall that reads like it was written by an AWEA lobbyist. The critique, written by NRDC staffer Pierre Bull, makes it clear that for NRDC, concerns about carbon dioxide emissions trump nearly every other concern, including, apparently, those of rural residents who don't want the turbines. Bull's piece even parrots AWEA's claim that the low-frequency noise and infrasound created by wind turbines is not a problem by pointing to a report released in mid-January by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. That report largely dismisses complaints about wind-turbine noise. AWEA has repeatedly claimed, wrongly, that the Massachusetts report absolves the wind industry. And Bull claims it gives "wind a clean bill of health." But the authors of the report did not interview any of the homeowners who've left their houses because of turbine noise. Instead, they did a cursory review of the published literature.
Shortly after the Massachusetts report came out, Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, a non-profit organization that tracks noise issues, wrote that the authors of the Massachusetts report "dropped a crucial ball" because they did not "provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines."
The wind-energy lobby and the environmental groups are doing their best to ignore the global backlash against wind projects for a simple reason: billions of dollars in subsidies are at stake.
My analysis of more than 4,200 projects that won grants from the Treasury Department under the federal stimulus bill of 2009 shows that $3.25 billion in tax-free grants went to just eight wind-energy companies, all of which are board members of AWEA. And that sum doesn't include a $490 million grant that will be given to General Electric and its partners on the Shepherds Flat wind project in Oregon, a $2 billion deal for which federal taxpayers also provided a $1 billion loan guarantee. Meanwhile, in the UK, the country's biggest wind project owners stand to collect some $1.3 billion in subsidies.
The wind industry desperately needs those subsidies. That's particularly true in the US where low-cost gas is hammering the wind business. In early 2011, Dallas-based energy investor T. Boone Pickens said that it was difficult to obtain financing for a wind project "unless you have $6 gas." Earlier this month, Pickens again cited the $6 price floor for natural gas as being essential to the economics of wind-energy projects.
The latest spot price for natural gas: about $2.50. And few people in the energy business are expecting gas prices to rise dramatically in the next two years or so. The faltering fortunes of the global wind sector can easily be seen by looking at the PowerShares Global Wind Energy Portfolio, an exchange-traded fund. Over the past ten months, the value of the fund has fallen by about 36 percent.
Of course, there are many more stories to tell – about the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of homeowners in Wisconsin, New York, Ontario, New Zealand, and elsewhere – who have been driven out of their homes because of the noise generated by wind projects built too close to residential areas. But by looking at the battle against Big Wind in just one small town, Windfall illustrates why the backlash is occurring and it provides a glimpse of why the wind industry has been so successful at social marketing.
Windfall – which will soon be available via video on demand on a variety of outlets — is an important film that's appearing at the exact time when the public's understanding of what qualifies as "green" is getting a much-needed overhaul.
This piece originally appeared in Counter Punch
This piece originally appeared in Counter Punch