OPINION: Morten Albæk of Vestas
Birds are 19,200 times more likely to die from flying into a building than into a wind turbine (according to the US Forest Service).
So calling wind turbines devastating to wildlife is equivalent to describing ordinary houses as mass killing machines. Ironically, 10% of all bird species are threatened by climate change (according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
Unfortunately, this is a well-kept secret. Not least due to our industry’s failure to adequately convey even the most appealing truths to the public.
Public and political support for wind energy is being increasingly eroded by media-savvy and politically influential groups that often demonstrate a brazen disregard for fact-based information. This is a growing business risk.
For instance, in Australia, the rising anti-wind movement could, if unchecked, lead to additional legislative and regulatory restrictions that will constrain the market and choke off that country’s exceptional wind potential.
It is important to distinguish between genuine local concerns and the increasingly professional anti-wind activists whose strategy seems designed to confuse and inflame the debate.
In Australia, anti-wind groups promote bogus science claiming a litany of medical ailments attributable to turbines — and even that chickens raised close to wind farms lay yolk-less eggs.
In the US, anti-wind think-tanks and researchers co-ordinate with sympathetic media to create their own echo chamber, repeating each other’s claims to add a thin veneer of respectability. Much of this “research” is funded by oil and gas interests.
In Denmark, the wind industry association found that 67% of anti-wind articles and letters to the editor in the Danish press in 2011 were authored by only five individuals.
We only have ourselves to blame. Our sector has been run over by our louder and more aggressive adversaries. How did we allow it to get so far?
Firstly, we have shown an inability to play to our key strengths and use our creativity, nimbleness and passionate commitment as a way of cutting through our opponents’ dirty tricks and deceits.
I entered the wind industry four years ago from banking. I had expected to find a youthful industry full of vigour, innovation and persistency bordering on aggressiveness. But what I experienced — and allow me to generalise — was a complacent, diffuse and unorganised industry. We are more conservative, more fearful and more cautious than anything I experienced in banking.
It was not us, but the coal industry that came up with this century’s biggest marketing gimmick — “clean coal”. Similarly, the natural-gas industry is persistently marketing the crafty notion that gas is the safest bet in terms of local job creation.
Everyone in the energy industry must simply marvel at the absurdity of these claims. But the bottom line is that the wind industry is being outsmarted by the use of what should have been our own greatest asset: the promise of a clean and economically sustainable energy future.
Let’s face it. We will never have as deep pockets as our oil, coal and gas siblings. So we need to be much more innovative and aggressive in how we position and promote our industry. We know that many of the world’s largest brands have a strong interest in joining our cause. When these powerful brands act, key stakeholders listen, such as when 15 such companies — including Starbucks, Nike and Yahoo — addressed US congressional leaders, urging extension of the production tax credit.
It is obvious that we must be innovative in finding ways to join forces — yet Vestas faced more difficulty in rallying our own industry when developing the WindMade consumer label than when discussing the concept with the likes of Deutsche Bank, Motorola and Bloomberg.
So how is Vestas planning to respond?
First, we will make sure that facts are brought into play and fused into the debate. To this end we will team up with carefully selected key influencers and provide them with the means to activate their own networks to disseminate facts.
But just shoving more facts into the public debate will not cut it. We need to contextualise the facts and create a whole new frame of reference. For instance, we need to say that the noise volume from a wind turbine 400 metres away is lower than the noise from an average refrigerator; that rapidly warming oceans and high amounts of CO2 have far-reaching consequences for Australia’s cherished Great Barrier Reef; that transporting natural gas across the Arctic Sea could soon be a reality due to rapidly declining ice floes.
Veering off the well-trodden PR path entails risks. Reactions will be harsh and well-funded. But playing it safe is even riskier. Our licence to operate is threatened and the world’s energy future is at stake. The time has come to act on these facts.
Morten Albæk is group senior vice-president of marketing, communications and corporate relations at Vestas
This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders’ Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry.