IN DEPTH: Countering the anti-lobby

If you lived near a prospective wind farm and were told that turbines could make you and your family ill, how would you react, presuming you knew nothing about the technology?

If someone who introduces herself as a doctor tells you that turbines can cause heart attacks, suicidal depression, herpes, irreversible memory loss, migraines, tinnitus, insomnia and vibrating lips, would you give the wind project the thumbs up and take a risk with your children’s health?

And how would you feel when you heard that one of the country’s top business leaders described wind farms as a “crime against the people”? Or when you heard that a doctor honoured with an Order of Australia medal equated wind farms to “being raped and forced to provide your own condom to avoid a sexually transmitted disease”?

It is easy for the wind industry to dismiss these people as cranks or conspiracy theorists with no evidence to back up their claims. But they cannot be ignored. The truth is that more and more citizens are believing them, especially in Australia, where their assertions are seemingly accepted by much of the right-wing press and the politicians who may lead the next federal government.

In short, the anti-wind lobby is on the rise and it is causing major problems for the industry.

“Wind-energy projects that could save up to five million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year are being stalled by scare campaigns and misinformation,” explains Miles George, managing director of Australia’s largest wind developer, Infigen.

Will Grant, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, adds: “Unless those in favour of wind turbines recognise and deal with this threat, [anti-wind] networks like Stop These Things will add significantly — and perhaps ruinously — to the risk profile of every potential wind farm development.”

Turbine maker Vestas — which saw 1.7GW of its customers’ wind projects postponed, delayed or blocked last year over public opposition — has decided to fight back.

Its Act on Facts multimedia campaign, launched on 18 June, is its attempt to “separate myths from facts and channel public support toward political action favouring wind energy”.

“The wind industry is being attacked by media-savvy and politically influential adversaries who often display a brazen disregard for factual information,” says Morten Albæk, Vestas’ senior vice-president for marketing and communications.

“The sector, globally, as well as in Australia, has not been professional enough, innovative enough or persistent enough to convey the facts about the economical and environmental benefits of wind energy. We simply have not been good enough at conveying the positive message.”

Act on Facts consists of physical events, such as its Melbourne launch, a “web portal” that provides details of pro-wind initiatives, facts about the industry and a handful of well-produced YouTube videos that counter many of the familiar arguments spouted by wind opponents. For instance, one points out that although renewables received $88bn in subsidies globally last year, the fossil-fuel industry received $523bn. Another says that, yes, wind turbines can kill birds, but cats and buildings, respectively, kill 3,500 and 19,200 times more.

Vestas has spent about $156,000 on the “highly collaborative” campaign, which has the support and involvement of developers, utilities, suppliers, environmental groups, activists, campaigners, academics and politicians. 

The campaign initially focused on Australia, but Vestas plans to roll it out to the US, Canada and the UK, where wind farm opposition is also gaining momentum.

But the impact that Act on Facts has so far made is hard to say. Vestas says the campaign reached 500,000 people in its first three weeks, but the YouTube videos were averaging fewer than 100 views a day, while the campaign’s Facebook page had just over 300 followers by mid-July.

Vestas has no plans for a TV or newspaper campaign, with Albæk arguing that Act on Facts can “outsmart” wind farm opponents by “simply innovating communications vehicles and concepts that are more edgy”.

“If we become as mainstream in our methodology as the fossil-fuel industry,” he adds, “we will be beaten up every day because they are bigger and stronger and they are richer.”

But perhaps Act on Facts is preaching to the converted. A recent poll by Essential Media found over 75% of the public supports the building of wind farms in Australia, while only 11% was opposed.

“This research... shows that the public aren’t swallowing the misleading claims put around by anti-wind campaigners like the Waubra Foundation and Landscape Guardians groups,” says Andrew Bray, a co-ordinator for pro-wind campaign group VicWind.

But it is important to note that the general public has no say in individual wind projects. People who live near wind sites do — and they are being successfully targeted by the anti-wind brigade. For example, on King Island, an extremely windy outcrop between Tasmania and the mainland where the 600MW TasWind project has been proposed, the head of the Waubra Foundation, Sarah Laurie, flew in to frighten the residents at a public meeting in April.

Local beef farmer Chris Porter was persuaded by her claims, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): “If there is the remotest possibility health will be affected... I would think the most reasonable proposition is ‘don’t do it’.”

Retired islander David Kerr, however, saw exactly what was going on: “We’ve had [an] injection of mild hysteria, creating a fear that didn’t otherwise exist before the Waubra Foundation became involved in our community.”

The Waubra Foundation is an “astroturf” (fake grassroots) group that claims to be an independent health-promotion charity, but was set up by Peter Mitchell, the chairman of several companies that finance or own mining interests, who has direct links to the conservative Liberal Party and anti-wind lobby group Landscape Guardians. Waubra has no physical base, just a post office box that, until recently, it shared with one of Mitchell’s companies.

Its figurehead, Laurie, is a non-practising doctor who admitted at a 2011 hearing into “wind turbine syndrome” at the Environment, Resources and Development Court in South Australia that she was not an “expert witness” and did not even claim to have expertise in human health. Her evidence to the court that “lip vibrations have been described to me as from a distance of 10km away [from a wind farm]” has been widely ridiculed, and her testimony was dismissed by the court as not credible.

Another of Laurie’s claims to fame is that she has been nominated by the Australian Skeptics group for its Bent Spoon award, which is presented annually to “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle”.

“Rather than facilitating medical research to dispassionately test her hypotheses,” her nomination statement says, “Sarah travels around regional communities (in Australia and overseas) and presents to town hall meetings organised by objectors to wind farms and climate change denial organisations. These meetings generally create significant outrage and frustrate the development of nearby wind-energy projects. The Waubra Foundation... is essentially an anti-wind lobby group intent on misleading people with unproven claims.”

But the rising star of the anti-wind lobby is Stop These Things (STT), which describes itself as a “kitchen table group of citizens concerned about what is happening across rural and regional Australia, [and] by the harm being done by the wind industry”. Its leadership and membership is entirely anonymous, but it has a slick website and “is now adding a layer of networking, guidance, strategic support and, potentially, funding”, points out Grant.

STT organised an anti-wind rally in Canberra on 18 June, which was poorly attended, but attracted several conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) and senators. Other politicians pulled out at the last minute.

While the poor attendance may be encouraging, the fact remains that the National-Liberal coalition — which has a good chance of winning the forthcoming federal election — is, generally speaking, anti-wind and anti-renewables, with an increasing number of members coming out as climate change deniers.

Around half of all coalition MPs and over two thirds of coalition senators have publicly denied climate change.

Liberal state premiers have already undertaken their own brand of crackdown against the wind industry, using planning regulations to discourage the development of projects in some of Australia’s windiest regions.

In 2011, then Victorian premier Ted Baillieu banned turbines from being constructed within 2km of homes, while in New South Wales, Premier Barry O’Farrell has proposed a similar ban.

Federally, the coalition has vowed to order operators to install round-the-clock noise monitoring of all wind farms — a measure the industry says would be technically difficult and costly.

Perhaps more worrying for the industry are statements from Maurice Newman, the influential would-be chairman of opposition leader Tony Abbott’s proposed Business Advisory Council. In June, Newman, the former chairman of both the Australian Stock Exchange and the ABC, told Guardian Australia: “When we look at the health and economic effects of wind farms and the obscene wealth transfer from poor to rich we have to ask: why are we persisting with them? I think it is a crime against the people.”

He also wants to scrap the national Renewable Energy Target, which obliges utilities to supply 20% of their output from renewable sources by 2020.

Abbott himself has sworn a “blood oath” to axe the carbon tax that came into effect last year, while frontbench colleagues have pledged to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and its A$10bn ($9.2bn) fund for clean-energy and energy-efficiency projects, calling it a “wanton waste of taxpayers’ money” — even though it is now operating on a self-funding commercial basis.

However, Kevin Rudd’s return as prime minister in late June has vastly improved the pro-renewables Labor Party’s prospects of staying in power. Recent polls show Labor and the coalition are neck and neck, with one survey in early July putting the incumbents ahead.

Yet while many in the industry are worried about the anti-wind lobby and the prospect of a coalition government, the International Energy Agency — rarely an optimist when it comes to renewables — seems to have no such concerns. Its Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report, issued in June, predicted that wind installations will grow from 2.6GW at the end of last year to 7.7GW by the end of 2018.

Presumably, the report’s authors believe that the country will ignore the swirl of anti-wind misinformation, and decide to act on facts.