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:

this case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree.

* 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

lower overall quality of life, physical quality of life, and environmental quality of life. Those exposed to turbine noise also reported significantly lower sleep quality, and rated their environment as less restful. Our data suggest that wind farm noise can negatively impact facets of health-related quality of life.

* 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.

Robert Bryce’s latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future

14 thoughts on “The Blowback Against Big Wind

  1. After 30 months, countless TV appearances, and $80 million spent on an extravagant PR campaign, T. Boone Pickens has finally admitted the obvious: The wind energy business isn’t a very good one. The Dallas-based entrepreneur, who has relentlessly promoted his “Pickens Plan” since July 4, 2008, announced earlier this month that he’s abandoning the wind business to focus on natural gas.

    Two years ago, natural gas prices were spiking and Mr. Pickens figured they’d stay high. He placed a $2 billion order for wind turbines with General Electric. Shortly afterward, he began selling the Pickens Plan. The United States, he claimed, is “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” and wind energy is an essential part of the cure for the curse of imported oil.

    Voters and politicians embraced the folksy billionaire’s plan. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he had joined “the Pickens church,” and Al Gore said he wished that more business leaders would emulate Mr. Pickens and be willing to “throw themselves into the fight for the future of our country.”

    Alas, market forces ruined the Pickens Plan. Mr. Pickens should have shorted wind. Instead, he went long and now he’s stuck holding a slew of turbines he can’t use because low natural gas prices have made wind energy uneconomic in the U.S., despite federal subsidies that amount to $6.44 for every 1 million British thermal units (BTUs) produced by wind turbines. As the former corporate raider explained a few days ago, growth in the wind energy industry “just isn’t gonna happen” if natural gas prices remain depressed.

    In 2008, shortly after he launched his plan, Mr. Pickens said that for wind energy to be competitive, natural gas prices must be at least $9 per million BTUs. In March of this year, he was still hawking wind energy, but he’d lowered his price threshold, saying “The place where it works best is with natural gas at $7.”

    That may be true. But on the spot market natural gas now sells for about $4 per million BTUs. In other words, the free-market price for natural gas is about two-thirds of the subsidy given to wind. Yet wind energy still isn’t competitive in the open market.

    Despite wind’s lousy economics, the lame duck Congress recently passed a one-year extension of the investment tax credit for renewable energy projects. That might save a few “green” jobs.

    But at the same time that Congress was voting to continue the wind subsidies, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reported that property tax breaks for wind projects in the Lone Star State cost nearly $1.6 million per job. That green job ripoff is happening in Texas, America’s biggest natural gas producer.

    Today’s low natural gas prices are a direct result of the drilling industry’s newfound ability to unlock methane from shale beds. These lower prices are great for consumers but terrible for the wind business. Through the first three quarters of 2010, only 1,600 megawatts of new wind capacity were installed in the U.S., a decline of 72% when compared to the same period in 2009, and the smallest number since 2006. Some wind industry analysts are predicting that new wind generation installations will fall again, by as much as 50%, in 2011.

    There’s more bad news on the horizon for Mr. Pickens and others who have placed big bets on wind: Low natural gas prices may persist for years. Last month, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, said that the world is oversupplied with gas and that “the gas glut will be with us 10 more years.” The market for natural-gas futures is predicting that gas prices will stay below $6 until 2017.

    So what is Mr. Pickens planning to do with all the wind turbines he ordered? He’s hoping to foist them on ratepayers in Canada, because that country has mandates that require consumers to buy more expensive renewable electricity.

    How do you say boonedoggle in French? “LA BOONEDOGGLE”

  2. Ah – huh!

    [excerpt] ‘So, in Ontario, if you want wind you also have to burn gas in units with limited turn down capability, operating inefficiently in the upper part of their load range.
    Like in the movie Wizard of Oz, the curtain behind the windmills needs to be pulled back’ (link on WRO).

    T. Boone Pickens
    “You Can’t Make any Money In Wind”–lQjk#

    start @ 3:22 into the video
    “We will as Natural Gas goes up”

    p.s. Ontario – Open for Business – still
    p.p.s. So – who holds the ‘Gas Plant’ contracts?

  3. Here in Ontario,rural Ontarians can add deceit used to sell IWTs to Mr. Bryce’s accurate IWT article.

  4. We all need to band together to ban fracking which sucks up fresh water, never returns it to the surface and leaves dangerous chemicals below our water table. It will be the biggest environmental catastropy since the oil sands…and people to T Bo are behind it!!

    • “It will be the biggest environmental catastrophy since the oilsands”…
      Rogerdodger, What you bin smokin Bye? Have you been hanging out with the Loonie Left?
      The oilsands are NOT an environmental catastrophy by any measure! Compared to IWTs they are pristine. They may be big & ugly (to the unlearned), but they represent the best, cutting edge technology, on the planet. Canadians can be proud of our oil industry and the 100s of thousands of well paying jobs it creates, in all provinces, as oppossed to the few $15.00/hr. factory jobs, assembling the foreign made turbines. If the oilsands were shut down, we wouldn`t have the money required, to subsidize the useless turbines!
      So, please do your homework, on our Canadian oilsands Rogerdodger. You`ll see they are truly very impressive, awe-inspiring even.
      Cheers, Doug, from Edmonton Ab.

      • The oilsands took 100’s of millions of years to build up and now we are going to use it up (and give it away at a bargain) in less that 50 years. Who’s smoking something Doug? It’s an environmental, as well as an economic disaster. What is Harper doing in China with Shell excecs pushing for an oil deal? Whats wrong with making the oilsands last for 200 years, so that Canadians have some stability instead of this boombust cycle.
        I’m not against the oilsands but i am against exploiting it for SHORT TERM GREED!!

      • With Canada losing its manufacturing something has to replace the lost money. Selling the natural resources is one way of being able to sustain the present standard of living that Canadians enjoy. Otherwise the country will be left with an agricultural and service based economy like that of ~100 years ago.

  5. Just spent part of my afternoon at the local library reviewing a Stantec report for Union Gas about preliminary gas pipe line routes for when & if OPG- Nanticoke coal plant is converted to natural gas. Lots and lots of new branches to the gas lines. Hmmm this can’t be connected to the IWTS can it??? (sarcasm is my tone)

    • Hey Linda,
      It’s only about gas!!!!!!
      Before the election – two gas plants were cancelled, Mississauga/Etobicoke and Oakville – but the contracts are still in force. These two plants will be relocated.
      Also, before the election – a directive from the McGuinty Liberals was put in place for 4 or 5 more gas plants.
      So – 2+4=6 @ the very least.
      Where will they go?

      Note: Most wind farms are held by ‘gas corporations’ already.

      p.s. Sharks, and they’re hungry!

      • One more thingy – Ugh!

        Under the ‘Green Energy and Green Economy Act (Billy Boy150)
        a gas plant is considered an alternative energy source (McGuinty says it’s cleaner than coal) therefore – are you ready – no EA –
        only a ‘proponent driven environmental screening’ is required.

        Then – same process as for wind turbines.

        So they can put a ‘gas plant’ anywhere!

        [group scream]

        Note: high pressure gas pipelines are a different story – double Ugh!
        [scream louder]

  6. Free Thinker: Wondering where the gas plants will go, I`ve not heard, but I think it`s a pretty safe bet, they`ll do their best to locate them in Conservative held ridings, don`t you think? Hey F.T. , when you look closely, Dipstick Dolton looks a lot like that Assad fella, in Saudia Arabia, don`t you think? And their personalities are similar and their style of dictatorial governance. They could almost pass for twins! They both have those evil looking, scarry eyes!

    • Hey Douglas,
      I was thinking – now that ‘you’ mentioned it –
      maybe, we could get King Abdullah
      to ring up
      McGuinty aka ‘Peter Pan’ – big boy in pyjama’s –
      and tell him to go to his room –
      the party’s over!

      Let’s make plans!

      p.s. yes, Assad is brutal

  7. So what we have here is that wind turbines have been a muse for the gas industry all along.
    They were only a prelude to a phony need for increased gas exploration (extremely harmful fracking included) because gas is needed to back up pitiful wind power.
    Correct me if I’m wrong that TransCanada, who has the contract to deliver natural gas to residents, has substantially increased it’s “delivery fee” just as Hydro 1 is billing us 50% or more over consumption in “delivery fees” on our hydro bills.

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