Facts are largest barriers to the wind farm roll out

Grattan Institute seminar, 20 July 2012, ‘The Future of Wind Energy in Australia’:

So firstly, we’ll hear from Jonathan Upson. He’s the Senior Development Manager at Infigen Energy. And that means that he currently manages the develops of several wind energy proposals. It means that he handles a lot of the government and regulatory affairs including giving evidence to wind farm enquiries, and has worked on a range of wind energy developments that have succeeded in being granted development approval, and has worked across other proposals in four Australian states. His history includes 12 years in the gas turbine field working for General Electric, as well as time with Hewlett Packard. And he is also qualified in mechanical engineering and has an MBA as well.

Jonathan we’re hoping that you might share with us some of your experiences in bringing these wind farms to life, bringing them to the market, and in particular what you think you might describe as the largest practical barriers to the wind farm roll out at the local level.

JONATHAN: Well thank you. In my personal opinion, I would have to say the media’s inclination to run negative, sensationalistic and sometimes biased stories, with little regard to the facts, is probably our largest impediment. And I’m not suggesting of course that the media should not cover objectives and opinions about wind farm developments. If an objector says wind turbines are large, ugly structures, they’re entitled to having their opinion covered by the media. There’s no problem with that. However, when anti-wind farm activists make statements of fact such as every wind turbine has a gas turbine inside of it to keep the blades turning when there’s no wind, to stop the blades from sagging and breaking, that is not an opinion. That is a statement that is either true or it’s false. And you might have noticed in Graham’s slides, there were no gas turbine engines inside the nacelle.

So one might think me a little bit naïve or old-fashioned, but I believe the media has an obligation to make some attempt to ascertain whether statements of fact are true before propagating them, particularly when they’re as preposterous as that example. Instead, I spend time meeting with numerous neighbours explaining to them … about trying to counter this instead of real issues. And so I actually explain to them things like wind farm sites rarely have gas reticulation, they rarely have gas pipelines. So you’d have to have a fleet of trucks shifting gas bottles in order to make this happen. You can see wind turbines not turning any day of the week somewhere in Australia. The noise from an aircraft engine could not possibly go unnoticed, and would be insufficient to turn a 24 ton rotor in any case. And of course, stationary wind turbine blades do not sag and break.

So there’s less time spent discussing and explaining actual amenity impacts of wind farm. I mean there are real amenity impacts, we all know that. Instead I’m forced to defend the latest furphy theory on one of the anti-wind farm sites which has then been sold to the local media.

And how about positive stories about wind farms? What about stories about the contracts who are hired, the apprentices who are trained, the regional development and construction. For example, there was a study by SKM that showed that during the Hallett wind farms that are built in the mid-north in South Australia, $88 million has been spent, not buying turbines from overseas, $88 million in that local region has been spent building those wind farms. Infigen Energy’s Lake Bonney Three wind farm and our Walk Away Two wind farm proposal, when we put our planning applications in we got not one single objection. Were the media interested in running stories about a wind farm which everyone likes? Of course not, that’s not a story.

As Ken mentioned, the largest public relations issue for the industry as the moment is the theory of an ex-doctor that infrasound or low frequency noise from wind turbines is likely to make anyone within 10km of a wind turbine sick. This story has been going for well over a year. It has legs as they say in the business. Imagine how quick this story would fade if the media included the following facts every time Sarah Laurie was interviewed. She is not a registered doctor, therefore she cannot legally diagnose any medical condition. There is no published scientific or medical evidence anywhere in the world substantiating her theory. And that’s not my opinion, that’s the view of the CSIRO as they testified at the recent Senate Committee hearing.

On the other hand, there are Australian and overseas peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals proving that infrasound levels from wind turbines are far below the levels that human beings can even detect, let alone the levels that could cause any detrimental health impacts. However, the media is uninterested in mentioning any of these facts. It’s too complicated, too boring, or dare I say too factual. Instead media personalities fawn all over Sarah Laurie, as Alan Jones did during a recent interview where he repeated and he agreed with everything she said. The media sees fit to run without question or challenge the theory of one ex-doctor, rather than take the time to ask any of the other 70,000 registered Australian doctors who don’t share her view.

Many of you by now may have noticed some similarities to my discussion to the current media debate around action on climate change. In essence, I’m suggesting that the media should stop publishing and airing crap. Every TV station showed Tony Abbott last week at a fish market smiling and mugging for the camera, holding a big fish. Did any journalist ask Tony Abbott how an increase of 12c a kilogram for salmon or less than one half a percent, according to Treasury modelling, was going to cripple this industry and close down the fish market? Did anyone ask … did any of the journalists ask a customer if they would mind paying a half a percent more for their fish, which they would be fully compensated for if they were a lower or middle income person? No.

I would suggest that the current media frenzy about the carbon tax and to a lesser extend wind energy, are related. It’s fair to say that the construction of wind farms are perhaps the most visible form of action on climate change. In fact you could say maybe it’s the poster child of action on climate change. And this is not lost on the Prime Minister, who opened a wind farm today in NSW as an example of her clean energy future plan. However, if you’re a climate change denier, the last thing you’d want to see from your front porch would be a wind farm. And maybe that explains why some of the anti-wind farm people are so committed.

Obviously the dummy-down and the sensationalistic tendencies of the Australian media, are of course a much larger issue than just their coverage of wind energy. Media companies are private enterprises that are managed aggressively to maximise profits, and that means increasing market shares, selling papers, increasing viewership, while at the same time reducing costs, primarily by laying off journalists who then have less time to do a proper job, even though … even if they were inclined. And I don’t want to bag journalists, there are some journalists who do want to do the right things, but they’re under so much pressure of deadlines to be able … they’re having difficulty doing a proper job.

One could view the disgusting phone hacking scandal in the UK as the ultimate in newspaper efficiency. Sensational, riveting, subscription increasing stories, but without even having to leave one’s desk. No investigative journalism, no running around London interviewing people and chasing leads. Just sit at your PC and let the day’s phone hacking results write the story for you. You didn’t think I was going to let that slide, I mean I’m talking about the media on a day like today, I had to get … I had to mention that one.

The question I was asked wanted me to identify the leading impediment. There are certainly others, and I would not want to leave you with the impression that the wind energy industry is perfect. In my experience, community consultation has improved significantly from when I started work in the industry eight or so years ago. However there still is room for improvement.

However, the media coverage of myths and inaccuracies is making useful and effective community consultation very difficult. It serves to polarise the community such that there’s little common ground for rational or thoughtful conversation and discussion, and therefore this does represent a significant barrier for the industry.

[Our thanks to Stop These Things]

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