The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, here and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

Attempts will doubtless be made to draw a comparison with leftwing attitudes to nuclear power. But this fails for numerous reasons
* A substantial number of environmentalists support nuclear power as preferable to coal
* Among those who don’t a substantial number (me for example) base their view on the conclusion that nuclear power is simply more expensive than renewables or energy-efficiency measures
*The health risks associated with nuclear power are real, even if they are sometimes overstated
* Finally, even those environmentalists who are reflexively opposed to nuclear power aren’t guilty of the hypocrisy of their rightwing counterparts. Typically, they simply hold extreme concerns about risks of all kinds.

The only environmentalists I would convict of hypocrisy on this issue are people like Robert F Kennedy Jr, who campaigns against both nuclear and wind power while claiming to care about climate change. But RFK Jr is an anti-vaccine loon, whose only claim to fame is the name he inherited from his father. He has been rightly denounced by genuine environmentalists. Meanwhile, even those on the right who know that the scare campaign about wind is nonsense make excuses for their allies (I quote Greg Hunt in the article, and I anticipate more of the same in comments here).

Update I’m happy to say that my predictions on comments have been more than borne out. A number of rightwing commenters have weighed in with the claim (false, when you take account of the underpricing of CO2 emissions) that wind is subsidised relative to fossil fuels. Several comments have implied that, since wind energy is supposedly subsidised, it is OK to make up anti-scientific lies about it. None of our rightwing tribalists has been willing to call out their fellow tribespeople.

More amusingly, on the pro-science side of the debate, we’ve been testing out Poe’s Law. Check out the comments that reject mainstream climate science and put forward alarmist claims about wind. See if you can tell which are real and which are parodies. I had some genuine difficulty.

113 thoughts on “The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

  1. I am deeply unimpressed with your pieties John Quiggin. Like some very distinguished medical scientists who really ought to know better but joint the ranks of the pious great and good who trust other scientists to be as pure in heart and method as they are or were you really have no qualification to speak with such dismissive authority of the many,and increasing number, of doubters who know perfectly well that greenhouse gases tend to trap infra red radiation, that the earth’s outer layers of sea and atmosphere have been warming ever since the Little Ice Age peaked, and that adaptations, at least need to be considered but don’t believe we should squander vast amounts of money which could be spent better on other things. If you add to your PC the idea that Australia’s reputation in the world (but with whom?) is at stake then you are a presumptuous ass.

    I speak to physicists and climate scientists who have qualifications in physics and its associated mathematics and I am far from convinced that Australia should be wasting money on the least efficient ways of getting in early on the ultimately essential (say in 200 years time) replacement of fossil fuel as our main energy sources. My friends, as many women as men, who got me to sign a petition against a wind farm which threatened the historic and aesthetic value of a famous old National Heritage garden and house may or may not have had any legitimate support for their case in people’s apprehension about low frequency sound but they were spot on with their arguments against buggering up our environment to get the uneconomic product of wind farms on the periphery of a famous garden and landscaped lake.

    Actually I am a bit puzzled by your association of the anti wind farm campaigns on environmental grounds with the political right. It seems to me to be quite as naturally a left wing enthusiasm.

  2. I suppose while one group of capitalists seeks advantage for fossil fuels via subsidies and exemptions from the costs of negative externalities (to protect their assets from being stranded) another group of more entrepreneurial and forward thinking capitalists is cracking on and beginning to make money out of wind and solar power. There is more than one interest even among capitalists. One suspects a changing of the guard will occur eventually. I just hope it isn’t too late to save the biosphere.

  3. Jim, the supposed requirement for baseload power isn’t. The bulk of baseload power is soaked up by people heating their water overnight at a cheaper rate, because coal-fired plants can’t easily match actual load requirements.

    See if you can come up with an actual coherent argument next time.

  4. Of course some historic mills were windmills, so we already know just how damaging to our health they are. We have short memories, totally forgetting the hell that was the 19th century windmill. Just try Googling it – you won’t find it anywhere – the green mafia have combed the internet removing all references.

    And don’t get me started about the endangered birds they kill. There is a wind turbine on Rottnest Island near Perth, and while there recently I went for a walk to the base – or should I say I tried to walk to the base. I didn’t get to within 100m before the smell of dead birds overpowered me.

    You have some gall, Professor Q, peddling this scurrilous nonsense!

  5. @John Brookes

    I’m surprised you made it that close.

    The sub-normal brainwaves from the air disturbance vibrational vortex often kill thousands of people before they get close enough to be crushed by the putrescence of the extintified wildlife, according to many scientific friends and non-friends from both sides of politics I’ve discussed these topics with.

    I’ve heard that Ferrari sales are up 100% this year because climate scientists are buying them with grant money. On the other hand, a friend who works at CentreLink says that denialist bloggers like JoNova, Bolt and WhatsThat have been coming in recently asking for emergency payments to help make ends meet.

    Another point that gets no coverage in our greeny controlled media is that the wind makes the world spin around on its axis. If the greenies get their way and “harness” the wind there won’t be any left to fly kites for children or make the world spin on its axis.

    These people must be stopped.

  6. @megan

    You could not be more correct about the dangers of air disturbance vibrational vorteces.

    I live in Kingston Ontario Canada and the newly established wind turbine farm on the nearly Wolfe Island has forced it’s complete evacuation (est. 2,000 inhabitants) and fears are that the wild life is being driven to extinction.

    It’s a terrible situation that the government is hiding from us. They even have empty cars on the ferry to pretend that people are still living there.


  7. Recently a wind turbine was proposed near my house. I have personally seen the bodies of several parrots who commited suicide upon merely hearing the news.

    Just imagine what will happen once it’s actually built.

  8. Another point that gets no coverage in our greeny controlled media is that the wind makes the world spin around on its axis. If the greenies get their way and “harness” the wind there won’t be any left to fly kites for children or make the world spin on its axis.

    No, you are lying.

    The world does not spin around on its axis. This is a lie promoted by the lying tax-eating communists who deny that the sun actually revolves around the earth and that it is fluctuations in the sun’s movement around the earth, rather than life-giving carbon dioxide, that causes climate change.

  9. According to a 2012 Grattan Institute report new wind power costs $90-$130 per Mwh though it is not clear if that includes the LGC subsidy currently worth ~$30 per Mwh. An old subcritical coal plant might produce power at say $45 per Mwh if black coal creating a tonne of CO2 per Mwh add $24, call it $70 combined. In round terms new wind power is nearly twice as costly as carbon taxed old coal.

    I therefore make two noteworthy conclusions
    1) most wind power is currently unviable without the RET
    2) the big coal fired power stations will be with us for a long time.

    The firm capacity (minimum output) for windpower in Australia may be under 5% of nameplate, notably during heatwaves when electrical demand is high. Thus we could build 20X peak demand to get coverage but that would be expensive, intrusive and oftentimes redundant. The RET on top of carbon tax/ETS is double dipping since high carbon electricity is already handicapped. Hopefully under a well designed ETS there will be no need for a RET and everybody sinks or swims under their low carbon and reliability merits.

    As for wind turbine syndrome I don’t care for the sneering attitude of some urbanites. If it’s bogus put the wind farms in the suburbs.

  10. Jim Rose, currently South Australia has no operating base load power generating capacity and the power is still on, so don’t worry about it.

  11. I really don’t know why offshore wind isn’t more popular in Australia. It would obviate all these problems, whether real or imagined. Europe seems to be doing it, so why can’t we? Genuine question.

  12. “If it’s bogus put the wind farms in the suburbs.”

    Already happening, Hermit. Come to Melbourne and look at the Catholic Uni in Fitzroy.

  13. As an unscientific, uneducated blogger who nevertheless had had 50+ years experience of technical change as a consumer, can I make a sweeping generalisation here? New technologies tend to be expensive. Then they tend to get less so (even MUCH less so) as takeup increases, the bugs get ironed out and economies of scale take over. Think of audio technology, computing etc. Therefore “Coal’s still so much cheaper than renewables” doesn’t cut much ice with me, even though my technical knowledge of the industries involved may be less than yours.

  14. Hermit, I’m surprised that you didn’t use the figures for the McArthur wind farm as I have fond memories of going over the figures with you and it’s an actual real wind farm built in Australia so its cost should be a fairly precise reflection of the cost of building a wind farm in Australia.

    Anyway, here’s a link to an article you may be interested in about how unsubsidised renewables in Australia are currently cheaper than new gas or coal:

    You may also be interested in a list of some coal capacity that has been put in mothballs over the past few years without being replaced by new coal capacity: Tarong 700 MW, Playford B 250 MW, Swanbank B 125 MW, Munmorrah 600 MW, Yallourn 360 MW. And since it’s switch to seasonal load following you may want to add half of Northern Power Station’s 520 MW. I may have skipped a few, so if you know of any others please let me know.

    And, as I mentioned to Jim, we get by fine with having no baseload generating capacity here in South Australia. In the record breaking heatwave we had not that long ago our grid performed without a problem, with no rolling blackouts like we’ve had in the past, thanks mostly due to the large amount of rooftop solar power that’s been installed.

  15. @Ronald Brak
    That’s news to me. The 1.28 GW Torrens Island power station is Australia’s biggest user of natural gas and is inefficient slow response steam only cycle. That gas is set to double in price when Cooper Basin output heads the other other way next year to make LNG at Gladstone, Qld. After the election dust settles we’ll need to check SA power prices with the other states and see if the comparison fares better than it did a year ago.

  16. Sam, offshore wind isn’t more popular in Australia because it’s more expensive. As it’s cheaper to build on land and we have plenty of great potential sites on land, offshore wind won’t get a look in until its price comes down. But it’s price is dropping.

  17. There are only two serious concerns with wind power:-

    1. They are financed through a rort.
    2. They look ugly.

    Maybe if MRET was abolished and the rotors were painted bright blue I might have a different attitude towards wind farms. However I suspect they will always look ugly.

  18. Terjep, in the absence of a carbon price equal to the cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere, I don’t see what is wrong with the MRET, given that we are unlikely to get anything better any time soon. I can understand that just having a high carbon price would be simpler, but given that we don’t have that and probably won’t get it anytime soon, what’s the problem with the MRET particularly since it is not going to take much time or much expense for Australia to get to the 20% target?

    By the way, I have a question waiting for you in the sandpit: Do you accept that Andrew Bolt lied when he wrote, “Here he was, receiving film’s highest honour for his smash documentary, in which he warns that within a century the seas will rise up to 6m while monster hurricanes tear through what’s left of our cities.

    Never mind that scientists reject such wild claims.”

    I went through all the trouble of looking the article up and explaining why it was problematic, so I’d like to know if my efforts have had any effect.

  19. @Ronald Brak

    I really don’t know why offshore wind isn’t more popular in Australia. It would obviate all these problems, whether real or imagined.

    There is not, by definition, anyway of obviating an imaginary problem. People can always imagine problems. Doubtless, some would say that there would be megadeaths amongst endangered seabirds or that the flicker from the sun would trigger epileptic fits, what with the reflection from the water.

    As Ronald points out, it’s a lot more expensive than on-shore, especially when one includes maintenance. One can build them at larger scale, and of course the ‘topography’ is more conducive to harvest.

  20. @Fran Barlow
    That was me, not Ronald! I accept those arguments about higher capital costs, but European proponents point out that sea breezes are a lot more constant and predictable than land ones. This means a higher capacity factor, which can more than pay for the extra costs.

    Anyway, I’m not an engineer, so I won’t try to argue the point. Still, it’s surprising there isn’t even a single offshore farm in this country.

  21. I do have some sympathy for the NIMBY response to windfarms – I too like unencumbered views – but with the need being great I don’t see it as a sacrifice that I can’t endure.

    Isn’t the real impediment that so many people do not acknowledge any great need? Climate science denial and obstructionism, and support for it within mainstream commerce and politics continues to exert it’s toxic influence on every aspect of the climate and emissions policy. As long as it goes on every policy measure will end up weakened and compromised to fit into the arbitrary bounds of ‘reasonable’ and ‘realistic’ that thoroughly embedded and deliberately cultivated denialism imposes.

  22. OK, Terje, leaving aside your unsubstantiated claim that windfarm financing is a rort (contentious at best), their aesthetic appeal is very much a matter of opinion. I think they’re beautiful.

  23. I think Fran was just replying to both of us there, Sam. At the moment the higher capacity of offshore wind doesn’t make up for its greater expense so it still not competitive with land based turbines in Australia. But one compromise is to put the turbines on islands such as King Island or Kangaroo Island which have strong sea breezes.

  24. Imagine if cars and highways were new. Would highways have to be 2km away from houses? Would there be concerns over the rumbling and the exhaust gases? And what about the deaths and injuries?

    Yet I’m sure that cars and roads are on the whole a very positive thing.

    It is easy to demonise stuff.

  25. Ronald – I’ve left a comment in the sandpit for you. I thought I had responded previously but I couldn’t find evidence of it. Sorry.

  26. “Yet I’m sure that cars and roads are on the whole a very positive thing.”

    Jane Holtz Kay:

    Fossil fuel use, deaths, obesity, social isolation, urban sprawl and decay, air and noise pollution, marginalisation of walking / cycling, town planning’s lack of focus on community integration with food and energy sources…

    I love the positiv-ity of men.

  27. John – if cars were new they would be banned. Petrol would probably be a prohibited substance. You certainly wouldn’t be able to buy it without showing ID. And there would be rations regarding how much you could buy per transaction. If you bought more than 100L it would have to be reported to a government agency. In the off chance that cars were permitted we would all need to wear helmets, shin, knee and elbow pads. Luckily cars were invented in more enlightened times when fanatics were not running things.

  28. you beat me to it.

    i thought they were extraterrestrial terrorists terraforming terrain for tha lizzards.

    i wuz rong.

  29. @TerjeP
    I think they look quite impressive. So looks like we’re hung on that one, we’ll have to look to some other criteria. The point is the the aesthetic argument is invalid, it’s far too subjective and if it was able to trump all we’d probably wouldn’t have a lot of public infrastructure. I mean the Hoover Dam is impressive to me but to others it may be just a large concrete wall that destroyed a beautiful river vista.
    On the health argument, this is just another smoke screen by vested interests. Whenever it has been examined in the media it is always a struggle for the report to show “balance” as the levels of credulity required exceed even the ample guilelessness of the MSM. Nonetheless it has had some effect on stopping projects in Victoria I understand.

  30. @TerjeP
    Lot’s of libertarian angst there. I think if we accept that we know more about the damage caused by the car and it’s attendant infrastructure we might have planned the road system a bit better but I’d speculate that vested interested would have something to say reporting fuel purchases over a certain limit to the govt. I presume the comment is libertarian humour, if such a thing exists.

  31. TerjePLuckily cars were invented in more enlightened times when fanatics were not running things.

    Like the easy-going and famously reasonable Henry Ford.

    Let’s see if I understand the logic here: things are being run by fanatics who would prohibit petrol but haven’t prohibited petrol, and would make drivers of cars wear safety gear except that they don’t make drivers wear safety gear.

    Somehow, “the world is run by people who do things they don’t do and was better when they didn’t do what they don’t do” isn’t such a compelling argument.

  32. Sancho :
    Somehow, “the world is run by people who do things they don’t do and was better when they didn’t do what they don’t do” isn’t such a compelling argument.

    It’s not so bad by libertarian standards.

  33. By itself it’s asinine; the type of thing that might be satisfying to post on an Andrew Bolt blog while you sit with the heater turned up and the windows open just to annoy greenies, but in the context of this thread it’s simply bizarre.

    John Quiggin published an article demonstrating that opponents of renewable energy are lobbying politicians to legislate in favour of the fossil fuel industry, while Astroturfing fake activist groups that whip up opposition to wind farms by scaring local communities with health risks that don’t exist.

    From that information, Terje concludes that supporters of wind farms are unenlightened fanatics dishonestly try to repress their opponents.

  34. As it goes, the American car lobby and Standard Oil conspired to destroy public transport in the major cities so as to promote car usage. Later, they received peppercorn fines under anti-trust laws for this public policy vandalism.

    My apologies Sam and Ronald for misattributing ….

  35. There was an excellent post 2 posts ago called “Rent seeking rampant” Please replace FBT with wind turbines and you will understand why people may object.
    To paraphrase ” Is there a wind industry without subsidies?”

  36. @chrisl
    Pretty much JQ’s point. Because the Right disputes the economic viability of the wind industry, it’ll swallow any superstitious antiscientific nonsense falling on their side of the case. This is the same kind of tribal epistemology that it suffers from with respect to climate change. You’ve nailed it.

  37. @Helen

    Your confessed ignorance Helen could have been made up for with a bit of logic. How much improvement in “efficiency” would be needed to make up for the fact that winds are very much intermittent and unreliable? Storage will no doubt improve and it could be storage by raising water in a country with more water but my bet, with just a little more knowledge, is that solar plus storage is a much better bet, including a much better bet for technological improvements and further reductions in cost even beyond what has resulted from Chinese production of photo-voltaic panels.

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