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Oct 13, 2011

The web of vested interests behind the anti-wind farm lobby

A network analysis of links between the principal voices involved in demonising wind farms in Australia has been circulating in recent weeks and reveals connections between some of the principal wind farm opponents.

Following a July investigation by environmental correspondent Sandi Keane , a network analysis of links between the principal voices involved in demonising wind farms in Australia has been circulating in recent weeks.

The network diagram shows connections between some of the principal individuals who have been vocal in opposing wind farm development in Australia, several organisations that are at the forefront of the opposition, the Institute of Public Affairs and its love-child the Australian Environment Foundation and the Victorian Liberal Party.

In August, the Baillieu government announced it would be amending legislation to require all wind turbines to be sited further than two kilometres from any residence.  The push is now on to get the NSW O’Farrell government do the same thing. The decision effectively guts the wind industry’s immediate prospects of further development in Victoria with wind industry insiders predicting that money will rush into South Australia, where already 21% of the state’s energy is sourced from wind.

(Click on the image for the full, readable version)

At the base of the diagram are various wind farms that have been targeted by those opposed and the connections with protest meetings that have been held in recent years. The often cosy relationships are never better illustrated than by looking at the links between the Waubra Foundation, the Australian Landscape Guardians  and Victorian mining investor Peter Mitchell. Mitchell has uranium and coal seam gas interests and has spent a lifetime in the fossil fuel extraction industry.

Mitchell is the Waubra Foundation’s founding chairman and at least until February 2011, was also chairman of the Australian Landscape Guardians’ Science and Economics Committee.

The Waubra Foundation, the Landscape Guardians and Mitchell’s investment company Lowell Capital all have the same post office box, yet the “medical director” of the foundation, Sarah Laurie, wrote recently on a blog: “The Waubra Foundation is not a front for the Landscape Guardians … Peter Mitchell  … has kindly made his mailbox available for the use of the foundation, as we have extremely limited financial resources.”

Things must be tough: a post office box costs about 50 cents a day.

Amazingly, the Waubra Foundation website states that Laurie has an MD (research) degree from Flinders University. She does not: she has bachelor’s degrees in medicine from Flinders, but is unregistered to practice as a doctor. An MD is a postgraduate degree awarded to accomplished researchers for a body of published work.

One of Waubra Foundation’s  governing principles states: “At all times to establish and maintain complete independence from government, industry and advocacy groups for or against wind turbines.” Its chairman Peter Mitchell is a strident opponent to the Stockyard Hill wind farm (which borders his weekender). Sarah Laurie ties herself in knots claiming that she doesn’t oppose the proposed Crystal Brook wind farm in her backyard, yet she’s devoted the past 15 months to fighting wind farms.

Fellow director Tony Hodgson is a founder of Friends of Collector, a protest organisation in the mould of the Landscape Guardians, he’s working hard to scuttle a wind farm adjacent to his weekender. Director Kathy Russell opposes the Mount Pollock wind farm in her backyard and is vice-president of the Australian Landscape Guardians, vice-president of the Victorian Landscape Guardians, spokeswoman for the Western Plains, Mount Pollock Landscape Guardians and the Barrabool Hills Landscape Guardians. The Landscape Guardians appears to have more office positions than members.

A front group bereft of credibility, we might wonder how the Waubra Foundation garnered the support of Michael Wooldridge (federal health minister under Howard) to also sit on their board. Wooldridge opposes the proposed Bald Hills wind farm, which borders his family’s farming interests in Gippsland.  The Bald Hills project was almost scuttled by the Guardian’s heartfelt concern for the orange-bellied parrot.

A ban was overturned when it was shown that the whole wind farm might endanger one theoretical parrot every 667 years.

Having found limited success using protected species to prevent wind farms, the anti-windies settled on a new weapon, a manufactured health crisis. But last month, international journal Environmental Health Review published a review of all evidence about the proposition that wind farms cause health problems in those exposed. Like at least four other previous reviews, this latest review concluded:

“While it is acknowledged that noise from wind turbines can be annoying to some and associated with some reported health effects (e.g. sleep disturbance) … given that annoyance appears to be more strongly related to visual cues and attitude than to noise itself, self reported health effects of people living near wind turbines are more likely attributed to physical manifestation from an annoyed state than from wind turbines themselves. In other words, it appears that it is the change in the environment that is associated with reported health effects and not a turbine-specific variable like audible noise or infrasound.

“Regardless of its cause, a certain level of annoyance in a population can be expected (as with any number of projects that change the local environment) and the acceptable level is a policy decision to be made by elected officials and their government representatives where the benefits of wind power are weighted against their cons.”

So people who are annoyed or affected by wind farms are those who basically don’t like them and find the sight and sound of them upsetting, in much the same way that some people object to traffic, aircraft or street noise while others are indifferent to it. The idea that in themselves, they are intrinsically toxic to those exposed, has poor support in the scientific research literature.

The anti-wind farm movement regards such conclusions as profanity but has had a hard time getting the scientific community to take them seriously. For example,  look up “wind turbine syndrome” (a new “disease” invented by a US general practitioner) in PubMed , and you’ll find zero entries. And if you look up “vibroacoustic disease“, the name for a new disease caused by inaudible, invisible sound waves put out by evil wind turbines, you’ll find papers by staff at a minor Lisbon university where the authors all repeatedly cite each other’s papers, but few others ever do.

Australia’s commitment to renewable energy faces formidable opposition from interests who think climate change is  “crap” and who will be affected by the carbon tax.  China, India, the US, Canada and many European nations are storming ahead with wind energy development. If flakey arguments about wind farms being harmful are not exposed, Australia will be tying one hand behind its back on the path to a greener economy.

*Tomorrow: the eight papers that the anti-wind farm lobby describe as “groundbreaking” —  pity about the “peer review” …

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135 thoughts on “The web of vested interests behind the anti-wind farm lobby

  1. Ian McKendry

    Good to see detailed and well-researched commentary on the frothing dishonesty of the anti wind farm lobby. Such ‘tell it like it is’ refuting of the mystical rubbish solemnly put forward by the anti brigade is surprisingly rare. Yes, of course it is mainly the usual Australian whining and NIMBY-ism at play yet again, however disguised as pseudo- science.

    The most hilarious example was on display on 7.30 last night. Suffocatingly self-righteous farmers in opposition to a wind farm because the sheep are sensitive creatures and it will affect the quality of the wool! Spare me. Of course, it does also leave open the judgement of the producers of 7.30 in seeing the story as interesting or newsworthy. Maybe they saw it as beautiful satire – you certainly couldn’t make this stuff up.

    Ian McKendry

  2. Russell

    No matter how worthy” such investigations are, they are besides the point. You will never be able to “debunk” the opposition, because it defies rationality. Similarly the Four Corners program a free months ago, which spent a lot of time trying to rubbish the claims that the turbines caused “headaches.”

    Interesting, but irrelevant..

    The real problem here is the Nimby-ism which is rampant through the inner city urban area of Australia, and now the rural regions as well You will never defeat their issues with argument, the selfish, emotionalism behind it is totally impenetrable to reason.

    The rise of Nimby-ism in the cities has been fostered and is encouraged by the Greens. In fact they campaign constantly on Nimby issues. At the recent Sydney Film Festival screening of a movie called “Windfall” about the impact of a wind farm on an upstate New York community, I was struck by how the opponents of the turbines were all what we would call “greenie” tree-changers.

    Affluent, educated, articulate environmental activists. Just like the ones protesting CSG in the inner city now.

    Those who signed up for turbines on their properties all needed the income. The film wryly noted that in the more affluent neighbouring communities, wind farms didn’t even get past first base.

  3. Mark Duffett

    “…tying one hand behind its back on the path to a greener economy…”

    You’d better hope metaphors aren’t covered by the Geneva Convention, because that’s torture.

    Wind farms aren’t evil, they’re just not all that useful: There are fundamental reasons why a point of diminishing returns is hit very rapidly once a given power grid tries to go above a ceiling of about 20% contribution from the things.

  4. Modus Ponens

    What is most interesting is that those who received rental payments for the turbines never suffer from any symptoms that those who receive no payments do.

    It would be interesting if neighbouring property owners were entitled to small royalty payments, whether the anxiety induced headaches and blood pressure would be alleviated…?

  5. Steven Warren

    From what I have seen in reports your claims that SA “sources” 21% of their power from wind may be a little bit of a furphy.

    21% of their capacity may be wind (which would be fairly close to it’s coal capacity) yet while practically all of their coal would be purchased, a large percentage of that wind wouldn’t.

    In 2005-2006 back when 10% of SA’s capacity was wind, they actually purchased no wind power generation at all (or at least a statistically insignificant amount).

    With the price parity effect of the ETS it is more likely they will use wind power now, but having the capacity to use something is not the same as actually using it.

    This just reinforces your point more not less though.

  6. Richard Mackie

    response to Mark Duffet:
    The Brave New Climate article you reference is widely acknowledged as based on an attack on wind by the Idependant Petroleum Association based in Colarado. They make some rather outlandish claims and baseless assertions about fossil fuel generator ramp-rates. The web site also rather fairly published a response to the article you referenced. Look here:
    The reality is a similar result to what we found in South Australia. Look here:
    Wind farms directly displace fossil fuel use (wind wind is blowing coal or gas is not being burned) but also, pushes the dirty plant (old coal) out of the system first. Wind has shown to actually reduce emissions more than first thought.

    response to Steven Warren:
    Your comments don’t make sense. All power produced in the National Electricity Market is bought by someone.
    As well as being 21% of nameplate capacity, we found that wind in South Australia also produced about 21% of the energy last year. This means the capacity factor of the wind farms is about the same as the capacity factor of the rest of the system. Wind energy works.

  7. Captain Planet

    20 % is a pretty useful contribution, Mark.

  8. Dan Cass

    Great piece, Simon. There are fascinating connections there and I’m keen to see if any more information comes to light….

    I’m very disappointed by the NHMRC’s response to this furphy. When the NHMRC ran a consultation on this issue recently, it was structured as an equal argument – half science that Simon describes and half the pseudo-science of the Waubra Foundation.

    The only MP invited was Alby Shultz (Lib, NSW). It is absurd to have Alby at a forum on the science of health because he is anti science. He has described climate science as Nazi science.

  9. David Clarke

    I happen to know Sarah Laurie. We both live at Crystal Brook, a small SA country town; when she was practicing she was, for a time, my GP. I believe she is sincere and well meaning, but badly mistaken and being used by the Landscape Guardians.

    There are people who believe wind turbines make them ill. Lots of them have told their tales to Dr Laurie. Fair enough. But there is no evidence that it is the turbines that cause the illness; all the evidence that I’ve seen points to anxiety and fear. And unfortunately Dr Laurie is increasing that.

    If anyone doubts the 20% plus that wind power contributes to SA’s power I suggest that they read ElectraNet’s SA Annual Planning Report, 2011. Which also says that “Studies show that the existing transmission network has the capacity to enable up to approximately 2300 MW of wind generation in South Australia before generation exceeds regional demand and interconnector export capacity.” That is, about double what it is now.

  10. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Aren’t the executives of big mining and oil and traditional power companies allowed to care for the little birdies and struggling farmers? “We’re behind you all the way in stopping these ghastly, unnatural wind turbines. By the way, do you have room for a fracking plant on the south paddock?”

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