Bursting the bubble of anti-wind astroturfers

When it comes to criticising wind energy, you don't need to exert yourself too hard to pass off opinion as a hard-earned scientific truth. There's a good chance your claims will go happily unchecked and gloriously unchallenged. Just relax, and let your creative juices flow. 

A gratifying example: last year, an anti-wind doctor read quotes from a New South Wales Department of Health (NSW DOH) report, touting the harms induced by wind energy on a radio interview. A manic Alan Jones agreed excitedly with every word. 

The NSW DOH report was actually about the health effects of mining operations that use 'blasting' – the use of explosives to disintegrate rock. These blunders regularly go unchallenged, in the heady and tumultuous public discourse around wind farms.

A fellow employee in the energy industry recently brought something similar to my attention. It serves as a brilliant example of how emotionally-driven opinion is passed off as established, empirical truth.

On February 23 this year, Andrew Carswell of the Daily Telegraph published an article deeply critical of wind energy*.

"While wind energy proponents continue to deny the theory of land devaluation surrounding wind farm projects, and outright deny the thought of noise pollution, a study produced by Wind Burst Publishing found that regardless of property type, properties up to 2km from turbines had a high chance of being uninhabitable and ‘‘unworkable without serious discomfort’’. 

“It claimed farm residences with such proximity could see their property valuations plummet by as much as 50 per cent. For those properties in between 2km and 5km away, valuations could fall by 30 per cent."

The author’s concern about the effect of wind turbines on land values seems based largely on the report he cites – published by 'Wind Burst Publishing'. The awful pun should have rung alarm bells.

The report, published 16 days before the article, is hosted on the website 'wind turbine property loss’ – dedicated to spreading the myth that wind farms reduce property values in surrounding homes. You can find the pdf through a Google search.

The author of the document, hidden in the file’s metadata, is listed as ‘Susan Richmond’.

Richmond is responsible for the registration of the ‘Waubra Foundation’ website – home to an organisation dedicated to spreading health fears about wind farms. She is also the author of several pdfs on the website, including one in which the Waubra Foundation makes claims of a 'contemporaneous and coordinated press campaign prominently featuring chronic critics of the Foundation’s works'. The report itself is replete with crude phraseology: 

"City folk sometimes opine that they like the aerofoil shape of turbines (generally as they drive past a small project) but they do not back this up by bidding for hobby farms sited among or adjacent to turbines." 

"City folk" is not, I assume, a term often deployed by professionals in real estate. 'Windburst Publishing' is actually listed with ASIC, and was registered on 31/10/2011. Its director, secretary and sole shareholder is Tim Orr – an objector to the Stockyard Hill wind farm. It’s clear the author of the report is strongly associated with the Australian anti-wind movement. Yet, the report is presented as an authoritative examination of property value impact.

Another masthead for the spread of renewable energy health fears, windturbinesyndrome.com, reproduces an email stating that ‘Windburst Publishing has commissioned the preparation of the attached document “Universal Rules for the Public Approval of Wind Energy Projects”’. The mysterious ‘susanr’ is listed as the author of that document.

The ‘Universal Rules’ are just as hyperbolic as Windburst’s more recent work, claiming, for instance that “the technical inability of virtually all governments to challenge industry statements” forms part of the basis for their document. Despite this explicit dismissal of government competence, the document is listed as a submission to the draft NSW wind farm planning guidelines.

Last year, two valuers subjectively opined that the construction of a wind farm may reduce the value of a property – they state: "We have agreed there is insufficient sales information currently available from which we could ascertain the level of reduction in value applicable to rural properties in close proximity to wind turbine facilitie." The findings of the family law case have been touted as firm evidence that wind farms harm property values.

No coverage of the ruling stated that the differences between the two valuers’ original estimates were greater than the subjective, assumed impact of the wind farm. Nor is it stated that the parties in the case have been involved in “vigorous opposition to the wind farm”. The rather noteworthy fact that the ruling concerns a proposed (rather than operational) wind farm is considered to be an irrelevant afterthought.

This myth is nothing new. In 2011, the Herald Sun reported that ‘There is "no doubt" wind farms have a negative effect on the value of adjoining properties, according to a senior rural real estate agent’. The real estate agent in question was Elders Rural Services national sales manager Shane McIntyre. The Weekly Times reported a few days later that "Mr McIntyre said the email was for the personal use of the recipient and forwarded without his consent, and it did not represent Elders' view on wind farms or land use". 

Ranging from leaked private emails, bogus reports and non-existent wind farms, the ‘evidence’ offered to support the hypothesis that wind farms damage property values is weak. In 2009, the NSW valuer general assessed sales data related to existing wind farms. The preliminary finding was that ‘the wind farms do not appear to have negatively affected property values in most cases’ (it’s worth noting that they were limited in the amount of data they could collect, affecting the strength of their conclusion).

If anything is likely to reduce property values around wind farms, it is the repeated assertion that wind farms are responsible for an implausible assortment of symptoms, promoted by pseudoscientific anti-wind lobby groups. Reporting these unfounded fears verbatim, and framing them as authoritative scientific statements, is undoubtedly damaging.

Consistently, wind farms fail to have the cataclysmic, ruinous impact often prophesised by anti-wind groups. The Snowtown wind farm, in South Australia, has had a positive impact on the surrounding community and businesses. 

Capital Wind Farm, the subject of Carswell’s article, has also had positive impacts on the surrounding  community, as explored in research conducted by the CSIRO:

“It was noted that the Bungendore Chamber of Commerce adopted a new logo featuring wind turbines as a reflection of the positive impact and presence of this wind farm on community businesses.”

Anti-wind groups will no doubt continue to disseminate hyperbolic misinformation through the veil of secretive front organisations, compensating for a lack of evidence with the assumed authority of a registered company name. Let’s hope they choose a better pun next time.

Ketan Joshi is a Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy. He blogs on wind energy here, and tweets about science and energy here. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employers or his colleagues.

*The wind farm mentioned in the article is Capital Wind Farm, owned and operated by Infigen Energy.