Monday, 5 May 2014

Clean Energy Is Offensive Because It Works

Thus opined the famous pollster and political strategist Mark Textor, back in June 2011. The tweet's gone since Textor nuked his Twitter account, after comparing the Indonesian foreign minister to a 'porn star', but the couplet of visual offence and consequent destruction emerged again last Friday when uttered by another titan of conservative Australian politics - the Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey.

“Can I be a little indulgent? I drive to Canberra to go to parliament and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive. I think they’re a blight on the landscape.....We can't knock those ones off because they're into locked-in schemes and there is a certain contractual obligation I'm told associated with those things."

Thus opined Joe Hockey on Alan Jones' 2GB morning show. The machines Hockey wants to 'knock off' comprise the Capital and Woodlawn wind farms, owned and operated by my employer, Infigen Energy.

The Capital Wind Farm, in winter. Taken by the site manager. 

It's always been clear that, for Alan Jones, a whirlwind of gastrointestinal physiological unrest intertwined with a gurgling bout of seething anger is spawned by the vision of machines that convert atmospheric kinetic energy into electrical power. In the dark faculties of his mind, he turns dark green, expands to thrice his size, and hurls himself at the evil giants, tearing them down and roaring incomprehensibly at the sky. The views espoused on that show are strongly held, but they're much rarer than you might expect.

I've trod the gravel at Capital and Woodlawn with a variety of people. We had a group of school kids come through from Goulburn South Public School - they weren't offended or disgusted. They were happy and curious. It was nice.

For Global Wind Day in 2012, we held a tour of Capital for a variety of visitors, including a senior citizen's club and more than 150 primary school kids. Quiet curiosity seemed the dominant attitude, rather than howls of offense or unbridled attempts to destroy the machines.

The Country Women's Association made cakes and things for the wind energy information session in Bungendore. Here I am holding up some cakes. It was nice. 

Run With The Wind has had two successful years at Woodlawn Wind Farm, with hundreds of runners passing amongst the towers that comprise the array. At both, all that seemed at the fore was a real sense of community. I didn't spy any runners that had pared off from the pack to hack angrily at the base of the towers with an axe.

Run With The Wind 2013, via the Infigen facebook page

So, people who choose to visit the wind farm don't manifest convulsions of disgust when they encounter the wind farm up close. But the townships around Capital and Woodlawn are supportive of the array of generators, as well. The Bungendore Chamber of Commerce and Industry features a trio of turbines on the header of their logo:

A piece of research published by the CSIRO in 2012, "Exploring community acceptance of rural wind farms in Australia: a snapshot", examined the community acceptance of Capital Wind Farm:

"The interview participants predominantly conveyed positive messages about their experience of the Capital Wind Farm. Some specific benefits included: a new fire truck purchased for the rural fire service; turbine hosts funded and guided in their land transfer from crown lease to freehold, and general economic gains for the local town.
Several participants referred to feeling comfortable with the ‘reality’ of the wind farm post-construction"

Moving beyond the townships adjacent to Capital, it's clear Australians are mostly okay with the existence of wind energy:

The Essential Poll shown above found that 76% of respondents were supportive of the deployment of wind energy. A Climate Institute study found that support for wind energy was actually stronger in regional areas (70%) than in cities (65%).

The offense felt by Hockey and Jones isn't shared by the communities near Capital and Woodlawn, or the Australian public as a whole, but the issue of aesthetics is real, and needs to be considered carefully. Yuriko Saito eloquently describes the paradox driving the extremes of passion in people adjacent to wind farms, in the journal Contemporary Aesthetics:

"Though environmentally benign, the turbines represent technology, which in general is regarded as incompatible with, or incongruent in, a relatively uncultivated landscape setting. But by necessity, wind farms have to be located on open, unhindered lands. As a result, they are viewed as machines intruding in a garden, to borrow Leo Marx's imagery."

Attitude towards wind power has a direct impact on the aesthetic impact of the machines - as shown in this research published by the University of Massachusetts:

"Respondents of all groups with a negative opinion of wind power considered landscapes with wind turbines significantly less attractive (mean = 1.69) than respondents who accept wind power conditionally (mean = 2.33), those who support wind power (mean = 2.8), and respondents indifferent to the issue (mean = 2.4)"

It's worth noting that the physical characters of wind turbines were found to be stronger factors of reactions to wind farms than attitudinal factors

Counter-intuitively, support for wind farms actually increases as you survey residents closer to the turbines - something researchers call the 'Inverse NIMBY syndrome'.

There's a contingent of individuals who contend, with conviction, that we can't source electrical energy unless it's coupled to carbon emissions. To them, wind turbines and solar panels are offensive - not because their shape and movement are contentious, but because they exist, and they work. No shape could ever lead them to forgive the production of electricity without the emission of greenhouse gases.

Most people are okay with wind farms. Some people object to their impact on the landscape, and reasonably so - their concerns can be met through improved siting and careful consideration of the landscape, amenity and community.

A handful hate wind energy due solely to ideology. To them, the only resolution is the immediate and literal destruction of every single machine capable of generating carbon-free electricity.

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