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Disciplined and on-message, wind farm opponents are a force to be reckoned with

There’s a longstanding critique of the environmental movement which argues that somewhere along the road between the fight against the Franklin Dam and the fight for a carbon price everything changed…

It’s easy to make fun, but anti-wind power protestors are quite serious. Will Grant

There’s a longstanding critique of the environmental movement which argues that somewhere along the road between the fight against the Franklin Dam and the fight for a carbon price everything changed. Environment campaigners cleaned up. Suited up. Lost their soul.

Protesters at yesterday’s anti-wind turbine rally in Canberra appeared to have followed a similar path. I went along to the Stop These Things anti-wind turbine rally (Stop These Things is an excellent, excellent name by the way) as someone interested in both the role of science in the anti-wind turbine movement, and as someone interested in the dynamics of protest politics more generally. But these academic motivations mask the fact that I also like to quietly troll my political opponents, and this looked like an occasion for a little mischievous fun.

I’ll admit it: I am in favour of wind turbines - subject to appropriate planning and environmental control - and I hoped that those against them would unveil a litany of strange opinions and bizarre connections.

What struck me was a rally that was, in essence, a disciplined repetition of modern greens politics.

Not opposed to renewables, but… Will Grant

Where I and the assembled media looked for signs screaming “Ditch the Witch”, “Green Genocide” and “9/11 was an Inside Job”, every sign and t-shirt I saw was remarkable in its discipline, remarkably politically correct. Not one sign attacked Julia Gillard. Not one talked of grand conspiracies. Not one denied the scientific consensus on climate change.

Instead I saw “Wind turbines forced us to leave our homes” and “Yes solar … No wind farms”, and community based arguments such as “Collector says no to wind farms”. There were some antagonistic examples (“Stop the spin” and “sWINDle”) but even these were relatively innocuous. Certainly, the protestors pointed to a constellation of problems - health effects, impacts on birds, lack of reference to native title, high supposed costs and low supposed power generation - but none strayed from a tightly permitted pattern.

Among the speakers, a similar pattern was repeated. None - even the arch climate change fool Alan Jones - brought up or denied the science on climate change.

There were some slips and odd moments - Alan Jones trotted out a neat little parable about how the Soviets used to send the people to the gulags, but now we send the gulags to the people; the Citizens’ Electoral Council sought, once again, to convince me that the Pentaverate were using wind turbines to depopulate rural Australia. But in the main, people were - to use the modern marketers’ term so clearly in evidence in the planning - remarkably on message.

Much of the reporting of the rally has talked of it as a failure. The Herald Sun reported that “Alan Jones has lost a battle of the ‘wind wars’… failing to draw large crowds”, The Weekly Times Now called it a “flop”. The Age leapt on Alan Jones’ acceptance that “There aren’t a lot of people here”. Photos have gone around comparing the rally with a pro renewables rally held at roughly the same time, showing a 10:1 difference in attendance.

Grossly intermittent. Will Grant

I’m not so sanguine.

We can assess these duelling rallies by attendance, by media coverage, by the passion of the attendees. Such measures are vaguely useful, but they miss out on what has happened here.

This rally showed skilled political organisation, connected directly with key on-the-ground communities. You could describe Stop These Things as an astroturf organisation guided by skilled political operators in the Institute for Public Affairs, in turn connected with a wider array of anti-environmental industries. Many others have done so, and I don’t particularly care to add to that discussion here. (Indeed, critiques like this are often used in precisely the wrong way: to damn the group in their potential supporters’ eyes, rather than change our own behaviour. The potential supporters of Stop These Things couldn’t care less about the IPA.)

What I do want to say is that those in favour of renewables should recognise groups like Stop These Things for the skilled - and dangerous - political operators they are.

In essence, the anti-wind turbine movement already has the near ineluctable force of nimbyism on its side: I don’t want them near me because they make me sick/ruin my sleep/kill birds I like/ruin my view/trample the lands of my ancestors/make me pee funny/make my neighbour rich. (Scientific friends, please note that I am making no argument about the veracity of these claims, except to say that those who believe such things certainly do believe such things). Stop These Things is now adding a layer of networking, guidance, strategic support and, potentially, funding.

You could call this nimbyism 2.0 … Or you could just call this just another strand of modern environmental political activism.

Here’s the thing: unless those in favour of wind turbines recognise and deal with this threat, networks like Stop These Things will add significantly - and perhaps ruinously - to the risk profile of every potential wind farm development. This is, quite interestingly, exactly the strategy of diametrically opposed groups like 350.org, who have sought to undermine the fossil fuel industries by casting them as a risky long term investment. City people rallying in favour of wind power simply isn’t going to affect that calculation at all.

While the Stop These Things rally networked slowly under the shadow of Parliament House, the rival pro-renewables rally ran with the Twitter hashtag #actonfacts. I’m with them in spirit, but this is a deeply flawed approach. Why?

Here’s a fact: we don’t act on facts. None of us do. Not Richard Dawkins, not Christopher Hitchens, not me, not you, not Meryl Dorey and not the activists in Stop These Things.

If we want to support the uptake of renewable energy, then we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than simply demanding that people do what the scientists tell them.

Down with this sort of thing! Careful now. Channel 4

Join the conversation

61 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    This is an example of being too clever by half which will alienate the middle ground. Whether physical instruments can detect health issues or not I would never sneer at those who claim to be affected. That is also a strawman argument that deflects the main criticism of wind power which is cost effectiveness of emissions savings. Using the UK figure of 0.42t CO2 savings per Mwh of onshore wind if new wind in Australia costs ~$120 per Mwh including the LGC subsidy then the cost of CO2 saved is over $250/t. The carbon tax says the cost should be $23/t.

    In other words wind is not viable without a mandate, the RET. So why are we blighting rural vistas with towers and transmission lines? I suggest some health effects are influenced by this whether 'infrasound' exists or not.

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to John Newlands

      The community which owns its own wind turbines in Victoria are achieving more that the comparative numbers would explain.
      By satisfying their needs locally they are reducing the money which first has to be taken fron local profits and then is irretreivably lost to their community, pushing up their borrowing costs.
      The same arguments about costs were put forward in the aftermath of the 1973 Oil crisis when farmers were assured that Cost benefit analyses showed that it was not feasible fro farmers…

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    2. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Gary, your figures might be true, but only whilst utility companies are forced by the RET to purchase renewable energy whilst other base load energy facilities idle.

      If it wasn't for the RET the wind industry would go bust overnight. In comparison the carbon tax doesn't provide the same market distortions to keep the wind industry.

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    3. Simon Holmes A Court

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Newlands

      john, the victorian figure is 1.0t CO2e / MWh (SKM-MMA) and the LGC price is currently $34. ie, you are out by a factor of 7. it's important to be well informed before your chime in.
      why would we want to pay $34/t? simple -- 12 years ago our nation decided to begin the decarbonisation of our energy sector. the RET is an important piece of the policy picture and transforms the stationary energy sector at the least possible cost.

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    4. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Simon Holmes A Court

      Simon, you forgot to qualify that wind turbines produce theoretical carbon emission savings, the real figure is another matter. We are certainly paying $34/tonne of wind industry bluff and maybe $34 per whatever unknown CO2 emission savings wind turbines actually make. These savings of course are dependent on how coal stations and gas plants react to the Windlab forecasts which can be wrong 2% of the time.

      Ever wonder about the blackouts that don't happen? That is what you call idling capacity from power stations that don't necessarily cut their carbon emissions!

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    1. Will J Grant

      Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Hi Sue,
      Those are definitely interesting and important questions. Sadly, they are not questions that the anti-wind turbine movement will ever have to address. They can happily ignore contrary evidence and still build a powerful movement amongst those who believe they are affected by this 'syndrome'.

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    2. David Menere

      part-time contractor

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      I'm not sure that 'wind farm syndrome' is strictly 'Anglophone', but its popularity is probably for the same reasons that denial of climate change science seems to be much more popular in the USA and Australia than elsewhere.

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    3. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Doch, Frau Doktor Ieraci, I think you will find there is a healthy German anti-wind turbine movement.

      One thing is for sure, there can be no possible health effects from wind turbine. We can absolutely sure of this because we are unable to imagine such a possibility. And the wonderful thing about scientific training is it quickly teaches you that anything that lies beyond what one can conceive can not possibly.

      To suggest that a constant rhythmic infrasound could be causing some people distress is absurd as - say a purely hypothetical example - helicopter blades rotating at a certain frequency could cause some people nausea, vertigo and loss of consciousness.
      Absurd misinformation put about by the fixed wing aircraft industry.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flicker_vertigo
      [This message brought to you courtesy of Woodside Petroleum]

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    4. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue, do you wonder why there are hundred of anti-wind groups all over Europe? Do you also wonder who Petersen and Moller are? They aren't Anglophones?

      And are you so agnostic about Chapman's "research" into vibro-accoustic disease and WTS. Seems like a non-English phenomenon, doesn't it?

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    5. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Will J Grant

      Will, nice comment! Like the Greek saying goes: one cuts the fabric and the other sows...

      Yet both of you are in your own little Anglophone world!

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  2. Michael Livingston

    Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at The University of New South Wales at UNSW Australia

    Kind of frustrating that most of the comments at the bottom of this article are pointing out more 'facts' to support the wind-farm case. The whole point here is that facts don't really matter - or at least don't matter that much - in the political process. Depressing but inarguable I think.

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Michael Livingston

      Michael, the salient fact about wind turbines is that since 2003 and 2004 the first whistles were blown by medical practitioners who associated them to the strange symptoms which presented in their patients.

      Yet despite this, the focus is on the demonising that "witch" from SA who "scared" the most toughened and stoic rural men into complaining about supposedly trivial health problems and associating them with the "gentle swoosh" from wind turbines.

      If there was any appetite for evidence or facts it would start with a thorough examination of the motives of those supporting the wind industry - oops - I might the wind energy movement.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Ketan Joshi

      Couldn't agree more, Ketan - the key term is 'necessary but not sufficient'. I think the worst thing would be to abandon the evidence or retreat from telling the plain truth, but there's a lot to be said for framing things wisely. The Mooney quote you cited seems to me to explain this very well.

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  3. Mike Barnard

    logged in via Facebook

    This is on message?

    http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2013/6/18/1371523078121/9a982c9a-ba63-47bf-a7e3-df6be59b2307-460x276.jpeg

    For those uninterested in clicking on the link, it features the back of a tee shirt worn by one of the grey-haired anti-wind protesters at the parliament June 18. It features a picture of a bare-assed man clad only in leather straps and chaps and the caption: "STICK YOUR TURBINES WHERE THEY FIT NOT NEAR OUR HOMES".

    Managing to combine homophobia…

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  4. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "You could describe Stop These Things as an astroturf organisation guided by skilled political operators in the Institute for Public Affairs, in turn connected with a wider array of anti-environmental industries. Many others have done so, and I don’t particularly care to add to that discussion here."

    Thank heavens for that, after all we don't want to engage in conspiracy theories!
    I have begged the IPA and Big Carbon to fund my rampant science denialism. They never reply. Of course they might figure I will deny science regardless of them handing out cash, but I promise you I would deny it so much more passionately with a little extra inducement.

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean, do you ever wonder who Barnard astroturfs for? He seems to have infinite time to blog and comment on the international scene, yet those defending their rights to live in peace on rural properties are supposedly coal industry outfits.

      Hypocrisy is rampant and I really look forward to the day when the mask is torn off these people to see what really hides behind them.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Or, Sean, they might prefer people who actually bothered to advance even a minimal simulacrum of evidence...

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    3. Mike Barnard

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      For those not counting, this is one of a dozen comments by Mr. Papadopoulos on this article alone, compared to the one comment I had previously left here. Infinite time (and infinite monkeys) seems to apply to someone, I agree.

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Mike Barnard

      Hey do tell, Mike, what sinister plot to install world government and take away our guns are you working for - or is dear old George just fantasising again?

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    5. Peter Campbell

      Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      George P wrote: "I really look forward to the day when the mask is torn off these people to see what really hides behind them."
      Good point! Every organisation I have any part in or dealing with states clearly and explicitly on their websites who is running it and how to contract them. The "Stopthesethings" web site does not do that.

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    6. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Campbell

      While they themselves are probably not perfectly objective, the Sourcewatch site has some interesting background, particularly on landscape guardians and waubra foundation...

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  5. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Of last year's 13% renewable electricity I apportion 7% to hydro and 6% to new renewables mostly wind and solar. Suppose we need the same amount of electricity in 2050 and hydro stays flat. To get to say 80% renewable electricity (73% non hydro) we will need a 12-fold increase in wind and solar to displace coal and gas.

    I suggest electricity price rises are now close to 'squeak point' and more won't be tolerated. 70+% renewable generation will require either costly overbuilding with routine output…

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    1. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to John Newlands

      The recent 100% renewable studies show that with geographically distributed wind generation you only need about 10% gas to fill in the gaps. You don't need significant overbuild or significant storage.

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    2. John Newlands

      tree changer

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Yes if much of the wind generation was in NZ and cost was no object. A blunt analysis of the AEMO 100% renewables study is here
      http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/06/11/renewable-electricity-nirvana/
      Admitted a pro-nuclear website. As the article points out it was the Financial Review that noticed the electricity price doubling. We can also thank Spain and Germany for doing this experiment for us and at less than 50% average renewables penetration the problems are emerging. For example Angela Merkel seems to think her re-election chances will be helped by promising to cut wind subsidies.

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    3. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Gary did the 100% renewable study find one spot on the globe that won't be stuffed with wind turbines? You realise that you would need about 6000 wind turbines linked to a massive battery system to close down just one coal plant?

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      George, I don't suppose you'd be able to provide any actual factual evidence for this remarkable claim?

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to John Newlands

      John, politicians responding to possible changing perceptions among their constituency hardly constitutes impressive evidence.

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  6. Blair Donaldson
    Blair Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Researcher

    We need to be educating people to the "fact" that they can save money and live in a cleaner environment by using renewables and employing energy efficiency without making a huge change to their current lifestyle. There are business and technology opportunities for those with an eye on the future.

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      The simple solution to knocking out about 33% of household emissions is to install roof top solar hot water, but this doesn't seem to be the policy of any political party - correct me if I'm wrong.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      I suspect investors and business owners will more likely be convinced by people who've shown they can make money rather than environmental activists.

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to James Jenkin

      As noted by me and Peter Campbell, who were actually at the alternative rally on Tuesday, check the speakers from Waubra and Aararat, or contact Simon Holmes a Court who posted above. There's a wealth of practical-experience-based evidence of both positive environmental AND financial outcomes.

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      Yes George, that would be a useful thing to do. But why does that mean you can't or shouldn't ALSO do other things?

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  7. Peter Evans

    Retired

    I wonder if the approach used in a project being developed at Snowtown, South Australia indicates that there are ways to undertake these projects. This project uses a different ownership model so that a wider section of the community receives direct benefits and it seems to have wider acceptance as a result. Perhaps developers need to develop models other than the usual, select a site, get approval and build it approach. Other ways might increase the chances of success. In other words engage people properly rather than see them as an obstacle similar to a geographic feature.

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  8. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Will, it's actually a shame you didn't make it to the alternative rally in Garema place, and hear the remarkable, ordinary women from Waubra (the real place, not the astroturfed group) and Araarat Council, and the local farmer (Charlie something - a great speaker, but I forgot his surname) - these were anything but 'city environmentalists' and they all clearly demomonstrated all the kinds of concerns that frequently, and lazily, get lumped under the so-vague-it's-now-useless-and-frankly-abusive rubric…

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix there were three families from Waubra at the anti-wind rally - all of which have had their health destroyed by the wind development. Any clue why we are getting conflicting messages from the same location?

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      Mainly because people like you are drumming up fear and anxiety. Given that nobody has been able to demonstrate any measurable means by which actual physical harm can be caused, I'm at a loss to suggest an alternative mechanism.

      By the way, George, were any of those three families actually hosting turbines on their properties?

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  9. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    There may be a case for a Class Action against those inducing psychological stress in their victims for political gain.
    As outlined in William Sargant's "Battle For The Mind", 1956, which set the principles of "Brainwashing" firmly in the public domain, and established a "standard of care" to be expected from medical practioners, complementary to their "duty of care".
    The standard operating principles of Medical Negligence suits.
    Those deliberately causing psychological harm should be brought to account.

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to James Hill

      James, if there is successful class action (which I highly doubt is the case with regards to the "anti-wind" movement) then this will set a new precedent, particularly against those who induce mass hysteria above global warming, encourage governments to spend fortunes in outlaying unproven technologies and brainwash the populace into believing the "nocebo" hypothesis explains why wind turbines make so many people sick/complaining of noise nuisance and vibrations.

      Frankly the cover up over the harm wind turbines are doing to human health and the environment is criminal and ought to have a Royal Commission thoroughly investigate the matter.

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  10. George Papadopoulos

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Will, in case it missed your attention: most attendees at yesterday's rally were rural households affects by existing developments or threatened by proposed wind developments.

    Two years ago the "anti-wind" movement was portrayed by people like that professor at your university as academically dumb, hysterical etc. Now you feel that they are a highly organised group that behaves itself very well - indeed so well that it fails to disappoint. No comment however why the "movement" involved political…

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  11. Peter Campbell

    Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

    I am worried that the anti-wind farm lobby might manage to have effect. As the article states, they are getting more sophisticated. More generally, they repeat and amplify the various anti-renewable energy memes. They can tone down the most loopy claims to avoid alienating some audiences while dog-whistling the climate-change denial and health scare stuff to others.
    The serious danger is that a substantial number of coalition politicians look like they would fit right in with this group and yet…

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    1. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Campbell

      Peter, "they" are out to get you and your renewables "baby".

      Keep dreaming my friend! It is not about renewables but about callous, reckless planning, human health and environmental harm, on a scale unprecedented and all for unknown savings in carbon emissions!

      Maybe tell Comrade Milne that the Stalinist regime's induced starvation of 7 million rural Ukrainians was a consequence of fiction, because city dwellers in Moscow had enough to fill their bellies!

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    2. Peter Campbell

      Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      For George P to suggest "human health and environmental harm, on a scale unprecedented" for wind is bizarre.To put things in perspective let's compare with coal. Surely to continue with that is unequivocally callous and reckless given demonstrated, well accepted harm to human health and the environment on a global scale, the avoidance of which would unequivocally have major savings in carbon emissions. Chalk and cheese compared with wind farms.
      And it is all about Renewables generally. The 'Stopthesethings' arguments claim the Renewable Energy Target and the system of accounting via Renewable Energy Certificates is a "fraud". That line of argument should be robustly refuted because it is wrong and, if taken up by the coalition, would kill off any chance that Australia might do something approaching its fair share on climate change.

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    3. George Papadopoulos

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Campbell

      Peter I am sorry to say but the monsters (40 or so wind turbines and more further away) down the horizon 35km are enough to turn my home into a vibrating sonic mess some nights.

      Wind farms are proposed everywhere! Any clue where noise/vibration sensitive people like myself out to go? Maybe Mars?

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    4. Simon Chapman

      Professor of Public Health at University of Sydney

      In reply to George Papadopoulos

      George, don't be shy... you are on record saying they bother you at 100km. Here's a map showing how many people would be exposed to the Capital wind farm at 30km. http://i.imgur.com/OG7RTpA.png Odd that none are complaining. George, maybe lots of Canberra people are messed up with radiation? You should get over there & sell the some of your protective blankets, pillows, tinfoil hats etc http://geovital.com.au/geovital_george_papadopoulos_nsw.html

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  12. Paul Cruickshank

    consultant

    exellent angle on current debate Will. It seems unfair that it is only this industry which needs the community involvement approach advocated by Peter Evans - but the multiple benefits of involving local communities both financially, emotionally and intellectually are obvious. Ketan's reference to leading with the values to give facts a fighting chance is being adopted by a group called Coalition for Community Energy. CCE is working to support heaps of community groups trying to set up local wind farms (among other technologies of course) usually with a local funding base.

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  13. Martin Nicholson

    Energy researcher and author

    The anti-nuclear groups misguided messages about dangers of radiation from nuclear power is a very close parallel to the messages from the Stop These Things group (I agree it is an excellent name BTW).

    Those of us who believe that nuclear power is essential for meeting our global warming challenge, need to recognise groups like the anti-nuclear movement for (in Will's words) "the skilled – and dangerous – political operators they are" if we are to get nuclear power legitimised in Australia. At least wind power hasn't been banned in Australia unlike nuclear power.

    The sad reality is that nuclear power can make a much greater contribution to minimising greenhouse gases than wind. Ask the UK government.

    I guess we better start some Make Nuclear Legal rallies in Canberra and watch for the anti-nuclear rallies that join us.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Martin Nicholson

      Martin, there is a substantial body of solid scientific and clinical evidence of the dangers of nuclear radiation. And the costs associated recently with the Fukushimameltdown are substantial and real.

      There may be a case that the dangers are being exaggerated a bit...and there's probably a case that new (but apparently not yet built) fission technologies and equipment (fourth generation, thorium, etc.) will achieve great reductions i nrisk and waste.

      But to compare the concerns raised by anti-nuclear activists with anti wind farm activists is drawing so long a bow it becomes comic.

      Are you going to post that silly footage of a burning wind turbine again?

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  14. Fred Payne

    retired

    The sad thing is that all this distracts from the real issues of fossil fuel use. I see no problem in stricter regulations for siting wind farms, but I would also like to see the same restrictions on coal and gas mining as well as the siting of coal fired power stations

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  15. Kevin Cox
    Kevin Cox is a Friend of The Conversation.

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Can anyone give me the average cost and standard deviation (without the borrowing costs) to erect a wind tower and feed the power to the grid. Also the average and standard deviation of the amount of power in kwhs that a typical tower produces over the course of one year.

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