What happens when young journalists find out that some people living near wind farms really hate them? Do they interview a few of them, interview a few others who like them for balance, interview a few experts, and write a reasoned and balanced article? Most of the time, yes.
But not Gatehouse Media and its team of 6, who published a remarkably unbalanced piece on December 14, 2017.
It manages to make several glaring mistakes, ignore the long-standing biases and connections of the people it purports are experts and interviewees, ignore what the science says, refuse to speak to the many neighbors who are fine living with wind generation, and not actually try to talk to many real experts. And Gatehouse doesn’t even do it as an article, but as a long-form report, with a compelling web layout. It has amplified sounds that it implies are what are heard from a wind turbine in a home. It has a simulator of shadow flicker which is, well, absurd. It implies that potential worst-case scenarios are common.
It’s important before we start deconstructing this rather terrible piece of journalism that we stop for a moment and respect one thing: Most of the families that they interviewed really have been miserable. Their lives changed. Change happened. For the vast majority of the people around them, this change was for the better. But not for these people. For a variety of reasons, change was deeply unpleasant for these people. That very little of that had anything to do with the claims that they make about wind farms doesn’t mean that they weren’t hurting. Gatehouse’s unfortunate publication exacerbates old wounds that should have been let lie rather than working to solve them.
And it’s important to say what Gatehouse’s piece gets right. Small rural communities were torn apart fighting over wind-generation facilities proposed for their regions. Friends did stop speaking. Families did have bitter and long-lasting fights over this. Ugliness did ensue. Families, communities, and friendships did suffer.
None of that excuses the poor journalism on display in the Gatehouse Media piece. It’s unclear if they were participating in the spinning or they were spun by long-term anti-wind activists, but they have ended up writing a screed to gladden the hearts of global anti-wind groups. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), they were offered the names and contact information of numerous people who were happy living with wind generation in their area, yet refused to contact them. This is just one of many decisions which were, at best, poor.
The piece asserts that they found 450 families who have complained, and that they spoke to 70 families. They imply that this is a large number. Yet they never give a number for how many families live near wind farms. They have a nice graphical map of the USA which shows the growth of wind-generation facilities over the years, so they have the data. But they never extrapolate from the data that they gathered to see if this number is significant or insignificant.
AWEA is correct when it says in its post on the subject that:
“In the US, 20 million people live in counties with wind turbines. Around the world, tens of millions more live near wind turbines without issue.”
20 million people vs 450 families. Let’s assume 2.6 people per family per 2016 USA statistics, giving 1,170 people. That’s generous, given that averages ages in the country are much older than in urban areas, but let’s use it. It’s also generous to assume that everyone in every one of these families found that living near wind turbines was burdensome, but once again we will use it.
1,170 people represents 0.006% of the people living in the vicinity of wind turbines in the USA. A tiny fraction of 1% of people living near wind farms in the USA have complained.
One could argue that counties are big, so this is misleading. There is some truth to that, hence the generosity. But the report ignores this data assessment entirely. Further, it goes to great length to describe how large the turbines are and overstate how visually dominant they are everywhere. The leading picture for the piece features compression distortion due to a telescopic lens that makes the wind turbines in the background of the home seem much closer to the home than they actually are. They can’t have it both ways.
There’s another sin of omission, at best, worth calling out. This data-centric report also fails to map the complaints to wind farms. According to Wikipedia, there are 171 operational wind-generation facilities of greater than 170 MW at present, which given the rate of growth of wind energy suggests that there are probably more. Assuming 171, that implies 2.6 families complaining at each wind farm. But that’s just not true. If they’d mapped the data, they would have found huge clusters in New England and very little elsewhere. The Falmouth wind turbines near the Hobarts aren’t even in the list of 171 because there are only two turbines in that facility, yet the report asserts that dozens of families have complained.
“There are large historical and geographical variations in wind farm complaints. 33/51 (64.7%) of Australian wind farms including 18/34 (52.9%) with turbine size >1 MW have never been subject to noise or health complaints. These 33 farms have an estimated 21,633 residents within 5 km and have operated complaint-free for a cumulative 267 years. Western Australia and Tasmania have seen no complaints. 129 individuals across Australia (1 in 254 residents) appear to have ever complained, with 94 (73%) being residents near 6 wind farms targeted by anti wind farm groups. The large majority 116/129 (90%) of complainants made their first complaint after 2009 when anti wind farm groups began to add health concerns to their wider opposition. In the preceding years, health or noise complaints were rare despite large and small-turbine wind farms having operated for many years.”
The report appears to intentionally distort the data at hand and omit data which doesn’t support its narrative. That’s shoddy journalism.
Similarly, they make the claim:
“shadow flicker, loud noises and low-frequency vibrations that have driven dozens of families from their homes.”
Here they are asserting two bold statements without evidence. First, that dozens of families, which implies at least 24 families, have been “driven” from their homes. They provide no evidence for the numbers. They do provide evidence that a few families have left their homes, and in fact received fair market value for them after developers spent considerable time and money trying to accommodate their complaints with other interventions. They also make the claim that people left due to actual, external, and objective issues, which the data except in the rarest cases does not support. That’s shoddy journalism.
Finally, they claim that wind farms receive up to 55% of their cost in federal and state subsidies as if that is a universal occurrence or that it even occurred more than once. They mention Shepherd’s Flat not as an unusual outlier that was called out as such, but as if it were statistically relevant. Yet despite the National Data Projects Editor, they did not actually find out the average and they didn’t call out that they had not done so. They implied a bad-seeming example was representative. That’s shoddy journalism.
The People Chosen
According to AWEA again:
“GateHouse then was fed anecdotal reports by opponents of wind farms online, while declining multiple offers to interview people satisfied with their local wind farm.
“For nearly six months, both AWEA and wind developers responded to pointed questions and offered much-needed context to the GateHouse reporters. When offered positive accounts of wind farms in rural America, however, we were told they wouldn’t be included because the story of positive experiences had already been written.“
That’s fascinating from so many perspectives. The first is that Gatehouse is asserting that the people who claim impacts from wind farms haven’t been heard, yet the people who don’t mind them or benefited from them have had their stories told over and over until it’s merely noise. This is an assertion without basis in observable reality.
A quick Google News search finds almost 65,000 articles about “wind farm complaints.” There are 28 articles referencing and often quoting the Shineldeckers alone, excluding the Gatehouse piece. Certainly anyone who has been following anti-wind groups will recognize both the Shineldeckers and most of the words that they say. They have been actively speaking to anyone who will listen for years. They are even referenced in Australian anti-wind sites such as Stop These Things.
Similarly, the Hobart’s story has been told in the media numerous times. A quick Google News search find 117 articles featuring them, and they too appear in the archives of anti-wind advocacy groups globally. The story of the Falmouth turbines is also assessed in a 2014 report of legal cases regarding wind energy and health in 5 English-speaking countries by the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute. They’ve been featured in major articles in ABC News and Boston Magazine. How exactly aren’t their stories being heard?
If the stories of those claiming impacts from wind energy weren’t being told, why is there documentary after documentary after documentary on the subject, each of them as slanted as the Gatehouse report?
Osage Nation is an interesting case as well. While they make all sorts of claims about why they were fighting wind-generation facilities on their land for years, the actual court challenge that they put forward is rather more revealing:
“In the complaint filed by the Osage Nation through the Osage Minerals Council, the tribe asserts that it owns all minerals ‘in and under’ Osage County, a ‘mineral estate’ that contains ‘marketable amounts of oil and natural gas.’ Extracting the oil and gas will entail construction of flow lines, something that the lawsuit contends would be inhibited by electrical lines, roads, and other necessary elements of the wind farm complex.
The Osage Nation was fighting against wind energy so that it could extract oil and gas. Yet, despite the addition of the compelling image of the Principal Chief of the Nation, claims made by him, and the journalists’ assertion that they had read numerous court cases, they somehow managed to ignore this. It obviously doesn’t fit with the narrative they were trying to achieve, but once again, shoddy journalism.
This is worth drawing out a bit. Osage Nation wanted to exploit the fossil fuels on their lands. As such, they and the companies that they engaged would have been able to receive enormous numbers of federal tax breaks and state subsidies for oil and gas exploration and extraction. In doing so, they would have added to the $5.3 trillion annually the IMF estimates we spend supporting fossil fuels. Yet somehow, this balancing perspective is missing from a diatribe about wind energy incentives, as is any mention of global warming and climate change, both of which oil and gas create and wind energy fights.
Also noteworthy is that any claims of supposed local harm from wind turbines did not balance those with potential harm from a local oil & gas operation. Odd.
Let’s start with Bradley Tupi. Is he the disinterested lawyer “who has litigated several wind-related suits,” as the Gatehouse report claims? Or is he a long-term anti-wind advocate who is on record as saying in 2012 when asked about his attendance at an anti-wind organizing group meeting:
“I would plead guilty to participating in a meeting of concerned citizens opposed to wasteful, unproven, inefficient wind energy. I would agree that we are interested in coordinating with other reputable organizations, and I personally would be honored to work with Heartland Institute and others.”
This is not a disinterested party — this is a guy who hates wind energy as much as his clients, on equally spurious grounds, doesn’t even understand how extremely efficient wind energy is, and would be happy to work for a Koch brother, fossil fuel–funded advocacy organization.
And what evidence is he providing to the report? Anecdotal statements of property value decline. What other evidence regarding property value is brought forward? Anecdotes. Where is the actual statistical evidence?
For Gatehouse’s purposes, it certainly wouldn’t do to bring it forward. They reference the AWEA site of studies, but then provide a link to supposedly contradictory studies in the next paragraph, claiming:
“But other studies have found the opposite, including several conducted by Chicago-based certified residential appraiser Michael McCann.”
Except that this is making the false claim that the studies are equivalent, and that Michael McCann is a credible expert. The studies are not equivalent. The Energy and Policy Institute reviewed all studies on the topic as of 2014 and its report is worth quoting:
“Ten major studies in three countries of 1.3 million property transactions over 18 years of data have found no connection between wind farms and property values. […]
“By comparison, only two moderately reliable studies with some statistical significance found property value impacts, and they are both challenged in different ways. Five other often referenced studies are merely case studies with no statistical significance, done by appraisers who show strong evidence of bias, and in one case there is clear evidence that they ignored the reality of the property they appraised.”
Yet the strong weighting of evidence that wind-generation facilities do not impact property values is buried amid a set of anecdotes and quotes. In fact, people’s perception of the value of their properties is a fascinating case study in behavioral economics in itself, with something called the IKEA Effect dominating people’s perceptions. The Harvard study explains why people who have improved their properties significantly overvalue those improvements, leading to failure to meet their price expectations when they sell.
And what about Michael McCann? Well, the Energy and Policy Institute report on court cases features McCann as well:
“McCann was slated as a witness for the appellant at an ERT in Ontario regarding the Adelaide project in October 2013. He was slated to testify about habitat destruction from wind farms, a clear divergence from any expertise he might have. He was rejected as a witness before testifying.”
Given the claim of having reviewed multiple court cases on wind energy and having done 6 months of research, it’s surprising that the Gatehouse journalists managed to miss this widely publicized report which found that 49 of 50 court cases found in favor of wind farms and their operators. How could they have managed to miss it, when it features several people who they rely on?
Ignoring the lack of property value impacts, ignoring the bias of their experts, ignoring the evidently poor research they rely on, and the lack of exploration for alternative explanations for their anecdotes is shoddy journalism.
What about Rick James? He’s a favorite go-to acoustician of the anti-wind crowd and mostly ignored or debunked by other acousticians. He’s so well known in anti-wind circles that he too is featured in the Energy and Policy Institute report for his frequent inability when called as a witness to stick to subjects he’s actually an expert in, as stated in court records multiple times. As an Ontario tribunal put it:
“The Tribunal considered the submissions of the parties on this issue and qualified Mr. James to given opinion evidence on matters related to acoustics and noise control engineering and wind turbines. The Tribunal excluded from its consideration evidence provided by Mr. James concerning the health effects of wind turbines, and epidemiology.
“He is a member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineers (“INCE”), but is not certified by the INCE as an acoustical engineer, nor is he a registered professional engineer in any jurisdiction.”
Once again, James appears in anti-wind advocacy sites globally in glowing terms. But you’d never know any of this from the Gatehouse report. Instead, he’s quoted without context and with little contradiction from more sensible acousticians. Even after admitting that there is no scientific consensus for any health impacts, the Gatehouse report then doubles down with yet another expert claiming the opposite.
There is nothing wrong with Neil Kelley’s expertise or report, both of which are cited in the Gatehouse piece. What is wrong is that the authors leave it unsaid that the Mod-1 turbine studied in the report is completely different than modern wind turbines. It was an early, experimental prototype of a behind-the-mast turbine. Every utility-scale turbine in operation today has the blades in front of the mast. The Mod-1 tried to have blades behind the mast. The blades stalled in the turbulent air every time they passed behind the mast, creating a frequent, low-pitched thumping. No operational wind turbine today uses this approach. Ignoring this massive difference is shoddy journalism. As such, this statement is completely unsupportable:
“The air-pressure change caused when their spinning blades pass their pedestals has been linked to migraines and sleep disturbances.”
What is supportable is that people who claim annoyance from wind turbine noise have a host of psychological predispositions to annoyance.
As for Schomer, he served long and well in the acoustics field, but late in his career developed a hypothesis about wind energy and infrasound which is unsupported by any reasonable review of the facts. It’s unfortunate, but like Linus Pauling’s obsession with Vitamin C, Schomer’s hypothesis about infrasound does not withstand scrutiny.
Who could they have spoken to for real expertise on wind energy, health, and noise issues? Well, McKunney is decent and is referenced. Professor Simon Chapman has just published a book on wind energy and complaints after a decade publishing studies on the subject. Fiona Crichton, who successfully defended her PhD in 2016 after years of studying wind turbine health complaints from the perspective of psychology, including ground-breaking work on the nocebo effects and the actual incidence of symptoms in the general populace vs those claimed by anti-wind advocates — hint: they are identical — would have been a good choice. In fact, both Chapman and Crichton spoke out about the Gatehouse report when asked by the watchdog Desmog Blog.
Other experts would include the authors of the innumerable reports done using standard hedonics analysis of property values. Perhaps many of the actually expert witnesses brought forward to dispute the shoddy cases of the anti-wind legal groups could have been questioned.
But no, the Gatehouse team preferred to stick to as many biased witnesses of dubious credibility as possible. Shoddy journalism, again.
Word and Other Perception Games
The title is evocative: In the Shadow of Wind Farms. “Shadow” having negative connotations is well understood. Implying that wind-generation facilities cast significant shadows over nearby people is a bit hyperbolic. The title is actually within reason for a publication, but the bias is showing.
What’s interesting about the title is also the use of “wind farms.” It’s the preferred nomenclature of the wind industry itself, and is the commonly used term for utility-scale, wind-generation facilities.
They use it again in the body of the report, but more telling is the common use of the adjective “industrial.” This is a favorite of anti-wind activist groups. As one report has it, its use was focus-grouped by Bill Koch in his anti-wind efforts in the mid-2000s.
“The phrase ‘industrial’ was the direct result of focus groups. … It frightened people who thought they lived in a pristine environment.”
It’s certainly not neutral language. Scattering it among use of the much more commonly used “wind farms” would have been reasonable, if not for the telescope foreshortening of perspective, the amplification of purported wind farm noise, and the otherwise deeply slanted content of the report.
So that’s the Gatehouse report on wind energy’s impacts. It piles journalistic sin on journalistic sin. At least when the CBC was challenged to defend the ethics of their commissioned anti-wind documentary they were able to reasonably say that while the documentary was poor and one-sided, other CBC shows which were much more evidence-based were positive about wind. It’s not clear that Gatehouse can say that.
What is clear is that Gatehouse’s researchers either failed miserably to explore the subject or intentionally slanted their piece to tell an inaccurate narrative. Either way, they continue to exploit the actual pain of the people that they interviewed without casting any real light on what caused that pain.
“Shoddy journalism” is perhaps too kind a phrase for what they did.