windfarm in bungendore, australia

Think windfarms are ugly – It’s not only a matter of perception, but policy too

windfarm in bungendore, australia
Turbines operate on Capital windfarm in Bungendore, Australia. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

We will meet renewable energy targets largely with wind. But community attitudes and acceptance rely on a number of factors beyond mere aesthetics

May 12, 2017 — A known side-effect of wishing for things is that they tend to come true. Wishing, as most of us do, for the rapid decarbonisation of the machines we use to generate electricity results in physical changes that manifest in Australian communities. Towering stacks of coal-fired power stations collapse. Thin bladed towers rise up on the horizon, and fields of black photovoltaic glass drape themselves over green hills.

The Australian landscape is changed by words on paper. Specifically, the renewable energy target as a mechanism for the construction of zero-carbon technologies has worked brilliantly in incentivising new build – mainly windfarms, as they’re the cheapest, most readily deployable technology.

The RET is a policy that sets, for each year, an increasing percentage of renewable power that must be sourced from technologies including wind and solar (it’s 14.22% this year). The increases stop in 2020, the policy ends in 2030, and the total quantity of energy that the target aims for has been the source of political wrangling for years.

There’s plenty of time and effort dedicated to understanding the technical impact of these new machines on the electricity grid but the ways they interface with culture, behaviour and community are under-considered. Leaving these out often results in attacks on the legislation driving the change.

In 2011 the Baillieu government in Victoria introduced sweeping limitations on wind energy, essentially banning the machines from being built in the Yarra Valley, within 5km of the Great Ocean Road and in the Mornington peninsula. Ted Baillieu himself labelled windfarms “towering triffids” (the harsher components of the law were repealed when Daniel Andrews became premier).

More recent appeals to disgust spurred by their visual presence were Joe Hockey’s memorable classification of wind turbines as “utterly offensive” and former prime minister Tony Abbott’s curiously specific declaration of the Rottnest Island wind turbine as “visually awful”. As Hockey told a Bloomberg energy summit: “We have some beautiful landscapes in Australia and, frankly, putting up those towers is just to me, quite appalling in those places”. Pre-existing views on wind energy have a major effect on how they’re perceived aesthetically – this wasn’t a surprising reaction.

Reactions to prominent new machines fall into political segments, from quiet support to physical disgust broadcast with regularity. This loops back into the guts of the mechanisms that caused the machines to rise in the first place – Abbott’s prolonged antagonism towards wind energy and the RET resulted in a compromise decrease from a target of 41,000 gigawatt hours to 33,000 gigawatt hours. By my calculations, this means an extra 85,522,710 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.

The Abbott-Hockey era was an odd one. Legislative changes were explicitly linked to emotional reactions spurred by the mere presence of windfarms. These reactions had an immediate impact on policy but they differed pointedly from the populous. The vast majority of the Australian public is pretty keen on wind energy. Rural support for it is higher than among city folk – 74% versus 68%. These changes weren’t particularly popular.

Limiting our sample to people living near windfarms paints a different picture. Support isn’t quite as consistent and some weird nuances emerge.

The “reverse-nimby” (not in my backyard) effect suggests community members increase their support for windfarms as proximity increases, and that acceptance is stronger once the windfarm begins operation. More intuitively, windfarms built in scenic areas are perceived to have a negative effect on amenity – windfarms built in ugly areas are seen to improve them. The aesthetic perception of windfarms by those living near them aren’t easily predictable as they’re the subject of the push and pull of a complex web of personal factors.

In the past seven years, objections to windfarms, where they arise, have shifted almost exclusively towards fears of health impacts from “wind turbine syndrome”. Anti-windfarm groups travel to nervous communities and capitalise on anxiety by offering a pseudo-scientific forecast of physical suffering that catalyses and amplifies their genuine sentiment.

The office of the national windfarm commissioner received 46 complaints about nine operational windfarms and 42 complaints about proposed windfarms. Noise and health were raised 48 and 43 times respectively – amenity came only fourth in the list, raised 23 times (the same as “economic loss”). The distribution at the community level differs from the predominantly visual complaints raised in political circles.

 a windfarm in the irish sea
A windfarm in the Irish Sea.

Negative reactions to wind energy, channelled through gut reactions to visual changes or fears of impending health issues, are met with bemusement in Europe. A five-minute stroll from the house of a relative in a small town in Germany places me at the base of a gigantic multi-megawatt wind beast. People walk past on their evening stroll, seemingly free from bouts of visual nausea. In Copenhagen a beach of screaming, delighted children hurl sand in the faces of long-suffering siblings – a fleet of wind turbines silently rotate in the ocean, only a few kilometres away.

The explanation for this is relatively simple. Public support for wind energy increases as community participation increases. European models of windfarms development prioritise ownership by cooperative, local municipalities and individuals. Domestically, these models are rare – private ownership dominates.

The stratospheric value of public ownership in clean energy development is yet to be fully realised in Australia, though there are some commendable saplings taking root, such as the Community Energy Congress. Community ownership isn’t limited to size, either – the biggest planned windfarm in the Netherlands is set to be partly community owned.

With bolstered community ownership and participation, travelling anti-windfarm groups would find no purchase for their claims. Politicians seeking to damage investment certainty in the cheapest renewable energy technology out there would be met with sizeable resistance.

We’ve still got three years left to meet the clean energy demands of the RET. Some of this will be met by increasingly cheap and relatively unobtrusive utility-scale solar, but a report by the Clean Energy Regulator estimates 65% of new capacity built to meet the target will come from wind.

Collectively, this is what we want – but to avoid an infinite feedback loop of policy uncertainty, we need to consider how these machines have been received both visually and culturally in Australian communities.


guardian_64  by Ketan Joshi | The Guardian