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Washington Post and NPR Ignore the Rural Backlash Against Renewables

· 11 min read
Washington Post and NPR Ignore the Rural Backlash Against Renewables
Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

During my three decades as a reporter, I’ve seen plenty of hype and poor news coverage about renewable energy. But two recent pieces—in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, respectively—are particularly egregious. These reports demonstrate, yet again, that some of the biggest media entities in the world have no clue about—and apparently no sympathy for—the rural Americans, from Maine to Hawaii, who are fighting to protect their homes and neighborhoods from large wind and solar projects. Nor do the reporters have any sense of the amount of renewable energy—and, therefore, the massive amounts of land—that will be needed to meet America’s voracious appetite for energy and power.

On February 20th, the Post ran an article by reporter Kasha Patel touting a recent study, the lead author of which is Stanford professor Mark Jacobson. Jacobson’s study, Patel writes, purports to show that “electricity blackouts can be avoided across the nation—perhaps even during intense weather events—by switching to 100 percent clean and renewable energy, such as solar, wind and water.”

That’s a bizarre claim. When the ERCOT grid was on the verge of collapse a year ago, wind and solar were almost completely unavailable. Furthermore, a new report by the Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers has determined that the grid’s market design coupled with excessive subsidies for wind and solar were central to the near-meltdown of the state’s electric grid. An analysis by energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie found that the worst of the Texas blackouts coincided with a days-long wind drought across much of North America.

In keeping with his previous work, Jacobson’s proposal would require cartoonish amounts of land and roughly 5.7 terawatts of renewable generation capacity—more than five times all existing forms of electricity production in the US. (Total existing generation capacity in the US is about 1.1 terawatts.) So where is 5.7 terawatts of renewable infrastructure to be installed? Patel doesn’t say. Nor is there any mention of supply chains. Polysilicon is an essential ingredient in photovoltaic (solar) panels, but the US State Department has banned its importation from Xinjiang (nearly half the world’s supply) because the Chinese province has been using Uyghur slave labor in its production.

Jacobson’s study is largely a rehash of his previous claims, which were roundly debunked in a 2017 report published by the National Academies of Sciences. The report and its lead author, Christopher Clack, found that Jacobson’s claims about the feasibility of a fully renewable system contained “numerous shortcomings and errors,” relied upon “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” Those errors, they concluded, “render it unreliable as a guide about the likely cost, technical reliability, or feasibility of a 100% wind, solar, and hydroelectric power system.”

Jacobson had vastly underestimated the amount of land required for his scheme, an error that he repeats in his latest report. Clack and colleagues determined that Jacobson’s plan would require “nearly 500,000 square kilometers, which is roughly 6 percent of the continental United States, and more than 1,500 square meters of land for wind turbines for each American.” In other words, as I reported in National Review, Clack and colleagues:

…found that Jacobson understated the amount of land needed for his all-renewable dystopia by a factor of 15. But even that understates the amount of territory needed. Jacobson’s plan requires about 2.5 terawatts (2.5 trillion watts) of wind-energy capacity, with the majority of that amount onshore. The Department of Energy has repeatedly stated that the areal footprint of wind energy—known in physics terms as its capacity density—is a mere 3 watts per square meter. A bit of math shows that 2.5 trillion watts divided by 3 watts per square meter equals 833 billion square meters (or 833,000 square kilometers): That’s a territory nearly twice the size of California.

The idea of using two California-size pieces of territory—and covering them with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines—is absurd on its face.

A few months later, Jacobson disgraced himself, Stanford, and the school’s Precourt Institute for Energy, by filing a $10 million libel suit against Clack and the National Academy. Jacobson claimed that their analysis had damaged his reputation and made him and his co-authors “look like poor, sloppy, incompetent, and clueless researchers.” Only Clack was named in the suit. Jacobson did not sue any of the 20 or so other authors of the report, all of whom had affiliations with major institutions.

Then, in early 2018, Jacobson abruptly withdrew his lawsuit. That led to further wrangling over legal fees, a battle that Jacobson lost. As I explained in an article for Forbes two years ago, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Carroll Wingo ordered Jacobson to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Wingo ruled that the litigation was a SLAPP suit, short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPP suits are illegal in 31 states and the District of Columbia because they are designed to silence critics and intimidate people who speak out on issues of interest to the public. Wingo issued another ruling last fall reiterating that order and set an October 13th deadline for payment of fees, which according to court filings, totaled $75,000.

The actual fees incurred by Clack’s attorneys were far higher. In her ruling, Wingo pointed out that Clack had “reduced the amount requested by over $100,000 from the total amount of time reasonably spent by his attorneys due to an agreement with Denton [sic] to cap the fees at $75,000.” (Most of the filings in that lawsuit can be found here.) The National Academy’s legal team has requested $535,903.65 in fees. Evangeline Paschal, an attorney at Hunton Andrews Kurth who represents the National Academy, did not respond to my email request for comment.

Clack has confirmed to me that Jacobson has now paid him the $75,000. In an email, Clack’s attorney Drew Marrocco, a partner at international mega firm Dentons, told me that Jacobson has “also filed a motion for reconsideration that the Court has not ruled on yet.” Marrocco added that the court has not issued a final ruling on the National Academy’s fees.

In the original version of her article, Patel did not manage to include a word about Jacobson’s SLAPP suit, which was lodged against a critic and one of America’s most prestigious journals over an academic disagreement. Her article has since been updated to include a link to the Post’s own reporting on the withdrawal of Jacobson’s lawsuit. But it still doesn’t mention that Wingo ordered Jacobson to pay the defendants’ legal fees.

Nor is there any mention that Jacobson’s suit was found to be a SLAPP suit by the court, or that in her ruling, Wingo determined that the District of Columbia’s “anti-SLAPP Act was enacted to protect the right of advocacy on issues of public interest against lawsuits intended to punish or censor speech. The safeguards provided by the Act including reasonable attorney’s fees and costs are critical parts of the statute that must serve its purpose and be upheld. Defendants are entitled to recoup such fees...”

Patel’s updated piece does include a quote from Jacobson saying that his new study takes “into account previous criticisms” and that the model had been tested under “different conditions.” It then quotes him as saying: “These are very updated plans and even more realistic and far less criticism so far of them.” That may be because critics worry that he might sue them if they dare to speak up. As Clack himself made clear to me in an email, it’s “not worth it in terms of time and financials to have to defend myself again.”

Julia Simon’s report for NPR on February 15th may be headlined “In Misinformation Wars, Renewable Energy Is the Latest to Be Attacked,” but it is simply propaganda masquerading as news. Simon claims that opponents of wind energy are employing “misinformation,” but she ignores the copious information about land-use conflicts and the decade-long backlash this has produced against the renewable sector. She also ignores the many reasons rural communities across the US and Europe are fighting the encroachment of renewable energy.

I know that Simon’s omission of this information is deliberate because I spoke to her about the backlash for about an hour on January 19th at her request. I explained why it’s happening, where, and for how long. I pointed her to my Renewable Rejection Database, which shows that more than 300 communities in the US have rejected or restricted wind projects since 2015. None of that information made it into her five-minute radio report.

Lest you think I’m unnecessarily touchy on this issue, some background: I have been writing about the conflicts around renewable energy projects for 12 years. Last year, I published a 20,000-word report with the Center of the American Experiment entitled “Not In Our Backyard.” It includes 188 footnotes, and offers the most complete assessment of the rural backlash against the “energy sprawl” that inevitably occurs when deploying wind and solar energy at scale.

That report is one of the latest examples of the research and writing I have produced on this topic. I have interviewed dozens of people from all over the world who have suffered from noise pollution emitted by wind turbines built near their homes, including Dave and Rose Enz, whose plight is covered in my latest book, A Question of Power. In my fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, published in 2014, I provide an appendix which itemizes nine studies conducted by various health agencies and experts on the problem of turbine noise and sleep disturbance. One of these concluded that noise from turbines “disturbed the sleep and caused daytime sleepiness and impaired mental health in residents living within 1.4 kilometers of the two” wind projects studied.

Dave and Rose Enz (photo courtesy of the author)

When Simon contacted me on January 19th, she said she wanted to discuss my report, and she recorded the entire interview on Zoom. I explained why I had written the report for the Center of the American Experiment, how I became interested in the land-use conflict issue, and how I had collected the information in the database.

A few days later, I emailed Simon a link to an article I had written for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 about the complaints rural residents in the US, Ontario, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, and England were making about noise pollution from wind turbines. In that article, I explained that I had “spoken to nine other people in New York, Wisconsin, Ontario, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, and England who live, or lived, near wind turbines. All complained of the noise, with sleep deprivation being the most common complaint.” I also alerted her to recent updates to the Renewable Rejection Database. In a reply, she informed me that she was still working on her report.

Simon’s published report makes no mention of the numbers in the Renewable Rejection Database, which include 31 rejections of wind and 13 rejections of solar in 2021 alone. She didn’t mention me, my report, or the fact that in her home state of California—as well as in Vermont and New York—local opposition to wind power effectively precludes the construction of new turbines. Instead, she reproduced inane quotes from former president Donald Trump about wind energy causing cancer.

Trump hasn’t been president for more than a year, and made that particular statement three years ago. For National Public Radio to use three-year-old quotes from Trump in a story that trumpets the “latest” in the “misinformation wars” is plainly misleading. Trump has hated wind energy ever since he tried to prevent the construction of offshore turbines near his property in Scotland. This is not news. But Simon waves away the impact of noise pollution on human health documented by multiple medical studies with this line: “While some peer-reviewed studies do find links between wind noise and sleep disturbance, there are no known ties to cancer.”

The cancer claim is a red herring. In the many years that I have been reporting on the backlash against wind power, I have never heard any activist claim that turbines cause cancer. However, as I explain in “Not In Our Backyard,” a 2009 study by the Minnesota Department of Health found that “The most common complaint in various studies of wind turbine effects on people is annoyance or an impact on quality of life. Sleeplessness and headache are the most common health complaints and are highly correlated (but not perfectly correlated) with annoyance complaints.” Since then, numerous studies have documented the problem of sleep disturbance, which despite Simon’s dismissal of the issue, is a serious health concern.

In 2012, Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, a radiologist in Fort Kent, Maine, along with two co-authors, published a report in the journal Noise Health, which concluded that “the adverse event reports of sleep disturbance and ill health by those living close to industrial wind turbines are supported.” This is not a trivial matter. Sleep deprivation can make people sick. During a press conference in Montpelier, Vermont, in 2010, Nissenbaum pointed this out: “Annoyance leads to sleep deprivation and illness as day follows night.” Those suffering from noise pollution don’t need psychological help, he added, “they need the turbines placed further away from their home.”

Had Simon been interested in the importance of sleep to human health, she could have consulted the NPR website, which has published reports with headlines like “How Deep Sleep May Help the Brain Clear Alzheimer’s Toxins” and “Why Is It Essential to Make Time for Sleep?” A report published on January 16th, 2022, quoted a sleep expert named Lauren Whitehurst who said that high-quality sleep “should be our top priority.”

There are scads of studies about how wind turbine noise disturbs sleep and human health. In 2014, Danish researchers found that “noise from wind turbines increases the risk of annoyance and disturbed sleep in exposed subjects in a dose-response relationship.” In 2015, researchers from Iran found that noise from wind turbines “can directly impact on annoyance, sleep and health.” In 2017, German researchers concluded that “the construction of wind turbines close to households exerts significant negative external effects on residential well-being,” and that those effects are felt by people living within about four kilometers of the wind projects. A 2017 study by five Portuguese researchers concluded that “exposure to wind turbine sound significantly impairs individuals’ well-being because it strongly affects their decision to spend, or consider spending, resources in retrofitting their houses.” So, four studies in four different countries arrived at the same conclusion: the closer wind turbines are to homes, the more likely it is that the people living in those homes will have impaired well-being and disturbed sleep, and, therefore, more health problems.

Simon’s report quotes a study from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory that claims wind turbines don’t affect property values. She does not mention the half-dozen citations from the “Not In Our Backyard” report which show the opposite. For instance, a 2019 analysis by the German think tank RWI found that values of single-family homes fall by an average of seven percent when a wind turbine begins operation within a kilometer of a property. (The German version can be found here.) That study was based on asking prices of more than 2.7 million houses that were posted on the site of Germany’s leading online real estate broker. Simon concedes that “studies do find links between wind noise and sleep disturbance,” but then makes the implausible claim that turbines don’t decrease property values. Real estate agents are highly unlikely to confirm that there are cash-rich buyers queuing for properties in which they won’t be able to sleep due to noise pollution they can’t control.

What bothers me most about Simon’s report is the absence of empathy for people in rural America being steamrollered in the mad dash to erect thousands of 150m-tall, landscape-blighting wind projects in the vain hope that those machines will save us from the effects of climate change. The Enzes were forced to abandon their property near Denmark, Wisconsin, in 2011 after five turbines were built near the home they had lived in since 1978. I wrote about Dave and Rose for National Review in 2012. Here’s their statement from 2011. Here’s a statement Dave made in 2018 in opposition to a piece of legislation that was pending in Ohio. I met the Enzes at a Subway shop in Wrightsville, Wisconsin, in 2016. They wouldn’t even go back to their homestead with me because the situation was so painful.

Of all the news outlets in America, one might expect National Public Radio to care about small landowners in rural towns and counties who don’t have much political or economic power. Over the past dozen years, I’ve seen the same story play out again and again: big business against small-town America. But rather than stick up for the small towns, rural landowners, and preservation of our wildlife, NPR is siding with big business. It’s a cavalier attitude toward people who are fighting to preserve the value and enjoyment of their homesteads, ranches, and farms.

When major media outlets report on the myriad claims about the “energy transition” or renewables, the public deserves accuracy and decency. That appears to be too much to expect from the Post and NPR.

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