Fear-Based Lies About Clean Energy Makes Americans Poorer And Sicker

Fear-Based Lies About Clean Energy Makes Americans Poorer And Sicker

During my six years in the wind industry, I often heard fear-based lies about proposed wind farms that defied common sense—wind turbines would cause nails to pop out of walls, turn cows’ milk sour, or decimate deer populations because bucks would catch their antlers in spinning turbine blades. On that last one, never mind wind turbine blades are a couple hundred feet off the ground.

This was a nationwide phenomenon, something I heard in New York and California and half a dozen states in between like Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas.

It’s no surprise none of these outlandish lies ever happened once American workers built the projects and communities were reinvesting revenue from those turbines back into their schools, roads, and emergency services. In fact, most the people I met had overwhelmingly positive feelings about the clean energy projects in their community. Public opinion data backs up what I heard: 90% of people living in close proximity to wind turbines prefer them to any other kind of central power plant, and positive national attitudes about wind improve over time as people choose to live near existing wind turbines.

There’s no denying clean energy projects bring change to communities often accustomed to the status quo. But wild renewable energy rumors spread by the fossil fuel industry seem to run rampant across social media and internet forums. This disinformation is slowing the clean energy transition, imperiling efforts to fight climate change, and worsening public health.

Economics don’t matter if you can’t site and build clean energy projects

Today, wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new electricity. Contrary to popular belief, it’s cheaper to build new renewables than continue running many fossil fuel plants currently on the grid—for example, 99% of U.S. coal plants are uneconomic compared to replacing them with new local solar and wind.

However, the places where we can build new wind and solar projects are rapidly shrinking, according to a new report from Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Opposition to wind and solar projects such as challenges from organized groups, petitions, lawsuits, or public administrative proceeding increased 29% last year. Researchers found 395 restrictions, mostly at the city and county level, against building wind and solar projects in 2023, a 73% increase since 2022.

Local restrictions against wind and solar by state.

Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University

Jacob Elkin, one of the report’s co-authors and a fellow for the Sabin Center’s Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative, sees the quick rise in measures to block wind and solar as indicative of a larger shift, telling E&E News opposition to renewables has “moved beyond ‘not in my back yard’ push back.”

The numbers reflect impacts from all the new siting restrictions the Sabin Center identified—new wind installations are at their lowest levels in many years. Several factors are behind the slowdown, including high interest rates, grid congestion, and supply chain constraints, but heightened opposition is playing a big role.

When I heard all the nefarious nuisances wind projects would supposedly cause, it was never clear if the person actually believed them, if they were simply trying to justify ideological opposition, or if they didn’t want to see the turbines. What is clear, however, is fossil fuel interests are helping spread these lies:

The Caesar Rodney Institute, a “think tank” that receives substantial fossil fuel funding, acts as the money manager for a number of anti-offshore wind groups.

– Anonymously funded groups tied to the natural gas industry are funding opposition to solar projects in Ohio.

– Coal producer Murray Energy has paid legal fees for residents fighting nearby renewable energy projects.

– The Marketing Resource Group, a public relations firm with decades of experience representing pipeline companies in Michigan, is helping run a local anti-renewable energy organization in the state.

And the list goes on.

Misinformation is taking a particular toll on offshore wind growth, “where we see the highest correlation between misinformation and opposition,” said Matthew Eisenson of the Sabin Center. “There has been a concerted misinformation campaign to tie whale beaching’s to offshore wind development and exploration.” In reality, however, scientists find ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear are behind the recent rise in East Coast whale deaths.

Clean energy misinformation is costing us money and our health

During my travels through wind country, I met dozens of people who told the economic success stories wind projects brought to their communities—with wind project revenue covering school budgets, lowering local taxes, and creating jobs that brought young people back to home to places with otherwise rapidly aging populations. And clean energy incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act are already spurring tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in investment.

A generational economic opportunity is unfolding across America, and seeing communities lose out on investment dollars and good jobs because of misinformation often pushed by fossil fuel interests is frankly heartbreaking – and the costs are huge.

One study puts the price of clean energy misinformation in Michigan alone at $210 million. “In all of these places in Michigan, there are good people who are working hard to do the best they can for their families, but they’ve been led to believe things that aren’t true,” said Ray Locker, executive director of the Checks and Balances Project. “We want to show the truth. The data show that wind energy helps communities by diversifying the economic base. That, in turn, helps landowners and farmers keep their properties and supports the infrastructure – schools, townships and more – around all residents.”

And then there’s the costs our bodies and our children’s bodies pay from breathing toxic air from burning fossil fuels. Misinformation may only affect a specific community where a clean energy project is proposed, but air pollution doesn’t respect geographic lines.

The more we learn about air pollution, the worse we realize it is for our health. Worldwide, 2,000 children a day die from air pollution, according to a new study from the Health Effects Institute, and air pollution is second only to malnutrition as a cause of deaths for children under five. Toxic air has also surpassed tobacco use globally to claim second place as the biggest risk factor for death, with high blood pressure presenting the worst risk.

Air pollution is the second leading cause of death worldwide, behind only high blood pressure.

Health Effects Institute

Fossil fuel power plants belch air pollution that can cause heart attacks, asthma attacks, strokes, and lost workdays. More than 8 million people worldwide died in 2018 alone from fossil fuel air pollution, and nearly one in five deaths worldwide in that year resulted from particulate matter tied to fossil fuel use.

We shouldn’t tolerate energy sources that cause so much suffering when cleaner, cheaper alternatives are ready to take their place.

The path forward

We’re still learning how to inoculate against misinformation, but local and state governments can take several steps to stop its impact on the clean energy transition. Misinformation hotbed Michigan again offers an illustrative example, where a new law charges the Michigan Public Service Commission with permitting utility-scale wind, solar and, storage projects. Alternatively, localities can adopt standards set at the state level when permitting projects. These changes can help local officials charged with clean energy zoning decisions navigate processes they may know little about, and safeguard against misinformation pushed by ill-informed constituents or covert fossil fuel interests.

We know how to combat the climate crisis—build as much clean energy as fast as we can and electrify all the things that currently burn fossil fuels, like cars, furnaces, and hot water heaters. For a long time, the technology wasn’t mature enough or costs were too high, but we’ve broken down those barriers.

Now clean energy can fight climate change, invest millions in our communities, create good jobs, and help us breathe easier.

We’ve come so far on the engineering side only to run into a problem of the human psyche. We should never accept being made poorer and sicker because of misinformation-filled Facebook memes—there’s too much at stake.

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