Public debate about wind energy is one topic that always attracts my interest. I worked in the industry for a few years, and I am still amazed at the misinformation and overall poor quality of media coverage – particularly relative to other energy issues. How wind energy is perceived by Ontarians is sadly being shaped by a fair amount of fear and ignorance.

Take Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s column from last weekend (Feb 2), where she falls back on the laziest of stereotypes in characterizing wind energy. The headline is “green nightmare”, which nicely conjures up images of roving flesh-eating wind turbines that move across sensitive ecosystems, destroying everything while pausing briefly to generate a bit of electricity, then resuming their destruction and ruining the landscape. The sub-head reads, “Wind power is supposed to be environmentally friendly, but a lot of environmentalists don’t think so.”

Wind energy – the least-damaging form of energy generation, according to the World Health Organization – is environmentally damaging? Compared to burning coal or natural gas? How did this become part of the narrative on renewable energy?

The main culprit in this are the various anti-wind groups that make anecdotal claims about the human health affects of wind turbines, often describing them like one would a pile of radioactive waste. The typical unfounded claims made about wind energy include; they are making me sick, they are making my dog sick; they are killing all the birds.

These anti-wind groups have enough clout to actually affect elections; in the last provincial election, anti-wind groups and their supporters are strongly suspected of having knocked off three provincial cabinet ministers (Environment Minister John Wilkinson, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky and Agriculture Minister Carol Mitchell) and a handful of other Liberal rural seats, denying Dalton McGuinty a majority government. With this kind of impact, you’d think supporters of renewable energy would be out in force, trying to get the facts on the table.

However, the wind energy and larger renewable energy industry could be better at acknowledging the nuisance factor of wind turbines and pointing out how the industry is trying to adapt turbines to deal with community concerns. It’s safe to say that the wind energy sector is not as developed as the oil and gas industry when it comes to defending itself.

So allow me to introduce some facts to challenge some of Wente’s assertions:

  • There is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that wind turbines have a negative impact on human health. Medical studies, including one from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, have supported this. Check out this for a longer list of similar studies.
  • There is, however, a suggestion that some people who live near wind turbines could suffer from some form of psychological syndrome that makes them think they are sick.
  • Wind turbines have less of an impact on bird deaths than high-rise buildings, communications towers, power lines and fossil fuel generation. And don’t forget cats: a recent study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute that concluded that cats are killing between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds a year.
  • There is a perception that wind energy only exists because of government subsidies. Sure, most forms of renewable energy are supported by governments in various ways, but it’s small change compared to fossil fuel subsidies. The International Energy Agency recently released its 2011 fossil fuel subsidy numbers: it says “…Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up from $412 billion in 2010, with subsidies to oil products representing over half of the total. Changes in international fuel prices are chiefly responsible for differences in subsidy costs from year to year.”

My advice? Journalists, when reporting on the impact of wind turbines on communities, please bring the same level of skepticism and attention to fact that you would when reporting on any other public health issue (smoking, eating, exercise, etc.).