This week, the US wind sector is set to descend on Anaheim for the American Wind Energy Association’s annual Windpower conference. This comes after a first quarter in which 2GW of wind farms were completed in the US, which makes it the country’s strongest first quarter for eight years in terms of new installations.
The reason for this strong performance is simple – and it’s not the election of Donald Trump. In late 2015, the US Congress extended the production tax credit for wind by five years. This has given developers the certainty they need after a decade of stop-start policy support. The question now is what happens after 2020.
Not a problem, says the industry. The cost of onshore wind keeps falling and so wind has a strong future even without subsidies. There are reasons to be positive but we would counsel caution.
President Trump has not yet wrought havoc on short-term growth in the wind sector, but vandalism of the Environmental Protection Agency and his predecessor Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan must affect its growth prospects in the medium- to long-term. He is weakening the bodies that can make a political case for wind.
If Trump is in the White House until 2020, that is a long time to bring in policies that damage wind and for his anti-wind views to get into the minds of state legislators that have power over energy policy on a day-to-day basis. The battle is not won. It is ongoing.
Because here’s the thing: whatever positivity we see in Anaheim this week, Trump won’t. His views will continue to be formed by his anti-wind prejudices and what he sees on social media.
Wind may be cheaper and more efficient than ever, but the ‘leader of the free world’ is more likely to heed the ‘fake news’ stories that say wind farms are making thousands of people sick. He will be more enraged by the thousands of birds and bats killed by wind turbines than the billions killed by cats, cars and skyscrapers.
And polls saying that people like renewables? He’ll say they’re made up by the ‘lyin’ media’; that wind companies are deceiving honest Americans; and nobody knows as much about electricity as him. Maybe we are attaching too much to the views of one man, but he is a highly influential man who is prone to act erratically.
In the cosy bubble of a conference, it would be easy to assume the argument is won. It isn’t. There are still myths to be slain.
First, we see a lot of criticism online that those in the wind industry argue all of the world’s new energy should come from wind, but we don’t recognise this stereotype. We hear most people in wind argue the sector should be part of a balanced energy mix, but that won’t convince those who believe that wind firms want wind only.
Second, we see criticisms that those in wind deliberately obfuscate about ‘electricity’ and ‘energy’ to big up wind’s contribution to the global energy mix. Again, we don’t see this – but the suggestion of nefarious motives will grab people’s attention.
Third, there is criticism that wind is not ‘green’ because turbines are made using fossil fuels. That is true – but it is also a common trick to hold people up to unrealistic standards to make them look hypocritical, like: “You’re no anti-capitalist. You’ve a smartphone!” This argument is trying to tie up wind in the Catch-22 situation that we should not be allowed to produce green power until this green technology can itself be produced using green power.
And fourth, there is the old argument that wind is unreliable. There is some truth in this, but predictions keep getting more reliable and grid technology is getting better able to cope.
But why spend time on this? Well, it’s simple. Truth doesn’t always win, and the alt-right untruths and conspiracy theories on Twitter now command the attention of the ‘leader of the free world’. The arguments have always been there, but they are no longer hidden in the web’s shady backwaters. They are everywhere, and we see large numbers of people who want to believe them.
So, while we all meet in Anaheim, let us not forget the threat that the myths outside that bubble still pose. They are powerful and, thanks to Twitter, can soon be everywhere. Be prepared!
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