Thank you all for your kind words and attention to the first installment of Whoppers of the Anti-wind Brigade, where Max Rheese’s perplexingly a-factual views were subject to some scrutiny. As you may remember, Mr Rheese managed 14 whoopers in a mere 17 minute radio interview covering some 1,685 words.
Our subject today is Senator John Madigan, the first elected federal representative of the Democratic Labour Party in Australia since 1974 and Victoria’s replacement for the entertaining Senator Steve Fielding.
Senator Madigan has been stirring up a name for himself in recent months attacking wind energy. Our goal is to see if he can achieve in a single web-page policy statement of 364 words what Max Rheese took a full radio interview and many more words to achieve. If you would like to play along at home, I would encourage you to review Senator Madigan’s position on his party’s website (copied as of 31 October 2012 at the bottom of this article).
Those following the issue will remember that just this year Madigan called the wind industry sinister, powerful and dangerous. He’s called wind energy a scandal and he has described his wind campaign as a fight. But just to be clear, we’ll let straight talking John put it in his own words: “I am not and never have been against wind farms, wind energy or green technology.” Okay…
Now on to the show.
Wind Reality 1: Wind is not heavily subsidized in Australia or the rest of the world
The claim: The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) opposes this highly subsidised method of generating electricity
The data: Let’s define terms. I am going to use the term subsidy imprecisely to mean imbalances in the market that can be quantified in dollar terms. Direct subsidies are only one kind of market imbalance, so it is important to try to compare apples-to-apples in this conversation.
In those terms, what subsidies do wind farms receive? Well, they actually get no subsidies for construction and certainly nothing from the government. Instead wind farms are issued a renewable energy certificate (now called an LGC) for every megawatt hour of clean energy generated. Energy retailers are required to buy certificates to ‘green up’ their power. In 2012 only 9.15% of the retailers output must be matched, growing to a target of 20% by 2020.
So yes, the Renewable Energy Target, introduced by the Liberals, supported by Labor and endorsed by the Greens, has created an indirect subsidy to encourage the transition to non-polluting energy sources. (The DLP, which told the senate inquiry into the Clean Energy Future package that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, presumably doesn’t understand why anyone would want to transition to clean energy.)
What about fossil fuels such as coal? Well, it is worth noting the decades worth of major investments in infrastructure that the government put into the fossil fuel industry, and that continue today with market imbalancing support for coal seam gas and expansions of coal mines.
For example, the New South Wales government had the opportunity to have a major coal seam developed by the private sector at full market prices. Whitehaven Coal offered to provide coal at $55 / ton, but assessment found that this fair market price would raise the price of electricity considerably. The NSW government undertook to develop the coal seam itself for $1.5 billion and sell coal to the electrical generators at an artificially low price of $31.16 per ton. This is interesting, as the government is not only directly investing public dollars in more coal mining, it is committing to a loss of economic value on each ton of coal it produces. This is not only a direct subsidy to coal-fueled electricity, it is a direct cost to taxpayers.
It is worth providing a graphical view of a typical country’s breakdown of subsidies, in this case the USA. Note how much more in gross subsidies fossil fuels receive than subsidies to all forms of renewables. In the interest of fairness, it is important to point out that renewables currently have a slightly greater dollar market distortion per MWh than fossil fuels, but there are also significant regulatory hurdles that tilt the playing field in favour of fossil fuels.
International assessments of energy subsidies find the same thing time and again. There are massive, long-running market distortions under a variety of names that favour fossil fuels and fossil fuel generation. Many of these distortions have been in place for decades and are fought for tooth-and-nail by lobbyists and politicians in every round of budget discussions. The fossil fuel industry has a strongly vested interest in maintaining these market distortions, and funds lobbyists handsomely for the purpose of maintaining them.
Picking on the transparent, market mechanism-based, zero-cost to government renewable energy certificates as a subsidy in context of this massive ongoing governmental expenditure and loss of revenue on fossil fuels is just backward.
Wind Reality 2: Wind farms are financially viable and are reducing consumer electricity costs in Australia
The claim: Senator John Madigan has questioned the viability … of these expensive, ugly machines
The data: Unlike new coal mining and coal generation, which is increasing in cost and will continue to increase in cost, wind energy has been dropping in cost by 14 per cent for every doubling of wind generation capacity. Based on current trends, global wind generation doubles roughly every five years. Cost reductions are expected to level off in 2016, but even now the best sites are at grid parity and are cheaper than new coal that doesn’t have massive market distortions applied as per the example from New South Wales. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the International Energy Association are all behind these numbers and basic facts.
The merit order effect is reducing actual consumer costs for electricity in Australia as it is in many parts of the world. Simply put, the effect of generators with low fuel prices entering the market has the effect of lowering the spot price of electricity. As wind and solar are free fuels they can reduce wholesale prices across the whole market. Australian consumers are already seeing reductions with a very limited penetration of renewables, at last count about $7 per year on their electrical bills. That’s not the end of savings for consumers either, as current proposals put forward have the potential to lower consumers’ bills by up to $160 per year.
So wind energy is already proven to be viable and is actually saving consumers money
Wind Reality 3: Wind power improves the health of Australians, unlike coal energy
The claim: Senator John Madigan has questioned … so-called reports that have been commissioned on the health effects of … of these … ugly machines. The DLP will push for the retention of our cheap, clean and efficient coal fired power stations.
The data: Let’s take this one by one.
What health reports have been commissioned, and are they ‘so-called’ or something a bit more robust?
To date, seventeen health reviews on the topic of wind farms have returned a verdict and an eighteenth has recently been commissioned. The studies’ methodologies were aligned with virtually every health study starting point in any area of health anywhere: first start by reviewing all existing literature against anecdotal complaints to determine if it is worth doing more research.
Who were the people asked to perform the reviews?
Typical review groups split into two categories. The first are Public Health professionals, dominantly the doctors who run public health; this is the model of the Ontario, Canada review of the literature. The second are cross-disciplinary panels consisting of doctors, PhDs, acousticians, epidemiologists and other deep professionals in fields related to the literature. In both cases, these are highly accredited, highly professional and deeply respected individuals who are devoted to ensuring that no harm comes to the public. In the case of Ontario, the members of the review panel also dealt with the SARS epidemic and a major e.Coli outbreak that between them killed dozens of Canadians, and dealt with planning for the H1N1 virus as well.
What existing literature did they study?
There have actually been thousands of pieces of peer reviewed, high-quality research done in the areas of acoustics, noise annoyance, infrasound, placebo effects, visual flicker intrusiveness, low-frequency sound and electromagnetic fields. These research pieces typically are looking at one or two elements of a much larger picture to enable very well understood bodies of science to move forward slightly. This is very typical of the scientific method. For example, an excellent researcher in the Netherlands, Professor Eja Pedersen, did an excellent study of over 700 hundred people living near wind farms and the degree to which various factors impacted the degree of annoyance they felt about perceived noise of wind farms; he found that if they could see it or were not receiving money from it, they were much, much more likely to be annoyed by the perceived noise of the wind farm. This study didn’t attempt to assess all aspects of wind farms and health, nor can any study attempt to do that.
What did these studies find?
Every one of the seventeen reviews found the same thing: there is no link between wind farms and reported anecdotal health effects and no mechanism for wind farms to cause health impacts. They all agreed that a small subset of people very close to wind farms found the noise annoying. They all referenced World Health Organization concerns about annoying environmental noise, and did not downplay the significance of it. Like the World Health Organization, they all agreed that wind farm noise was relatively trivial compared to environmental noise experienced by the vast majority of urban dwellers (80%+ of most developed countries) and trivial compared to real health concerns such as the next SARS or pollution from fossil fuels. They all agreed that moderate setbacks were appropriate to bring noise in nearby bedrooms under 50 dB at least (very typical urban noise levels) and usually to 40 dB or lower.
So Senator Madigan, when he speaks of ‘so-called reports,’ is actually defaming extraordinary numbers of deeply committed public health professionals and researchers who have devoted their lives to ensuring the safety of the populace of their various countries, including Australia.
Where does the eighteenth review come in? Australia has already, at public expense, performed one of the 17 reviews. That 16 other reviews elsewhere in the world with now hundreds of reviewers have agreed on the same thing is apparently not good enough, so the Australian taxpayer is now being asked to pay for an 18th review of the literature on wind energy. In Canada, in the meantime, similar political calculus has led to a $1.8 million research study in Ontario funded by the Canadian federal government after the Ontario review concluded that no such study was necessary.
What about fossil fuels?
Senator Madigan is asserting that wind farms are unhealthy and that coal generation is ‘clean’. What do most public health professionals say about coal? Well, after they stop saying things that aren’t fit to print, they typically settle down to the following statements:
2. Coal causes asthma in our children
3. Coal brings enormous numbers of people to doctors and hospitals with respiratory diseases annually
This is part of the reason that studies continue to find that coal has what is referred to as negative externalities of 17.8 cents USD per KWh. A negative externality means that there are quantifiable costs that aren’t priced into the cost of the unit of generation, but that are borne by society outside of the apparent cost of the generation. According to Senator Madigan, despite all evidence to the contrary, coal can be clean. Further, he claims that requiring taxpayers to not only pay with their health but also with their pocketbooks for the costs of coal’s health impacts isn’t a market distortion that vastly exceeds the costs related to the Renewable Energy Certificates. He has inverted the reality of wind energy versus coal.
Verdict: Whopper x 2, once for maligning clean wind energy and once for pretending coal was healthy
Wind Reality 4: 100% of people polled agreed that wind farms are much more aesthetically pleasing than diseased lungs on a stainless steel tray
The claim: Ugly blights on our landscape
The data: Taste and aesthetics are impossible to argue outside of certain rarefied circles. But the fact that Senator Madigan keeps repeating his assertion that these particular human constructions are ‘ugly blights on our landscape’ can’t really be left unattended.
Obviously Senator Madigan prefers the verdant glow of a lush strip coal mine. And the delightful rococo lines of a coal-fueled generator with its puffs of delightful and fragrant vapour. Not to mention the simple beauty of a coal freight train in motion, its aromatic diesel fumes combining with the lovely clouds of coal dust wafting through the air to settle in our children’s hair like moonbeams.
Perhaps it is the colour of diseased lungs lying exposed after autopsy on a glistening metal trays that he prefers.
It is certainly true that regions around the world are gaining tourism dollars from their wind farms as people who, unlike Senator Madigan, find them beautiful flock to appreciate the graceful lines, the slow rotation of the majestic blades and the variance of light and cloud upon them at different times of day and night. The millions upon millions of people who take pictures of wind turbines and post them to sites such as Flickr would certainly disagree with Senator Madigan.
Wind Reality 5: There are about 200,000 wind turbines operating today, and maybe a thousand inactive (and rapidly being replaced) world-wide
The claim: California, which once boasted some 80% of the world’s wind generation and operated in some of the world’s best wind sites now has over 14,000 abandoned wind turbines scattered around there [sic] countryside. As Andrew Walden from “American Thinker” …
The data: Let’s start with Andrew Walden and what he actually said. Mr Walden is an anti-wind activist from Hawaii who lived near a wind farm that shut down. The Kamoa wind farm was built about 30 years ago and had 37 wind turbines. It produced power for a couple of decades. Then for a variety of economic reasons it was shut down. The last wind turbine on the site was actually taken down and sold for scrap at a profit in April of 2012.
So Mr Walden had actually seen an inactive wind farm with 37 wind turbines. How did he calculate 14,000 wind turbines? And where did he say they were again?
From pretty much whole cloth, Mr. Walden went from the 37 wind turbines he could see to claim 14,000 world-wide in a 2010 article. Anti-wind activists in the USA seized on this and claimed it was in the US alone; being so US-centric it is perhaps forgiveable that they forgot that the US only had about 20% of all wind turbines in the world. Other even more exuberant anti-wind lobbyists seized on this further exaggeration and said there were 14,000 inactive wind turbines in California alone, which is about how many wind turbines existed in all of California at the time.
So Mr Walden invented a number, and then it was misquoted, and misquoted again, until it arrived at Senator Madigan’s ears and without any verification at all, he misquoted the most egregious of the misquotes of a bogus number.
So what is the real number? Nobody really knows precisely at any given time, but the worst case scenario was in California at the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm. It was built in the 1970s with the worst of speculation and the most poorly designed subsidies. At one point about 100 of the 5000 wind turbines or 2% were inactive. This was the highest ratio on Earth. Most of those have been replaced with larger wind turbines in a process called repowering, which is typically done where a good wind asset exists and old wind generators are not making as much profit as they could be. Let’s take the worst ratio on Earth and halve it to get a conservative – that is to say overestimated – number of possible wind turbines that might be permanently inactive and multiply it by the 200,000 wind turbines in operation today. That would give us roughly 2,000 wind turbines. These wind turbines are usually much older and smaller, so might represent 0.25% as a conservatively overestimated percentage of possible power generation.
Is this anywhere near 14,000 wind turbines? Is this anywhere near 14,000 wind turbines in California alone?
As a thought exercise, how many permanently inactive coal generation plants are in the world today, and what percentage of their possible generation capacity do they represent? Senator Madigan, if he were to do the math, would find that the numbers are much worse for coal plants than for wind farms.
Wind Reality 6: Replace all fossil fuel generation with wind energy, save 70 million birds a year
The claim: As Andrew Walden from “American Thinker” put it, they are “spinning, post-industrial junk which generates nothing but bird kills.”
The data: Before we dig into birds specifically, it is worth looking at assessments from North America about the impacts of various forms of generation on wildlife.
This is from Comparison Of Reported Effects And Risks To Vertebrate Wildlife From Six Electricity Generation Types In The New York/New England Region, prepared for the New York State Energy Research And Development Authority in 2009.
As you can see, wind is by far the least hazardous to wildlife of the forms of generation studied. What do those two red boxes next to coal mean? They mean that when coal is dug up and used as intended, it has the potential during resource extraction and power generation to cause large scale, population-level mortality and/or habitat destruction, population decline, biodiversity reduction and threats to regional survival of entire species.
Wind energy, as the study shows has either no potential harm to wildlife or the lowest potential harm to wildlife in four of six portions of the lifecycle. Only in their shared transmission lines are wind energy and coal equal in their potential threat to wildlife; in all other categories coal is higher risk or much higher risk.
Perhaps Senator Madigan believes that birds are somehow separate from other wildlife. In which case, the following study should disabuse him of this notion.
This chart is from a bird-specific study across forms of generation performed in Singapore to assist with governmental energy policy. As you can see, fossil fuel generation is vastly more damaging to birds specifically, just as it is to wildlife in general. With a little math, it appears that if it were possible to replace all fossil fuel generation with wind generation, 70,000,000 (70 million) fewer birds would die annually.
As one commentator points out, “in one year two feral cats may well kill more critters than the whole of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest wind farm.”
Wind Reality 7: Wind energy has been a tremendous success story in Europe and continues to provide clean, safe economical power there
The claim: Germany has moved back to building new coal-fired power stations and Holland recently slashed their renewable subsidies there. European taxpayers have reportedly wasted over 285 Billion Euros on subsidising renewable energy and this alone should be a warning to our government and the taxpayers of Australia.
Let’s start with the German coal plants. Somehow, in Senator Madigan’s and other anti-renewable types minds, it is wind- and solar-energy’s fault that Germany needs to build coal plants as opposed to Germany’s decision to shutter nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster. Let us spell that out further; Germany has been a net exporter of energy between its nuclear and renewables generation assets. Nuclear, unlike coal, has roughly the same deaths per TWh as wind or solar energy – negligible – and generates almost as little CO2e as wind energy (11 g/KWh vs 8 g/KWh for wind) on its entire lifecycle. Germany, due to disastrous placement and management of four nuclear plants a world away, is politically required to shutter their low-CO2e, baseload nuclear plants on a crash basis. They understand that the European outlook for effective interconnected grid capabilities that would allow European renewables including Finnish hydro assets to provide the right balancing for German renewables is 30-50 years away. They choose the ugliest option: more coal plants. And somehow it is renewable energy’s fault. Bizarre and naive thinking on the part of those with a bone to pick with wind energy.
Let’s look at Holland reducing their renewable subsidies. This is perfectly in line with every renewables subsidy program ever introduced, which always has high rates initially to create supply, then diminishing rates over time as the market becomes mature. In the case of Holland as with every other jurisdiction, they have been doubly blessed with the previously discussed massive reduction in costs of wind energy. This is intelligent management of market-based mechanisms for large-scale societal benefit. Once again, how is this an argument against wind energy in Australia, which is at least a decade behind Holland and closer to two decades in terms of maturity of the local wind generation market?
Let’s talk about those poor European taxpayers. Let’s talk about Spain as an example. Spain’s poor taxpayers have a massive supply of fundamentally free energy that they are selling to their neighbours at market rates. Spain’s poor taxpayers have a major revenue generator that is costing them very little to operate. Spain’s poor taxpayers are in an advantageous position compared to many other European nations that did not embrace renewables and who are still dependent on expensive fossil fuels in a time of austerity. It’s such a terrible position to be in that both Scotland and Ireland are embracing major wind generation programs to get in on the action and seeking major new grid interconnections so that they too can become net exporters of clean, cheap, carbon-neutral energy that doesn’t kill or sicken them or their children to generate. Hardly a waste of taxpayers’ money.
And hardly a waste as many of the programs were similar to Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, which didn’t cost the government or the taxpayers a dime.
Verdict: Whopper X 3, once for Germany’s coal plants, once for Holland’s subsidies and once for the European taxpayers
Who is the Whopper Winner?
So what is the final count? Senator Madigan manages 10 whoppers in 364 words. Max Rheese manages 14 whoppers in 1,685 words. Senator Madigan wins on whoppers per word, while Rheese has a greater total score of whoppers. Looks like a draw to me.
If the target of renewable energy policy in Australia were to immediately replace all baseload with wind and solar, Senator Madigan might have contributed some unsophisticated points to a useful and nuanced discussion to be had about how to manage baseload versus peak demand. If this discussion were to be had rationally, the use of coal generation would have to be considered a necessary evil given its direct costs, direct governmental subsidies and societally borne negative externalities. In this discussion, the question would reasonably be “How little coal generation can we get away with for how short a period of time?”
Senator Madigan, however, does not seem to be asserting policy from this rational world, but rather from one in which clean, safe, CO2e-neutral wind energy is somehow demonised while polluting, killing, environment destroying, greenhouse gas emitting coal is some sort of wonder energy. This should not be surprising from the party that is sponsoring the eccentric British climate denier, Lord Christopher Monckton, to travel Australia using swastikas to defame a climate change advisor to the Australian government.
For a bit more on Senator Madigan and his various statements on wind energy outside of his official policy statement, have a look at David K. Clarke’s material here.
In the event that Senator Madigan’s website changes, here is the complete text of his policy as of October 31st, 2012:
The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) opposes this highly subsidised method of generating electricity as a substitute or replacement for baseline power such as coal, gas or hydro electric.
Since taking up his role as a Senator, John Madigan has questioned the viability and the so-called reports that have been commissioned on the health effects of these expensive, ugly machines. While power companies keen to get their hands on taxpayers funds will make every attempt to talk up the viability of wind farms, the logic simply doesn’t add up.
The DLP calls for a moratorium to halt the construction of any further commercial wind farms until a proper assessment of the financial viability and health risks are addressed.
Despite the complaints of noise, health and wildlife destruction, wind farms will not deliver the power required to drive us forward either in the short or long term.
The high cost of subsidising these ugly blights on our landscape is another major problem. We have already seen the failures around the world where thousands of wind turbines have been abandoned.
Hawaii shut down their experiment when Apollo Energy failed there in 2006. California, which once boasted some 80% of the world’s wind generation and operated in some of the world’s best wind sites now has over 14,000 abandoned wind turbines scattered around there countryside. As Andrew Walden from “American Thinker” put it, they are “spinning, post-industrial junk which generates nothing but bird kills.”
The failures of wind farms can be seen everywhere and the high cost of trying to subsidise these inefficient and costly monsters has especially been felt in Europe.
Germany has moved back to building new coal-fired power stations and Holland recently slashed their renewable subsidies there. European taxpayers have reportedly wasted over 285 Billion Euros on subsidising renewable energy and this alone should be a warning to our government and the taxpayers of Australia.
The DLP will push for the retention of our cheap, clean and efficient coal fired power stations and look to a more transitional model of using coal gasification and other clean coal technologies that would be far less costly to the taxpayer, while producing a secure and solid baseline for our grid.
Mike Barnard has been a deeply interested observer of energy systems for three decades. Following a lengthy discussion with Margaret Atwood and others related to siting of wind turbines in a major birding area on her blog, he became a blogger on energy concerns, focusing on debunking myths about wind energy. As a day job, Mike has had the good fortune to work on Smart Grid projects for IBM’s clients, in addition to many other interesting initiatives that IBM is uniquely positioned to undertake. More of Mike’s material on wind energy can be found at http://www.quora.com/Mike-