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25th Anniversary Special - World Reporting - Stories from the trenches

Even in the early days, Windpower Monthly kept tabs on the world at large with reports filed by foreign correspondents. "The small fraternity of India's early wind industry certainly knew about Windpower Monthly and followed everything we wrote," says Neelam Mathews, who has filed copy for over 20 years from one of the first nations to have a renewable energy industry. Some correspondents were established ahead of the industry. Vicki Hyde, who had reported from Japan in the late 1980s, moved to New Zealand and started corresponding for an infant industry.

Foreign correspondents make worldwide reporting possible. Nancy Graham Holm tracks down and interrogates a few.

Even in the early days, Windpower Monthly kept tabs on the world at large with reports filed by foreign correspondents.

"The small fraternity of India's early wind industry certainly knew about Windpower Monthly and followed everything we wrote," says Neelam Mathews, who has filed copy for over 20 years from one of the first nations to have a renewable energy industry. "A variation in the spelling of a remote wind site would get me angry faxes. But these were the same guys who would insist I visit their family and eat with them when I was in their city."

Some correspondents were established ahead of the industry. Vicki Hyde, who had reported from Japan in the late 1980s, moved to New Zealand and started corresponding for an infant industry. Her biggest challenge, she recalls, was keeping up her enthusiasms until wind power took off there. Katherine Ross, reporting in Australia from 2003, echoes her sentiments.

The early days in Britain and Ireland, covered by Janice Massy, were busy, with all planning proposals - granted or rejected - being news. And energy journalist Sara Knight found her greatest challenge in reporting from Germany came early in the 1990s with the development of a market economy in the electricity sector.

 

Breaking through the secrecy

For correspondents today, one issue dominates all others. "Ever since companies went big business, secrecy has made our jobs difficult," they say, very different from the days when manufacturers were eager to share information, says founder Torgny Moller. US editor Jesse Broehl - at Windpower Monthly for only two-and-a-half years - says: "One unfortunate surprise I've found as a wind reporter is the near-paranoid level of secrecy among companies. I joke that covering wind can be as tough as working the CIA beat for a national paper."

Italy is described by some developers as a "Wild West," says correspondent Heather O'Brian, where a fear of unfair competition keeps them from revealing plans, particularly when they are listed on the stock market.

It's the same in France, says Jan Dodd: "Take EDF Energies Nouvelles, for example. They were happy to give out information before they listed, but now the answer to nearly every question is they can't tell me because of confidentiality - or because they're not allowed or because the client doesn't want it."

Broehl concurs. "It ranges from formal non- disclosure agreements to an informal but pervasive attention to secrecy. People who were once accessible in certain positions or companies suddenly tell me that they can't talk to me about anything because of taking a new job. If a company is watching its share price, it becomes careful - very careful - about what information gets out. To this day, I've never been able to talk to Vestas in the United States. The Danish turbine maker's attitude seems to be that it's simply safer to not deal with an independent trade press that sometimes asks hard questions."

Secrecy, the wind reporters say, is not only inconvenient for them as journalists but a brake on forward movement. Some look at the medical devices industry and how the variety of regulations on it forced a level of openness - even collaboration - that fostered technological leaps, benefiting both the industry and consumers.

So, are these tough questioners wind enthusiasts themselves? Michael McGovern, reporting from Spain on one of the world's largest wind energy markets, admits to falling in love with wind turbines in the 1980s when he came face to face with "a giant Meccano set, spinning like crazy" near the southern coast.

He loves his role as the magazine's third reporter in Spain. "I feel privileged to have rubbed shoulders with the most professional, visionary and skilled people Spain has to offer. This is the cream of the new Spaniards, as modern history books call them - the generations of democrats following Franco's 40-year dictatorship."

 

Scientific objectivity

Few of the "older" Windpower Monthly writers admit to being wind advocates, preferring to confirm their neutrality and journalistic objectivity. "I've been head of New Zealand Skeptics for 15 years," says Vicki Hyde. "This requires an analytical brain and a vast knowledge of the weird and wonderful. There's a reason why I tend to be a bit cautious about fad claims in wind and elsewhere."

Knight, reporting from Germany, has an educational background in mathematics, physics and chemistry, and works for several energy publications. She knows as much about coal as she does about wind energy. She feels that scientific objectivity is needed to report on energy and wants to remain neutral, but admits to anti-nuclear views.

In India, Mathews is not neutral, admitting that wind is an "emotional subject" for her. And halfway around the world, 30-year-old US editor Broehl grew up in a world where climate change was unquestioned and non-negotiable. He reports about wind energy because he believes in it.

Broehl is impatient about the poor public profile of the patch. Wind has done "a superbly poor job of marketing itself to the average consumer," he complains. "Because it conducts business among a very small club of vendors, the industry has done very little to reach out to consumers and the broader public."

Janice Massy agrees. "Sometimes I almost despair of the ignorance and misunderstanding of friends and acquaintances who probably glean their misinformation from some of our more reactionary tabloids." Windpower Monthly does its best to counter that ignorance, says editor Lyn Harrison. "While it's true that to read the magazine cover to cover and stay fascinated by every story takes somebody deeply involved in wind energy, we spend a lot of time and effort making sure every article is well written and easily accessible to anyone - newcomers as well as old timers, wind people or not."

Some reporters feel that the wind power community is too insular. The wind associations could prioritise consumer education, but it will always be subordinate to political lobbying. Broehl says: "The industry needs to explain that wind power is the most cost- effective renewable energy technology with the most potential for adding clean electrons."

Broehl lives in sunny Los Angeles. "Solar is on everyone's mind. It has grassroots support because you can put it on your roof," he says. He is not knocking solar power, but thinks there is a serious disconnection between the efficiency of wind energy and its perception by the average energy consumer. "Ninety-nine per cent of people think solar is the biggest renewable energy even though it adds a fraction of the power that wind does. This results in poor policy adoption and public rhetoric that suggests solar roof panels are the answer to clean power."

 

Has it really changed so much?

Many of the early pioneers have now become successful businessmen. An inevitable corporate secrecy has tended to evolve as companies became answerable to shareholders and powerful customers, but Harrison says that wind power remains a good field to work in. "I think we all feel we're doing something worthwhile. As a result, a positive attitude generally prevails. Working in this sector is simply an upbeat experience - with the odd exception that proves the rule, of course."

Massy still sees the "can-do" attitude from the early days. "There were idealists from the environmental movement together with subsidiaries of engineering companies, all infected with enthusiasm for the new technology," she says. The same attitude is being applied, this time to offshore wind and all its challenges. It captures the excitement that I saw in the onshore sector over a decade ago."

Knight, reporting for nearly 20 years from Germany, continues to be fascinated by the subject. "What I find great is the broad cross section of issues: politics, legislation, technology, energy trading, networks, mergers and acquisitions, long and short-term developments, the crossover areas with other energies," she says.

A global magazine from the start, Windpower Monthly continues to report in English. While most of the reporters are English speakers, many do not live in their native countries. Like Harrison, several of the foreign correspondents are British, living outside the UK. Scottish Ros Davidson, the pioneer US editor, lived for 25 years in San Francisco. English Dodd, Knight, and McGovern all live in the country on which they report, covering France, Germany, and Spain. American, O'Brian, who went to graduate school in Italy, settled there in 1993. She also reports on broader business issues for Windpower Monthly, as well as the Italian scene.

 

Learning the patch

Aside from gaining linguistic competence, the correspondents are all steeped in their host country's cultural habits, a significant benefit when negotiating a way into their respective wind energy industries. Have they experienced any absurd or embarrassing moments? Only former US editor Davidson will recount one story, which shows both her grasp of etiquette, and the magazine's determination to report the truth.

"I had been writing about Kenetech," Davidson says of her reports in the early 1990s of cracked blades and damaged generators - defects that forced frequent shutdowns of the machines. "Apparently, what I was writing was damaging their reputation, and the corporation claimed Windpower Monthly was costing them business." This is corroborated by the New York Times, which says that Davidson's articles marked the beginning of the company's demise. Kenetech called Harrison and Davidson to their San Francisco office.

 

A dressing down

While the magazine is proud of its fully researched, verifiable reporting, the company didn't see it that way. "Kenetech's attitude quickly became apparent in the most symbolic of ways," recalls Davidson. "I expected to meet men in suits, but everybody was dressed in polo shirts and khaki trousers. They said it was casual Friday and they hoped their attire didn't offend."

"Offended? I was outraged," says Davidson. "Their behaviour was clearly intended to insult." Harrison, who worked in the more casual sartorial world of Europe, saw nothing. But, with her knowledge of American corporation business meetings, Davidson understood that they were to be severely reprimanded.

And she was right - the duo had indeed been called in to be scolded. While Davidson remained silent, Harrison politely confirmed the magazine's determination to report what is verifiable. They left without promising to cease and desist.

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