United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Media Mutiny

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Storms have been raging in the local and national British press over wind energy developments, creating turbulence quite beyond the scale of the issues being addressed and often using arguments without balance of factual accuracy.

The merits of wind energy have not diminished; it is still clean and abundant and its costs are rapidly decreasing. So how has wind energy become fair game for media abuse, instead of praise, in the space of six months or so? It is wrong to explain away the situation (as some do) by saying the media is simply riding an environmental backlash; or that it is the work of manipulative publicity consultants gearing up for the government's nuclear review; or even that it is the fault of a few contentious developments which if dropped would remove all the problems. These do not give the complete answer.

A fuller explanation lies in the fact that the wind community is only now beginning to respond to the challenge facing it through the pages of the press. The challenge is monumental since, if avoided, it will sabotage development in the UK. Do not doubt it. "Respond" is not the right word, since the real task lies in taking the initiative to set down clearly, openly and consistently the merits of wind energy and the benefits it can bring to the UK. With successful projects up and running, the industry is now in a position to achieve this task.

There is always a danger of complacency by assuming that the arguments over the merits of wind energy have already been won and that the media is therefore acting in some perverse and conspiratorial way. Certainly there has been misrepresentation of facts, figures and attitudes in the media. One figure quoted in the national press on the electricity contribution from wind energy was in error by a factor of 10,000; and one map in a national newspaper (ostensibly drawn to scale) showed a 24 turbine wind farm extending over about 20 square kilometres instead of less than one. But the media's primary interest is the "news angle," which is mostly interpreted as coverage of opposition "action groups." The problem arises because by focusing on a minority which is positioning itself against any form of change in the landscape, the media are ignoring the consistent finding of public attitude surveys which reveal a high level of support (70-85%) among those who already have experience of wind plants operating in their area. But where the media treads, public attitudes will follow.

Putting the record straight

Though some action groups spring from genuine concern and uncertainty over proposals, other groups are formed specifically to oppose wind energy in whatever form and often use exaggerated scare tactics as a weapon. Their two key arrows are the price of wind energy and its appearance. Firstly, the high price paid for wind power in Britain -- 11 pence per unit -- is a historical red herring based purely on the very short capital repayment schedules enforced as a result of the structure of the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation. After 1988, when the capital has been paid off, these same wind energy projects will continue to provide some of the cheapest electricity in the country for a further 10-15 years since the fuel is free and the maintenance costs are very low. Secondly, the view that wind energy projects are an intrusion is not shared by all. In Cornwall, just over a quarter of the population living around the first wind farm considered it to be intrusive -- the vast majority thought otherwise.

A third weapon all too frequently wielded is the erroneous claim that wind energy is no use because it can't be relied upon. But studies by electric utilities have all reached similar conclusions: if wind energy were to meet 15% of their needs, savings of fossil fuel, greenhouse gases, ash and other by-products of conventional generation would be substantial -- and construction of conventional plan could be deferred. These are not the ravings of wind eccentrics, but the results of considered studies by experts in electricity management.

Media interest in wind energy is not likely to disappear -- wind energy is here to stay and is an exciting industry with substantial potential for providing pollution-free electricity. It is now up to the wind community to help journalists understand this fact, so they can present a balanced view. Wind energy development has only just begun in the UK -- making this the time when change is most keenly felt and when those resisting it will fight hardest. It is also the time when those who do support the sensitive development of wind energy need to make their views counted.

Mike Harper is Executive Director of the British Wind Energy Association.

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