"The conventional energy sector is running scared"
An interview with Paul Gipe
Over the past month, US wind energy expert and feed-in tariff proponent Paul Gipe has been widely cited in international reports critical of support for renewables and wind power in particular. Renewables International spoke with him about why he does not feel his views have been properly represented.
Renewables International: Mr Gipe, you have already responded on your website to a report in the Daily Mail, which quotes you. You make it clear that, while the quotes are genuine, they took you out of context. Aside from the eloquent argument you make in your response about disused industrial plants in general being a uniquely American problem, not a problem pertaining to renewables, what exactly would the larger context of your work clarify?
[See Gipe's response to the Daily Mail here .]
I’ve been an advocate of the responsible development of renewable energy for more than three decades. The key word here is “responsible”. Renewables are held to a higher standard than fossil fuels and nuclear power and that’s as it should be.
We offer the world something better than what has gone before us. The public knows that and they expect us to deliver. What that means in practice is that the industry and all its participants must always imagine how their actions are seen by the public at large. We should never accept excuses, such as, “everyone else does it”, or “we are not required by law” or “we did what the law required” when the industry’s actions are indefensible.
I’ve railed against “abandoned,” or what I believe is a more accurate term “derelict” wind turbines, in California for two decades because they are a violation of this principle.
As a veteran of the wind turbine wars, I know that our enemies depict renewables, wind turbines in particular, as a technology that simply does not work. Think about it. Solar panels just sit there. No smoke comes out the stack. No wheels turn. No one can tell driving by if they’re working or not. Of course with a wind turbine it’s much easier to tell if it’s working or not. When it’s not spinning it clearly can’t be working. And the wind doesn’t always blow, so sometimes when you drive by, the wind turbines simply won’t be turning. Our enemies play on that and exploit the public’s general ignorance of how electricity is produced and distributed.
Derelict or idle turbines confirm the charges made by our critics and by those who are generally suspicious of change. Wind turbines that just sit there, day after day, year after year, feed their fears.
Public opinion surveys in California reveal that the public is willing to accept the intrusion of wind turbines on the landscape if the wind turbines do what they are supposed to do—produce clean electricity. Wind turbines can only do that when they are spinning. These surveys also show that the public expects wind turbines to turn and when they don’t this expectation is violated. The public then becomes disenchanted and begin to believe the critic’s charge that “wind doesn’t work”.
We concluded early on that to meet the public’s expectation of wind energy’s role in the landscape, the turbines must work or be promptly removed. In the late 1980s there were as many as 3,000 of the 14,000 wind turbines installed in California that were in various states of disrepair. For the most part, there were no laws or regulations that specifically required the operators to remove these turbines. They became eyesores. These junk turbines as I called them joined the burned out hulks of abandoned automobiles, the discarded sofas, trash and urban detritus that littered the peri-urban fringe where most of these turbines were located. My 1995 book discusses this characteristically American phenomena extensively.
Fortunately, over the years nearly all those turbines have been removed and of the 11,000 wind turbines in California today only some 500 remain derelict. That’s still 500 too many, but it certainly isn’t 3,000 or 14,000.
I received a flurry of media requests a few weeks ago within a few days of each other. That’s unusual. I get a lot of media requests, but not three in a few days from major media outlets. That should have tipped me off, but I’ve got work to do I can’t be living in paranoia about what the far right is up to. I am not going to spend my days searching the internet to see how my name is being used.
It’s not uncommon for critics of renewables to contact me by mistake. They see my work and figure, “hey, this guy hates renewables as much as I do and I bet he has more dirt.” But when the reporters all started using the exact same number—14,000—I knew something was up. That’s the number of wind turbines we had in California at one time. I knew something was fishy when they began by saying 14,000 “abandoned” wind turbines. That is simply a fabrication and pure propaganda.
I try to explain what the real number is now, what it was then, and put it in context. Of course, some of these outlets have an agenda and don’t really want to know the context. I’ll work with them once, but if they don’t get it right, then that’s it for me. I never respond to requests from Forbes magazine for example after a similar experience in the 1990s.
Renewables International: The person who seems to have gotten the ball rolling on his blog claims that you recommended to AWEA back in 1993 that we "hide derelict turbines," but the quote that he provides of your own words does not support that reading at all. Did you ever recommend such a thing?
Hide them? That’s a good one. I hadn’t heard that. These fanatics will say anything to justify their world view. What you’ll find in dealing with them is that they live in a different reality than the rest of us. It’s scary.
As a wind advocate, the executive director of the Kern Wind Energy Association and a member of AWEA’s board of directors for two terms I constantly urged the industry to take action and remove derelict turbines, increase workplace safety, and address the bird problem in the Altamont Pass. Eventually I split with the industry over these issues.
At one AWEA board meeting held here in Bakersfield, the chair threatened to call in security and have me and a representative of the local Sierra Club—an environmental group--forcibly removed. So no, I don’t think I ever said “hide them”.
Renewables International: Overall, one gets the impression that ancient statements (some of them even from the 1980s) are being used against wind power, an industry that looks completely different decades later. Do you think there is some shift going on in perceptions in the US right now – or perhaps even internationally, given the international limelight thrust upon you?
The fossil-fuel and nuclear industries see what has happened in Denmark and Germany, especially Germany, and they’re running scared. They have to stop renewables now, once and for all, or their earnings are threatened. It appears to me that they’re pulling out all the stops in Great Britain, Canada, and the US to put renewables down to maintain market share for as long as they can. They’ve allied themselves with the easily susceptible far right and jointly have launched a broad campaign to roll back the gains we’ve made.
I am an advocate of renewable energy, but in that role I can be a critic. My work illustrates what not to do as much as it describes what to do—what we do wrong, as well as what we do right.
But we can’t pick and choose how our work will be used by our allies or our enemies. I’ve never been an apologist for the industry. My career has been built on frank--sometimes unflattering--assessments of where we are and where we need to go. I don’t have any plans to change that.