THE ‘UGLINESS’ OF RENEWABLES. A REAL DEAL OR JUST FUGAZZI?

Picture this. You’re revisiting your favourite hill station since childhood. But it isn’t the same anymore. The concrete rooves of the cottages and cabins are covered with a blanket of black photovoltaic glass to soak up the sun. The view of the horizon from your window is interspersed with a trail of tall white towers with rotating thin blades.

Do you find yourself pleased with such developments? Or do you cringe in your head?

As some of the world’s biggest economies progress towards cleaner energies, there is a growing opposition towards renewables. Interestingly, such aversion stems from the psychological phenomenon of NIMBY (not in my backyard). More and more residents are objecting to renewable energy installation projects in their vicinity. Yet, they are showing no such opposition if they’re built farther away.

Recent records show that solar and wind energy are bearing most of the brunt of NIMBY-ism globally. A staggering 45 per cent of the clean energy projects in recent years were shelved or delayed due to local opposition. In general, the reasons for disapproval towards solar and wind farms are related to aesthetics, environment or health concerns.

With solar panels, they are often perceived as ‘trashy’, with the potential to drive down property prices due to their ugliness. Instances of birds dying from collisions and immolation on solar farms have also been rife. Wind farms supposedly ruin scenic landscapes and are feared to cause health problems and adversities for humans and livestock. Proponents of the “wind-turbine syndrome” believe proximity to a wind turbine may lead to cancers, congenital abnormality or even death (yes, you heard that right). Also, windmills are criticised for disrupting the channels of migratory birds and even killing them.

A survey report published by the NSW government on community attitudes to renewable energy brings to light contrasting outlooks on cleaner energies. An astounding 61 per cent of respondents expressed concerns over noise, cost efficiency and the visual impact of wind and solar farms. This percentage also increased as the proximity to clean energy farms increased.

The conversation around renewables is a rather contentious one but also one lacking evidence. We have no proof to establish strong hypothesis that relates observed health adversities to proximity of wind farms. Having said that, we should also not dismiss the phenomenon behind the opposition. NIMBY-ists are all about preserving the beauty, safety and integrity of communities.

It is worth noting that new technologies have always been a cause of social anxiety for several decades. 19th century American neurologist Miller Beard argued that inventions of modern civilisation are key culprits of a range of symptoms of nervousness in the general public. A classic example is the newly popular cell phone in 1879 which was said to be the cause of dizziness, nervous excitability and neuralgic pains. We’ve since had a host of evidence-free public anxieties about televisions, electric blankets, microwaves, computers, Wi-Fi routers, and now apparently solar panels and windmills.

What might explain the reports of several health issues ascribing to presence of renewables is the nocebo effect, the evil twin of the healing placebo effect. People exposed to frightening information about certain exposures tend to experience a detrimental effect on their health due to psychosomatic factors.

Studies have shown that support for development projects increases as community participation increases. Therefore, the need of the hour is to establish better communication channels between project developers and host communities. This can be done through the creation of benefit sharing groups. Through improved interaction among major stakeholders, specific locations that pose too many risks can be ruled out and the benefit can be maximised.

Renewable energy is our best bet to combat climate change. They form the backbone of not only mitigation and adaptation efforts but also national commitments submitted by countries under the Paris Agreement. Although it may have a flip side,we still need to navigate our way through and reach all-encompassing solutions.