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'Windmills cause cancer' jibe backfires on Trump

IN DEPTH | Bizarre claim boosted support for the wind sector and raised questions over the president’s judgement, write Leigh Collins and Richard Kessler

During a spectacularly bizarre and untruthful rant about wind power at a Republican party congressional dinner last month, the leader of the free world stated that noise from “windmills” causes cancer.

Donald Trump’s assertion was so obviously false — and so far-fetched — that it made headlines across the US and the world, and not in a good way for the American president.

Several media outlets drew comparisons with the delusional Don Quixote who famously “tilted at windmills” (attacked them with his lance, believing them to be giants), with The Washington Post publishing an article headlined: “In which our knight-errant slays the carcinogenic windmill”.

Others were more to the point. Vanity Fair carried an article entitled: “Certified moron Donald Trump thinks wind turbines ‘cause cancer’,” while men’s magazine Esquire ran a story called: “Donald Trump’s windmill cancer speech was another horrifying look into his broken brain”, in which mental health professionals declared that the president might be suffering from the early stages of dementia and/or narcissism and/or antisocial personality disorder.

And notably, Trump’s usual media cheerleaders such as Fox News and Breitbart largely kept silent on the matter — probably because even they could not defend the indefensible.

"I have church bells ringing across from my office here in Washington DC and I know that doesn’t give me cancer."

To date, not a single Republican has come out to support Trump’s assertion that wind causes cancer — although several have attacked him over it.

The two Republican senators for Iowa, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, who have generally been supportive of the president, called his claims “idiotic” and “ridiculous”, respectively.

“I would say it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous,” Ernst told local media. “I have church bells that ring all the time across from my office here in [Washington] DC and I know that noise doesn’t give me cancer, otherwise I’d have ‘church bell cancer’.”

If Trump’s plan — presuming he had one — was to turn Republicans against wind power, it backfired.

The morning after President Trump’s cancer remark, a bipartisan group of 19 senators, including Senator Grassley, called for “robust” funding of federal wind-power programmes, referring to the sector as an “American success story”. In a letter to the Senate appropriations panel, the senators pointed out that more than 100,000 Americans were employed by the wind industry and that funding was required “to ensure America remains a leader in wind energy technology”.

A day later, in Iowa, where wind supplies more than a third of the state’s electricity, Republican governor Kim Reynolds lauded the wind sector and announced a new initiative, entitled Power Up Iowa, a coalition of state and community leaders pushing for more federal government backing of the wind industry.

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Iowa is a swing state that backed Trump in the 2016 presidential election, where wind power is popular — it is a major employer, provides significant lease payments to landowners and has reduced electricity prices. Campaigning against wind will alienate swing voters in Iowa and elsewhere and do nothing to shore up his already-in-the-bag base. Independent voters — those that decide national elections — largely believe in climate change and support renewables.

It is also worth pointing out that the US wind industry is largely based in the 30 states that Trump won in 2016. Between 70,000 and 85,000 of the 114,000 workers in the wind industry are employed in those states.

On top of that, 78% of all Republicans in Congress represent a district with either an operating wind project or manufacturing facility, and these districts host 83% of the nation’s wind fleet. And nationally, 79% of Republicans support increased reliance on wind power, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey.

The five key swing states that Trump narrowly won in 2016, which ultimately decided the election in his favour — Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are all pro-renewables. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Ohio has 60 wind factories, Michigan 26, Wisconsin 28 and Pennsylvania 29.

Potentially placing thousands of jobs at risk, as well as future income for rural landowners — for no apparent reason other than to vent his own personal pet peeve (see panel below) — will not benefit Trump or Republicans anywhere, and may damage the president’s re-election prospects.

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At the same time, his anti-wind rhetoric has boosted the wind industry’s profile nationwide. In the aftermath of Trump’s speech, wind power was discussed on most news networks (except Fox), in much of the country’s online and print media and even on the late-night TV talk shows — and advocates did a great job of publicly refuting Trump and making the economic and environmental case for wind.

It could now be argued that anyone who, in future, chooses to publicly disparage wind power would be seen to be as foolish and disingenuous as Trump.

Killing birds and your TV

The cancer remark was not the only bizarre, false comment Trump made about wind power in his unscripted congressional dinner speech.

“If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations: Your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, OK? Rrrrr, rrrrr... you know the thing that makes the... it’s so noisy. And of course it’s like a graveyard for birds. If you love birds, you’d never want to walk under a windmill because it’s a very sad, sad sight. It’s like a cemetery. We put a little, we put a little statue for the poor birds. It’s true.”

Of course, this is all made-up nonsense.

The number of bird deaths from wind turbines is nowhere near those caused by buildings, cats and power lines, while evidence points to wind farms having no impact on property prices. An analysis of more than 50,000 home sales carried out by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2013 found “no statistical evidence that home prices near wind turbines were affected in either the post-construction or post-announcement/preconstruction periods. Therefore, if effects do exist, either the average impacts are relatively small (within the margin of error in the models) and/or sporadic (impacting only a small subset of homes)”.

After discussing the “poor birds”, Trump’s mind wandered to a brag about talks with North Korea, but then returned to his anti-wind rant, repeating a tall tale he had previously told about a woman in Texas who can’t watch TV because the wind isn’t blowing.

“The woman, she wants to watch television. And she says to her husband, ‘Is the wind blowing? I’d love to watch a show tonight, darling. The wind hasn’t blown for three days. I can’t watch television, darling. Darling, please tell the wind to blow.’ No, wind’s not so good.”

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This claptrap prompted The New York Times to point out the obvious: “Last year, wind power accounted for nearly one-fifth of the electricity generated in the Texas grid, and people were still able to watch TV there.”

Trump then added a further fact-free falsehood: “And you know, you have no idea how expensive it is to make those things. They’re all made in China and Germany, by the way, just in case you’re... we don’t make ’em here, essentially. We don’t make ’em here.”

Wind power is now the cheapest form of new energy in the US, together with utility-scale PV, and according to AWEA, 86% of the wind-power capacity installed in the US last year was made by turbine manufacturers with at least one American factory.

“In 2018, major manufacturing facilities [in the US] had the capability to produce approximately 15,000MW of turbine nacelles, 11,400 individual blades and around 3,650 towers annually,” wrote AWEA in its recently published US Wind Industry Annual Market Report.

Why Trump’s comments were so disingenuous

Some commentators argued that Trump doesn’t actually believe his comments were true — that he merely said it for perceived political gain.

“It is no exaggeration to say that whether or not something is true — that is, whether it reflects what we have deduced about the world around us based on observation and the scientific method — plays no discernible role in his decision over whether to say it,” wrote Jack Holmes in the Esquire article.

“All that matters is, Does this help me get what I want? Truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe.”

Michelle Starr, senior writer at respected science news website ScienceAlert, wrote: “The best case scenario for President Trump’s claim is that he genuinely believes what he is saying, showing he is ignorant of decades of research. That’s not great, for a president. But in the worst case scenario, he is pushing a dangerous, world-destroying lie for political gain.”

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But perhaps the most underhand element of Trump’s anti-wind rhetoric is that his administration is actually supportive of the wind industry. It has not legislated against onshore wind farms, as many feared it would, and it is working to massively expand the US offshore wind sector.

The US government sees offshore wind as a critical element in the country’s push for energy self-sufficiency. Former interior secretary Ryan Zinke even referred to offshore wind as “our God-given resources off the coast”.

Another hypocritical aspect to Trump’s remarks is that he is still a massive supporter of dirty and expensive coal-fired power, despite the wealth of evidence showing that particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants can cause serious health problems such as lung cancer and heart disease.

As one wind industry consultant told Recharge succinctly: “He’s got it wrong. Burning coal causes cancer.”

And then there’s the argument that he seems to care more about turbine-related bird deaths than his own citizens dying because they cannot afford healthcare or the cost of medicines.

Industry reaction and long-term impact

At a wind O&M conference in Dallas last month, the consensus among industry executives was that the cancer remark and other false comments about wind power will not have negative repercussions for the wind sector.

“Nobody believes wind turbines cause cancer. People are used to his ravings. [There will be] no impact for the wind industry,” said Rafael McDonald, director, North American renewable power, at consultancy IHS Markit.

“What he said won’t affect the general direction of the US wind industry,” added Bruce Hamilton, director, energy, at Navigant Consulting.

Others were slightly more concerned.

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“His comments were unfounded. They will not have substantial impacts on the wind industry, but will be another obstacle for project developers to overcome,” Dan Shreve, partner at Wood Mackenzie, told Recharge.

“He’s spreading propaganda... some people will believe this as they won’t check facts,” added Darnell Walker, chief executive of Siemens Gamesa’s Services Americas unit.

Trump being Trump, he will probably continue to spout his anti-wind blather at unscripted rallies and on Twitter until next year’s presidential election, reinforcing his lack of judgement in the minds of independent voters in key swing states.

Ultimately, with a lack of Republican support for his anti-wind stance, and the main federal pro-wind programmes — the production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (for offshore wind) — soon expiring, there seems to be little, if anything, that could Trump could do to impede the wind industry. And the momentum behind the industry, even with the expiring PTC, seems unstoppable. Low-cost clean energy will, ahem, trump high-cost dirty energy every time.

Like Don Quixote, Don Trump can tilt at windmills all he likes, but he is never going to defeat them. 

Why does Trump hate wind power?

Commentators and wind-power executives believe that President Trump’s hatred of wind turbines stems from his ultimately unsuccessful and costly attempts to prevent an “ugly” offshore wind farm being built near his Trump International Golf Links course in northeast Scotland.

As one senior wind supply executive told Recharge: “He lost in Scotland. Now he is acting like a little boy.”

From 2010, when the 11-turbine European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC) in Aberdeen Bay was given the go-ahead by the Crown Estate, Trump campaigned aggressively against it.

In typical Trump style, he lambasted the then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond as “Mad Alex” and said Scotland would become a “third world wasteland” due to the “monsters” (ie, wind turbines) being installed in and off Scotland.

He then went on to tell a Scottish parliamentary committee that wind farms would “destroy” Scottish tourism, and when asked for supporting evidence, replied: “I am the evidence, I am considered a world-class expert in tourism.”

After multiple legal appeals in the Scottish courts, which delayed the project for several years, the UK Supreme Court finally ruled against Trump in December 2015.

In response to the ruling, the Trump Organisation released a statement that said: “History will judge those involved unfavourably and the outcome demonstrates the foolish, small-minded and parochial mentality which dominates the current Scottish government’s dangerous experiment with wind energy.”

In March this year, Scotland’s supreme civil court, the Court of Session, ruled that Trump International Golf Links must pay the Scottish government’s legal costs for three years’ worth of appeals.

The sum it had to pay was not disclosed.

Vattenfall’s 93.2MW EOWDC wind farm finally generated its first power in July last year, with project director Adam Ezzamel telling Recharge: “For us, the real irony is that Trump’s legal challenge may have delayed switch-on of the EOWDC by a couple of years, but that enabled us to increase the energy production by using technology, including larger turbines, that wasn’t available to us back then.”

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