Niall McMahon

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A Live TV Debate About Wind Energy


I was invited to contribute to a live television debate about wind developments in Ireland's midlands.

(RTÉ's Prime Time, September 23rd, 2013.)

It was an interesting experience! My position, which I've gone on about a bit, is that the public debate has become unnecessarily polarised. To put it in formal-speak, this underlines the importance of proactive community engagement and the provision of good information about wind energy systems.

I got to meet mostly very nice people from all walks of life on Monday night, which was great. Almost all agree that wind energy, in principle, is a good thing. Most of the people in the audience, however, had some concerns. These ranged from worries about well-being (in particular from noise, electromagnetic radiation and other things) to the destruction of landscape and fears that wind energy doesn't actually work. As I wrote before, it's good to have the debate.

What impressed me was that almost all the people I met were very happy to talk and to attempt to figure out where the worries come from. Most were happy to get good information from a (relatively) impartial source, i.e. me. I've a friend who once said to me that, you know, all disagreements come down to something concrete, usually, and discussion is the mechanism we use to find this nub. It's important to find it. It's a bit like the princess and the pea - you've got to find the pea *.

It was pretty impossible to do this on live television in twenty minutes or so with multi-lateral dicussions!

While I have misgivings about the quality of the debate that took place on Monday, the programme was certainly useful. It showed how polarised the public discussions have become. We need to reclaim the sensible middle ground - wind energy is a useful technology, not an ideology. The discussions I listened in on and took part in before and after the show were encouraging.

There's a way to go but I'm looking forward to continuing the discussion.

* We've got to separate out the things that we know, that we really know, from the things that are debatable. We know about wind turbines, how they work (well, when done right), their power output at a particular site (as expected, when done right), about noise levels (low, when done right) and about the effect on well-being (non-existent it seems, aside from an apparent nocebo effect and the stress of worry). These things are objective, as in there are independent experts that have done a considerable amount of work to put together answers and to make recommendations about the best way to do things. Communicating these answers to the public and ensuring that guidelines and regulations reflect our best understanding is the important thing.

Other less tangible things include the machines' aesthetics and the effect of wind turbines on how the local landscape looks. Again, much work has been done to understand what makes a development less injurious to the eye, if you don't especially like wind turbines. For example, small clusters of machines usually look a little nicer than a long line. There are some very sensible guidelines.

Local communities should have a voice and it is important that at a local level the right things are debated. It's important that guidelines and regulations reflect the best knowledge available; it's important that communities are properly informed with good information and that unnecessary worry is avoided; it's important that developers listen and talk; it's important that informed planning committees ensure a high level of compliance with best practice.

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