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The truth behind the polls that show support for windfarms

As Benjamin Disraeli said, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’

RenewableUK, the voice of the wind and solar power industry, and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are keen to demonstrate that there is overwhelming public support for the development of onshore and offshore windfarms, despite increasingly vocal protests from host communities and from environmentalists concerned for the damage caused to peat lands, birds and other wildlife.

So how can Renewable UK justify announcements like this, from a press release in May: ‘Support for building onshore wind farms remains overwhelmingly high at 70 per cent – with levels of support exactly the same among people who live within five miles of a windfarm as those living elsewhere’? 

The answer is in the use of statistics and framing the questions to give the pollsters the answers they want, or by asking the opinions of  only a select group of the public. It seems very likely that Renewable UK and BEIS seek to obscure the views of those forced to accept industrial wind turbines as their near neighbours.

There are roughly 10,961 onshore wind turbines in the UK with 8,366 or 76 per cent of them in Scotland. An additional further 1,722 turbines are going through the planning process in Scotland. Many are up to 260m tall (about 850ft), a height previously considered suitable only for offshore locations.

Since 2013, when most turbines were under 150m (about 500ft), the Scottish Government has recognised that there are adverse environmental impacts of windfarms on communities, and recommends a minimum separation distance of 2km (about a mile and a quarter). If the adverse impacts of wind turbines are recognised to affect rural host communities rather than urban communities, it would seem sensible to weight the respondents in a poll of opinions regarding onshore windfarms in favour of rural residents. And if three-quarters of turbines in the UK are in Scotland, wouldn’t it be it logical that three-quarters of respondents to a poll on wind turbines should be from Scotland?

The latest RenewableUK poll conducted by YouGov claimed to show ‘overwhelming support’ of 70 per cent for onshore windfarms, but the questions did not define either how many turbines comprise a windfarm or how high the turbines would be. There would obviously be a big difference in the acceptability of a 20m turbine and a 260m turbine at the bottom of your garden. Of the 1,700 respondents to the poll, only 7 per cent (119) were from Scotland. That is 0.002 per cent of the Scottish population. Of those 119, only 38 (32 per cent) replied that they lived within five miles of a windfarm. That is 0.0007 per cent of the Scottish population. Choosing so few respondents from the UK area with the most onshore turbines in a poll seeking to determine public opinion on the issue makes the results inherently unreliable.

In contrast, there were 192 respondents from London. Why ask Londoners their opinion of living within five miles of an onshore turbine when there are none anywhere near? They can have no idea of the adverse impacts of noise, disruption to water supplies, overwhelming visual intrusion and impacts on property prices caused by living near a large windfarm.

Even the paltry 38 Scottish rural respondents were not within 2 km, but 8 km (5 miles) of a windfarm. This distance is likely to include rural residents who receive ‘community benefit’ from the windfarm developer, but are too far away to suffer any direct adverse impact. The survey should have focused on rural residents within 2 to 3 km of a windfarm.

RenewableUK has interpreted results from a statistically skewed section of the UK public to show that there is ‘overwhelming’ support for onshore windfarms. As the mouthpiece of the renewable industry, it might be expected that any poll would be biased in favour of commercial concerns. It is more worrying that results from this and similarly unreliable and biased polls are widely quoted by mainstream media such as the BBC and used by the Government to inform and underpin policy, justifying the push for further expansion of windfarms in the name of reducing carbon emissions, regardless of impacts on hapless rural residents and environmental damage. 

The most recent BEIS poll of public attitudes in March 2021 is equally flawed. Of the 267 respondents from Scotland (6.6 per cent of the sample) only 47 were rural respondents who are most likely to know what it is like to live next to a windfarm of industrial proportions. The results suggested that 83 per cent of the Scottish populace are in support of renewables providing our electricity, but even the BEIS had the grace to acknowledge that the numbers were too small to be statistically significant. (Personal communication with Scotland Against Spin).

It’s high time that we had a proper survey of public opinion in Scotland, where three-quarters of all UK on shore turbines are located and where planning permission is granted by Scottish Ministers against the will of local people for some of the tallest onshore turbines in the world. It’s time that the people of rural Scotland are not just regarded as collateral damage by both the Scottish and UK Governments.