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In the misinformation wars, renewable energy is the latest to be attacked

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's another battle in the misinformation wars - renewable energy. False and misleading information about wind and solar is fueling opposition to projects across rural America. Julia Simon reports.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Jeremy Kitson's a high school science teacher in Van Wert County, Ohio - lots of farmland, soy, corn, some wheat and, about 10 miles away, wind turbines. Kitson knows folks on farms near those turbines who told him...

JEREMY KITSON: You do not want to live under these things. They're noisy. We can't sleep. There's sleep deprivation.

SIMON: So around Christmas 2015, when Kitson heard Apex Clean Energy was planning to expand a project about a mile from his home...

KITSON: I was just like, there's got to be a way to beat them. You got to outsmart them. You got to figure out the science. You got to figure out the economic arguments. You got to figure out what they're going to say and figure out how to counter it.

SIMON: Kitson ran a Facebook group, which has grown to more than 770 followers. On the page, there are dozens of posts with false, partly false and misleading information about renewable energy. Eventually, because of new state regulations that made it more difficult to locate turbines, which Kitson's group supported, Apex bowed out of the project. Last fall, a group of researchers published a paper looking at the Facebook posts of Kitson's group and another large anti-wind group in Ohio that successfully stopped wind development. Lead author Josh Fergen of the University of Minnesota Duluth says much of the misinformation focused on health and safety.

JOSH FERGEN: Commonly exploding turbines - right? - turbines falling down, crashing on roads.

SIMON: He says these incidents happen, but they're rare.

FERGEN: They usually occur once. But what these Facebook groups do is they'll click that picture of the spinning, burning turbine and repost it so it looks like it's constantly and perpetually happened that these things are exploding in the sky.

SIMON: Kitson says he knows these incidents don't happen a lot, but...

KITSON: I do that just to try to show people what's possible. That'll pique people's interest.

SIMON: These posts are spreading through a network of anti-wind and anti-solar groups across the country. Some of the misinformation comes from groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And in recent years, the false claims got a major megaphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And they say the noise causes cancer. You told me that one, OK? (Imitating whirring noise).

SIMON: Former President Donald Trump ranted frequently about wind power at his rallies. While some peer-reviewed studies do find links between wind noise and sleep disturbance, there are no known ties to cancer. Trump also raised other anti-wind talking points.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value.

SIMON: Whether it's physics, health or economics, Sarah Mills at University of Michigan says false and misleading information can now get mixed up in the decision-making about where to locate renewable energy or whether to have the projects at all. In about half of states, she says, regulations of rural utility scale solar and wind happen on the local level.

SARAH MILLS: These local officials are not necessarily experts in energy. And so when you have people coming and stating things as facts, like, it's difficult. Like, they're certainly making decisions based on what they're hearing.

SIMON: Last year, a Department of Energy study found that setback regulations now represent the single-greatest barrier for locating wind projects in the U.S. They limit how close wind turbines can be to buildings, and Mills says that makes sense to reduce noise and moving shadows. But misinformation can fuel restrictions that are more stringent than needed, she says, and sometimes act as outright bans on renewable energy. In October, a law went into effect in Ohio giving counties the ability to make exclusion zones with no wind and solar projects. Kitson, the science teacher, testified in support of them with the argument that turbines negatively affect property values. He referenced a study by Ben Hoen at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But Hoen says Kitson got his statistics wrong.

BEN HOEN: We have not found evidence of property value impacts despite studying it over multiple periods of time.

SIMON: Kitson's exhibit A also featured pictures with turbines towering over homes. But Hoen says they were taken using a long focal length lens, a technique that magnifies distant objects. Dahvi Wilson, with Apex Clean Energy, says across the U.S., her company is finding that in a climate of misinformation, community engagement is increasingly difficult.

DAHVI WILSON: I think for a long time and maybe still in some places, developers thought, well, we just need to give better information. We just need to give more information. And it's like, it's so not about that at all. It's about who you trust and if anybody's going to believe you if you're a company.

SIMON: Sixty percent of U.S. electricity still comes from fossil fuels. Climate scientists say there's an urgent need to shift towards clean energy a lot faster than is happening now. Michigan researcher Mills says policymakers need to be paying close attention to these rural conflicts over wind and solar farms and the role of misinformation.

MILLS: At the end of the day, like, if local governments are not setting rules that allow for the infrastructure to be sited, those policies cannot be achieved.

SIMON: Meanwhile, this year, two more states, Washington and Kansas, have proposed bills that would limit rural wind and solar. For NPR News, I'm Julia Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY BONES THE PRODUCER'S "CLASSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia Simon