January 21, 2011 | Climate Change, Sustainability + Energy

As the mother of one young child and another on the way, I’ve been following the debate about childhood vaccination and autism quite closely. Earlier this month we learned that the work of Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher who posited a link between autism and childhood vaccination, was fraudulent. Case closed, right? Not quite.  In the face of definitive data, the anti-vaccination community has remained committed to its position.

The power of misperception

This example is quite similar to the growing opposition to wind power that has knocked the wind industry back on its heels. Consider the time and resources sunk into combating the myth of “wind turbine syndrome.” In 2009, an expert panel of doctors, audiologists and acoustical professionals undertook extensive review, analysis and discussion of peer-reviewed literature on the subject and found no evidence linking sound or vibrations from wind turbines to adverse health effects. Yet in some corners of the U.S., the debate rages on.
For me, these two examples illustrate the power of feelings over facts. It’s not a question of right or wrong. (Whatever they believe is their own reality, right?) It reflects the inherent challenge communications professionals face in trying to affect public opinion. It also illustrates the power of personal stories and emotions in shaping public debates.

Stories and statistics

What can we in the wind industry do in the face of this dynamic? First, we should recognize that emotions often trump facts – that personal, human interest stories are more compelling than faceless studies. The new American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) ad campaign is a step in the right direction. It highlights real people, tells their stories, and makes the connection between wind power and people’s lives. But we ought not to turn our backs on the facts entirely, which leads to my next point.

A few well-placed statistics speak volumes. When it comes to wind power, the facts are in our favor.

1. The capital costs of new wind generating facilities are one half to three times less than those of new coal or nuclear facilities.

2. If wind were to reach 20% of our electricity supply by 2030, it could avoid 825 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions and reduce cumulative water consumption in the electric sector by 8%, or 4 trillion gallons.

In the wind industry’s quest to connect with people and their emotions, we shouldn’t play the “me too” game with the coal, nuclear and natural gas industries. Because the facts on resource use, cost, environmental degradation, and climate change certainly aren’t in their favor, the human interest angle is often their industries’ only tool to sway public opinion.

When you get right down to it, they don’t have any other stories to tell – which is exactly why pairing stories with facts is wind power’s winning combination.