President Trump has been making inaccurate statements about the environment, climate change, and renewable energy since the beginning of his campaign. But a claim he made this week at the National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising dinner this week managed to reach a new level of inaccuracy and misinformation.
“If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75 percent in value,” he said, making a claim that is partially supported by some evidence, if wildly exaggerated, about the effects of wind turbines on property values. But he continued, with another, more puzzling claim. “And they say the noise causes cancer.”
There are several layers of distortion that need to be unpacked within this statement. First, what he’s referring to as windmills are actually the wind turbines at the heart of wind power, an increasingly popular and economical source of clean, renewable energy. According to the US Department of Energy, 404 gigawatts of wind energy capacity will be created by 2050, serving a third of anticipated electricity demand. Wind power has become increasingly cost-effective in recent years. Solar and wind power together are expected to overtake coal as cheaper alternatives in the next several years.
And with its success, wind power has increasingly drawn the ire of Trump, who campaigned for the White House with a promise to revive the declining coal industry. In a Fox News interview late last month, Trump claimed that wind is not a feasible energy source since it “only blows sometimes.” As the Department of Energy explains on its website, other more conventional forms of power generation come with their own variability in output, and power grid operators have always accommodated this.
As for his cancer claim, it’s unclear where it comes from to begin with. There’s no evidence, or even any logical basis, for the idea that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer. An expert panel review conducted for the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations found “there is no evidence that audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”
In fact, it’s hard to argue that the noise from the turbines could even disturb nearby residents. Most regions limit how close turbines can be built near homes, with most laws calling for 300 meters, or nearly a thousand feet. At that distance, the noise from a wind turbine is around 43 decibels. Noise from air conditioners generally reaches 50 decibels, and refrigerators reach about 40. More broadly, there is no evidence that the gene mutations that cause cancer can be triggered by noise of any kind.
So what should we make of Trump’s claim? As a President with an extensive track record of lies and distortion, Trump is fond of charging his opponents and the media with deception, with “fake news” as a favorite catch phrase. This past week, he called The Washington Post “crazed and dishonest.” Trump often projects on his political adversaries what he is plainly guilty of himself.
For a President that has tied his campaign and presidency to coal power, it seems he is now projecting onto wind a problem that is certainly true of coal. A study in January from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the more a country relies on coal-fired power plants, the higher the risk of lung cancer among its population. For every 1-kilowatt increase of coal capacity per person, researchers found an increase in lung cancer risk reaching 59 percent for men and 85 percent among women. They estimated that by 2025, there will be 1.37 million cases of lung cancer linked to coal-fired power plants.
Coal-fired plants release particulate matter called PM2.5, air pollution which has been found to take a year off of the average global lifespan.
Just days before Trump’s bizarre statement about wind power, a new report from energy policy think tank Energy Innovation projected that it would be cheaper to build new solar and wind power sources than to keep three-quarters of US coal plants running. The report contributes to mounting evidence that wind and solar are well-placed to start replacing coal.
So not only do wind turbines not cause cancer, but they’re expected to help phase-out Trump’s favorite energy source, which has been linked repeatedly to cancer. CNN has suggested that Trump’s statement fits into a broader pattern of nonsense statements that could be a sign of cognitive decline. But it seems more likely that it’s a calculated attempt at misdirection and disinformation as his plans to revive coal seem increasingly unfeasible.