As the wind industry supplies more and more of Australia’s energy needs, the anti-wind farm lobby is gathering strength, buoyed by Liberal-National Coalition governments and a couple of crusading independent senators.
Wind energy proponents argue the decision to impose a minimum 2km distance between wind turbines and residences – a key plank of the Victorian government’s planning regulations and, at this stage, a proposal by the New South Wales government – is based on twisted logic and flawed research into the negative health impacts of wind turbines.
Some go further, accusing the Coalition Victorian government of pandering to vested interests, and questioning the government’s reluctance to explain the reasoning behind the new planning regime – a regime that has, thus far, killed off any new wind developments in the state.
“It’s a good political fix for a government that can’t be bothered explaining planning regulations,” said one senior executive at a wind energy company, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“The government wants to keep it simple… and when the industry has asked them what was the basis of 2km they have never answered, other than to say we’ve needed to strike a balance so the industry can keep developing.”
Victoria gets the wrecking ball rolling
Under a policy brought in as an election promise in Victoria, turbines are banned from being constructed within 2km of residences, unless there is a written agreement with the relevant landowners.
The Clean Energy Council, which was not consulted on Victoria’s setback law, has never seen any evidence of why a 2km zone was chosen.
“We have not seen any scientific evidence – other than the Victoria government saying it wants to re-balance the planning system – of why a 2km setback has been imposed,” Russell Marsh, policy director at the Clean Energy Council, told RenewEconomy.
Ken McAlpine, Asia-Pacific director of policy and government relations at Vestas, said the company does not support arbitrary limits.
“Projects should be judged on their merits. There’s a big difference between a kilometre away on dead flat land and a kilometre away from turbine sitting on a hill,” he said.
NSW is also proposing to ban the construction of wind turbines within 2km of residences unless there is written agreement from relevant landowners or unless permitted via a “gateway process”.
Via this “gateway” process, if turbines are proposed within 2km of homes where owners have not provided their written consent, the project developer may apply to the planning department for approval and must include such details as predicted noise levels and visual impact, as well as the potential for blade glint or shadow flicker.
The NSW government, which is awaiting the results of additional independent research undertaken as part of the wind farm audits, expects to finalise the proposals “in the coming months” according to a spokesman for the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. As for the origins of the 2km rule, the spokesman did not comment.
The lie of the Landscape Guardians
The Landscape Guardians – an organisation set up in 2007 to achieve “better outcomes for natural and cultural landscape protection through the planning process” – originally called for a 2km setback for all turbines.
The pressure group’s ideas match with Victorian government policy, observed Ketan Joshi, a research and communications officer at Infigen Energy.
“It doesn’t seem to be based on scientific evaluation – it seems to be an arbitrary number,” he told RenewEconomy.
“In the absence of any real evidence and/or scientific analysis, it seems strange the government would leave itself open to conjecture on how the policy was developed.
“Even if one were to accept the theory that 2km was funneled into government policy via the Landscape Guardians, their own development of the 2km setback is based on spurious health claims and a set of principles that don’t apply.”
In June, Victoria’s planning minister Matthew Guy said the 2km setback would remain in place even if medical research showed that wind turbines did not cause health problems.
“The 2km setback is in place for a number of reasons in relation to amenity, in relation to noise, in relation to strobe lighting,” he said.
“We felt it was [the] right level, the right distance to put in place, as a basic principle and that is what we will be implementing in policy.”
Guy’s office did not respond to calls or emails requesting an interview.
Much of the current community resistance to wind farms can be traced back to work by Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician who coined the phrase Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS).
The controversy surrounding Pierpont’s work centres around her statements made in a self-published research theorising that ultra-low frequency sounds affect human health. She asserts that wind turbines affect people’s moods and may cause physiological problems such as insomnia, headaches, tinnitus, vertigo and nausea.
“It’s a fundamentally flawed piece of research, but unfortunately it’s often used as a basis for some of these health issues on wind farms and to justify the 2km setback,” said Infigen’s Joshi. “To justify that 2km setback, one would have to demonstrate quite a few things with statistically significant scientific investigation.”
Ultra-low-frequency sound, or infrasound, has been thoroughly examined and dismissed as an adverse health effect of wind turbines. One study shows that infrasound 75 metres from a beach is significantly higher than 360 meters from a wind turbine.
In Australia, before the Victorian wind farm planning regulations were imposed, the 2010 Rapid Review of the Evidence by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) found no direct pathological effects from wind farms, and that any potential impact on humans could be minimised by following existing planning guidelines.
There have now been 17 reviews of the available evidence about wind farms and health, published internationally. Each of these reviews has concluded that wind turbines can annoy a minority of people in their vicinity, but that there is no evidence that they make them ill.
Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, noted the scientific studies that do exist have mainly concluded that “pre-existing negative attitudes to wind farms are generally stronger predictors of annoyance than residential distance to the turbines or recorded levels of noise.”
Last month, Chapman – who has called WTS a “communicated disease” – told Radio National’s Science Show that sleep problems are the most-mentioned negative impact of living too close to a wind turbine. But a large population suffers from insomnia, “so no surprises there”.
“Chickens won’t lay near wind farms. Tell that to the Tasmanian poultry farmer who has a turbine on site,” Chapman said.
“Earthworms vanish from the soil in an 18km radius, hundreds of cattle and goats die horrible deaths from ‘stray electricity’, but veterinary officials are mysteriously never summoned.
“In 35 years in public health I have never encountered anything remotely as apocalyptic,” he said.
Throwing precautionary principle to the wind
The NSW Draft Planning Guidelines state: “Despite extensive research and numerous public inquiries, adverse health effects have not been established, but the possibility has not been ruled out. A prudent approach should be applied in designing and siting wind farm facilities.”
In this context, Infigen’s Joshi thinks the precautionary principle is being misinterpreted. There are, of course, many definitions of the principle. A February 2002 European Commission communication on the precautionary principle states:
“The precautionary principle applies where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU”.
“You need to have scientifically valid, preliminary evaluation – you have to have reasonable rational grounds for concern [to invoke the precautionary principle],” Joshi said, “and essentially the scientific validity of the health claims around wind turbines I don’t think meet those criteria.”
“When you present the health issue in terms of potential harm, it has more salience to people and I worry that sometimes that discourages close analysis of their claims,” he added.
“It’s normal to find worrying advice salient,” Joshi said. “People seem to be naturally tuned to looking out for harm – it’s an evolutionary trait in people, which necessitates caution, honesty and ethics.”
Wind farm developers and turbine manufacturers were frustrated and dismayed at the speed at which Victoria’s planning regime was implemented – and the Coalition has been criticised for offering little in the way of explanation for the new rules.
When in opposition, it said that while it supported wind energy, it was committed to returning certainty and fairness after the previous Labor government had imposed wind farms on reluctant local communities.
But the introduction of the 2km setback rule – which is rumoured, in business circles, to have been largely driven by Baillieu himself – was certainly not a populist measure, as borne out in the latest election results.
Strong anti-wind farm campaigns in two areas – Waubra, with a the 128-turbine Acciona-owned wind farm, and Beaufort & Skipton, the proposed location for Origin Energy’s 157-turbine Stockyard Hill wind farm – resulted in the areas registering the smallest swing away from Labor in the last state election.
The planning rules were popular, however, in areas such as the Western Plains, and the heart of the ‘no-go’ zone, the McHarg Range in central Victoria.
As well as the 2km setback, Victoria imposed a ban on turbines within 5km of 21 regional centres, and ‘no-go’ zones including the Great Ocean Road, Mornington Peninsula, Wilsons Promontory, the entire Macedon Ranges shire , and the McHarg Ranges.
Marigold Merlyn Baillieu Southey, one-time lieutenant governor of Victoria and a matriarch of the Baillieu/Myer family, owns an 800-hectare farm and vineyard near Tooborac in the McHarg. Lady Southey, who is also Premier Ted Baillieu’s second cousin, actively opposed the development of a proposed 80-turbine Transfield wind farm on land neighbouring her property – including, in 2010, a letter-writing campaign to Transfield’s management and board members – which was subsequently banned under the new laws.
Metres vs decibels
While recognising the need for appropriate planning regulations to comply with community concerns and establish a social licence to operate, wind farm developers and turbine manufacturers are frustrated that setbacks are talked about in terms of distance.
Simon Holmes à Court, a director of community-owned wind farm Hepburn near Daylesford, Victoria, said setbacks should be framed in terms of sound and measured in decibels not metres. “There could possibly be very large projects that would require a 3km buffer and likewise there are other projects, such as the two turbine Hepburn Community Wind Farm, where houses as close as 500 metres are fully compliant with noise standards.”
“The buffer you need between the turbine and the house is a function of the geography, the turbine model, the number of turbines and the wind conditions in that area. There are vigorous science-based methods for measuring setbacks form wind turbines to residences,” Holmes à Court said.
A report to the Senate by senators John Madigan and Nick Xenophon that cited a study by acoustician Dr Bob Thorne highlights wind farm operators’ claims their wind farms are compliant with noise guidelines.
It notes Acciona’s claim that its Waubra wind farm complies with noise guidelines, however “noise monitoring by acousticians who are not employed by wind farm operators have revealed that some wind farms are not.”
It goes on to say the study by Thorne has found that the wind farm at Waubra is operating outside noise regulations. In June, Madigan submitted a copy of Thorne’s report to Victorian planning minister Guy.
The report has never been made public.
“Senator Madigan has got a lot of people in Waubra convinced the wind farm is not compliant,” one Victoria-based wind developer told RenewEconomy. “Even Acciona – the owner of the wind farm hasn’t seen this report.”