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Insight: Australia’s wind energy setback – tracing origins of 2km rule

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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.

Flawed research

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.

View of the 35-turbine Callicum Hills Wind Farm, Victoria.The land between the turbines continues to be used for farming. Image: Rolandg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

Populist policy-making?

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.

View to Waubra wind farm, over the city of Ballarat. Image: Russell Luckock. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Hepburn Wind Farm

“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.”

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  • Brendan

    First I heard of the 2km setback was in 2009 via a motion from the Moorabool Shire Council to the Municipal Association Victoria calling for a 2km setback. The motion was successful. Personally I could not believe a motion made by a group of local government councillors could overide professional planning principles (link below)
    http://www.moorabool.vic.gov.au/CA257489001FD37D/Lookup/2009/$file/MSC%20Minutes%20160909R.pdf

  • Neville Mattick

    The obstruction of Renewable Energy in this Nation is a disgrace, using an arbitrary two kilometre set back!

    Particularly Wind Farms at this early stage, to quickly lock down Australia’s emissions.

    I reckon it is the “politics of envy” where the wealthy farmers’ on richer soils resent the ‘wind fall’ to Graziers on poor land where Wind Farms are viable, just look at today’s call by the NFF (National Farmers Federation) to cancel the RET – appalling behaviour.

    All this in the face of Climate Change denial from those that have the most to loose – Farmers as their production ebbs away, I know, it is happening here, our iconic Yellow Box trees are in deep trouble.

    Face the facts by reading the Science, that is when you can step aside from the Mineral based anti Wind Farm lobby.

    Really though, the source of Energy – Wind and Solar are FREE and who on Earth would not want that?

    Makes you think doesn’t it!

  • http://ffggippsland.blogspot.com/ Blair Donaldson

    The 2 km exclusion zone has the distinct aroma of a political fix for purely ideological reasons. When it becomes clear that the Victorian State government has caused electricity consumers to pay unnecessarily higher prices as a result of this poor decision, the chooks will come home to roost and I suspect, the political results won’t be pretty.

  • Phil from Brisbane

    These large wind generators produce PHENOMENAL amounts of noise because it depends on the wind direction which acts as an AMPLIFIER of such noise by concentration of the sound waves – simple physics dictates this.Also the turbine blades the industry uses are not a NOISELESS type design.So this is a known issue along with bird strikes due the design.A simple real world test involves a SPECTRAL NOISE ANALYSIS across the audible and inaudible sound bands 365 days a year at 360 degrees around a wind generator. If its more than 3DB above ambient noise , and i’m not including animal or man made noise here , then it’s affecting your Amenity as a rural landowner.I guarantee they will ALL fail this test by 7DB or more AT 1KM RANGE ! The 2KM rule makes PERFECT SENSE because at least it offers some securitry against the rubber and self serving figures this wind industry provides globally ! The wind industry make the money , the local landowners get the waste – the noise

    • BS

      Noise impact (from a wind turbine) on a rural resident is dependent on: wind direction, distance to turbines, altitude; temperature; amount of turbines, specific make model and rated sound power outputs of turbines; terrain and trees; ground absorption and background noise levels….These factors mean that distances (from turbines to houses) to meet noise requirements at a rural houses should and often do significantly vary.

      The 2km rule does not consider any of these factors. The only certainty it provides is that rural communities will miss out on investment.

    • Richard

      Why is it that the Danish population, the people with the most experience in this industry, have not experienced any of the negativity that we Australians have. There are PLENTY of turbines within 2km of dwellings in Denmark with no adverse effects on people, livestock or ecology. 40 years of experience speaks for itself!

      • Phil from Brisbane

        Wind generators are fine UNLESS they are set far enough away from people who MAY object to the noise or have THEIR property values reduced , or have their untouched by anyone views destroyed .It also DOES impact purchasing decisions having PERSONALLY stopped a purchase myself due a wind farm proposal nearby.If PEOPLE are not affected then wind farms are fantastic.And its not the ONLY renewable energy option so its not like we absolutely have to have them at all costs.The ONLY QUESTION you have to ask yourself is WOULD THEY ALLOW JUST ONE OF THEM PUT NEAR PARLIAMENT HOUSE ? OR ULURU ? OR THE OPERA HOUSE ? OR NATIONAL PARKS ? – OR ON TEH GREAT BARRIER REEF ? AND IF NOT WHY?.

    • http://etwasluft.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/wind-turbine-syndrome-end-times-are-nigh.html Ketan Joshi

      Phil,

      There are some curious consequences of your claims.

      Regardless of speed and direction, amplification requires either resonance or energy. You posit that the sound emissions from wind turbines will be louder, as you move further away from the machine.

      The only logical conclusion then, is that there is a gigantic powered Fender amp blowing around in the atmosphere. Alternatively, there is a monstrous acoustic guitar, also bobbing gently in the lower layers of the atmosphere.

      All in keeping with the laws of physics, of course.

      • Phil from Brisbane

        Let me clarify the wind AMPLIFYING the sound.Sound waves are affected by wind.If you measure sound level at a set distance from a noise source – such as facing a busy roadway – the sound level will be lower with the wind behind you.With no wind the sound level will rise even thought eh road level noise is the same.It will rise yet again with the wind coming towards you.Also atmospherics “amplify” sound such as reflections from low cloud cover and seasonal thermal and moisture phenomena called inversion layers. Amplify may not be the right term , perhaps level increase is a better one , but this is PRECISELY MY POINT , noise is not one simple set of figures , it has to be measured for a VERY LONG PERIOD of time AT THE SAME TIME from MANY DIFFERENT POINTS to confirm the actual ACOUSTIC LEVEL CHANGES.This is simply not happening and why so many peaceful areas are ruined by wind generators because they are told the noise does not actually exist – it is in their heads as a perception only.The inadequate testing for noise is only 50% OF the wicked and deceptive story the wind generator industry is promoting.The VISUAL problem IS THE OTHER 50% and has to be dealt with as well.

  • Phil from Brisbane

    This article link below goes a long way in explaining the noise issues of large wind turbines

    http://www.sa.gov.au/upload/franchise/Housing,%20property%20and%20land/PLG/StatewideWindFarmsDPA/Submisions/P266_Dr_Sarah_Laurie_Q.pdf

    • http://Ballarat Bertie

      The article says quite clearly: The turbines do emit infrasound (sound below 20 Hz), but levels are low when human sensitivity to these frequencies is accounted for. Even close to the turbines, the infrasonic sound pressure level is much below the normal hearing threshold, and infrasound is thus not considered as a problem with turbines of the investigated size and construction.

      • George Papadopoulos

        Bertie, hearing is not the litmus test for harm by infrasound. This has been clearly demonstrated by Alec Salt at http://oto2.wustl.edu/cochlea/wind.html

        “You cannot hear the infrasound at the levels generated by wind turbines, but your ears are indeed detecting and responding to it. The picture shows the enormous electrical potentials that infrasounds generate in the ear. The potentials (18.7 mV pk/pk amplitude in this case) are about 4 times the amplitude of any sounds that are heard. This shows the low frequency part of the ear is extremely sensitive to infrasound. Infrasound generates larger electrical responses than any other type of sound, including sounds you can hear presented at the loudest levels.
        The ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent. That is why homes and pillows contribute to the problem. To clarify, maximum stimulation of the ear with infrasound will occur inside your home, because the audible sound of the turbines is blocked by the walls of the house, but infrasound readily passes through any tiny openings. Similarly, sleeping with one ear on a pillow will block audible sound to that ear but will not block the infrasound. In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

  • Malcolm Scott

    In the land of the Southern Cross windmill in many backyards, this 2km set back is just a joke that develops contempt for some of the policies, decisions, and public statements made by Liberal/National/LNP government ministers and Premiers.

    With every comment they make re RET, mothballing coal fired power stations, feed in tariffs, cost of residential power, baseload rants, et al, they trumpet their wilful incompetence to establish regulatory settings.

    Who on earth do we vote for these days for a sound business based approach to the challenges ahead necessary to respond to the accelerating consequences of climate change?

    Being responsible for 6% for the world’s CO2 emissions (including coal exports), we have an obligation to act for a substantial change.

    Now go figure how on earth Michael Woolridge is on the board of the anti-wind energy activism organisation, The Waubra Foundation (PO box in South Melbourne!)? For all the good that he supports, why this one, and what does it mean for his contributions on his many other directorships?

    • George Papadopoulos

      Malcolm are you suggesting that the Coalition should apply the same principles of alleged neglect and harm wind turbines also?

  • Marie

    Have you bothered to see the study doone by ASteve Cooper presented to the Senate on noise where one house 7 km away had recorded infrasound? Why is it that you all reject peer-reviewed studies from overseas of many experts in the field of health and acoustics and still keep referring to the NHMRC as no evidence,yet Professor Warwick Anderson CEO clearly stated ” we do not consider that there are no ill effects from expsoure to operating wind turbines? When the Senate asked last year for research to be done to ascertain any problems it was ignored. Why are you frightened of independent research to clear the matter up once and for all. Did anyone see the Energy segment on TV showing in the USA that wind on one day was really good yet the following day so little as to require backup from some other form which I think was gas power. Why is it that only the wind industry has so many opponents yet there is very little against solar, geothermal, waste to energy? When you look at all the groups opposed to wind power all over the world where are the groups opposed to other forms of renewable energy? DO THE RESEARCH!!!!

  • Phil from Brisbane

    The total lack of LF sound measurement by the ENTIRE INDUSTRY is very unusual. How can you deny something you never measured in the first Place ? The Industry uses what is called “A WEIGHTED FILTERING” for noise measurement where anything below 1000 hertz starts to be ignored and anything below 100 hertz is 20 db down in level. At 20 hertz its 40db down. To put this in perspective , using this method turns a Harley Davidson motor bike into the same noise level as a Honda Jazz !.And I haven’t even mentioned INFRASOUND , which is simply sound below 20 hertz felt rather than heard , so it is rejected as being there.I see a lot of common ground between the tobacco industry and the LARGE wind turbine industry. There are proven health effects,yet its all denied.There is an article in the australian called “what you cant hear cant hurt you” (can search for this ) , it says a lot about the Wind Industry global corporate citizenship credentials.

    • Bertie

      Phil, the industry has measured it. Many times in many reports. The levels of infrasound emitted by wind turbines are not unusual and are in fact lower than most Australians experience in their own homes. Moreover, the levels of infrasound received from wind turbines are 10^6 (i.e. 1,000,000) times lower than the levels that have been shown to be hazardous.
      Your shrill comments won’t do anything to change the facts.

      • George Papadopoulos

        Bertie, if the wind industry have measured it, do they discuss the qualitative properties of infrasound? Gross measurements don’t say everything, and the idea that the infrasound from wind turbines is millions of times lower than what is hazardous doesn’t stack up with the finding of Rand et al who linked specific frequencies with known effects of human mood and brain waves.