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Tilting at windmills: Senate committee rejects wind restrictions

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The Senator who wins the sixth and final place in Victoria seems destined to be a curiosity. Senator Steve Fielding became well known for his fundamentalist views — in both religion and in climate change. The current incumbent is Ballarat-based blacksmith John Madigan, the first DLP Senator in almost 40 years. And he and Fielding have a bit in common.

They both slid into their seats on close to 2.5 per cent of the vote. (Fielding actually received more votes than Madigan in 2010, and Madigan only received 20 direct votes in his own electorate, but such is the magic of preferential voting at the margins.) They both reject the scientific consensus around climate change. (The DLP’s submission to a senate inquiry last year claimed that “Carbon dioxide – unlike it’s deadly cousin carbon monoxide – is not a pollutant.”)

And they both dislike wind farms. Or at least that was clear with Fielding. Madigan is prone to mixed messages.

On his website he makes it clear that “First up, let me say this. I am not and never have been against wind farms, wind energy or green technology”. Really? A media release issued on January 25 this year entitled “Just Stop,” said that “wind farms … (are) fast becoming one of the greatest scandals in Australian political history” and that “environmental propaganda is a cover for a sinister, powerful and dangerous wind industry”.

Earlier this year Madigan organised a string of wind energy “information meetings” around the country in conjunction with Senator Nick Xenophon, and at 2:30am one cold Canberra morning last June, Madigan introduced a private members bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Xenophon. The bill took what one has been described as a “drunken swipe” at the wind industry, setting out to shoehorn a new national noise standard for wind farms into the legislation that provides for the Renewable Energy Target. It proposed to withdraw renewable energy certificates from wind farms found to have broken prescribed “noise” levels.

Not satisfied with a report on the bill by the Standing Committee on Economics, the “maverick MPs” referred the bill to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. That committee, chaired by Senator Doug Cameron, handed down its report yesterday, and unequivocally recommended that the bill be rejected – even if the Coalition members equivocated. Highlights include:

  • Internationally, many countries use noise standards similar to those currently used in Australia. (1.26)
  • No evidence was provided that would suggest that infrasound is present at harmful levels. (2.18)
  • Amongst supporters of the bill, there appeared to be no agreement about what noise measurement should be included in the bill, nor what noise thresholds should be adopted. (2.19)
  • While infrasound is produced [by wind turbines], it is not at levels that are likely to cause harm. (2.25)
  • “The number [of Australians] expressing concern appear small compared to the numbers of residents [living] near these turbines.” (3.9)
  • “The majority of submissions were from people worried about whether they might experience noise or health effects from proposed wind farms, rather than from people who claimed to have actually experienced annoyance or other adverse effects.” (also 3.9)
  • The committee believes that, while small in number, the nature and cause of the complaints must be taken seriously. (3.12)
  • There was no evidence to the committee of a causal link between the relatively low levels of noise that are produced by wind farm noise and the symptoms reported by those living near wind turbines. (3.16)
  • Wind farms may create annoyance and sleep disturbance in some individuals, but the causes are not clear. (3.23)
  • Infrasound expert, Dr Geoff Leventhall explained that while the scientific literature is clear that low-frequency sounds can affect health, this is at doses typically around one million times higher than levels attributable to wind farms. (3.33)
  • A forthcoming report (Fiona Crichton, George Dodd, Gian Schmid, Greg Gamble & Keith J. Petrie, ‘Can expectations produce symptoms from infrasound associated with wind turbines?’, Health Psychology, forthcoming (2013)) has shown that indeed a “nocebo” effect is a very plausible explanation for community distress. i.e. subjects who viewed internet literature about so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome felt poorly when played both real and “sham” infrasound. “Results suggest psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints.” (3.38)
  • The possibility that psychological factors, rather than infrasound, are a key ‘link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints’ is also consistent with some of the anecdotal evidence received by the committee. Significant numbers of submissions came from people who were being informed and becoming worried about the claimed effects of a wind farm prior to one commencing operation near them, expressing fear or anxiety about negative health effects. (3.41)
  • The committee concurs with Dr Tait that recurring claims of a wind turbine syndrome, for which there is no peer-reviewed evidence, are obscuring the focus on assisting properly the small number of people whose cases do need attention. The committee is also concerned that a nocebo response is developing, caused by the reproduction and dissemination of claims about adverse health impacts – claims not grounded in the peer-reviewed literature currently available. (3.50)
  • The Waubra Foundation submitted that ‘noise pollution from industrial wind turbines’ is ‘unregulated’. The committee’s understanding of existing regulatory systems, and evidence received regarding ongoing scrutiny of some facilities, refutes this suggestion. (4.21)
  • Current regulations … are sufficient to protect citizens and communities from undue noise exposure. (4.24)

During the hearings, Madigan, Xenophon, Sarah Laurie (CEO of the anti-wind Waubra Foundation) and anti-wind acoustician Steven Cooper wheeled in a range of “experts” from overseas, none of whom left a significant impression on the committee. Instead, there was significant interest in the “nocebo” hypothesis championed by Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University. For those following the debate, Chapman has been compiling a list of ailments attributed to wind farms, now totalling 222. Chapman has recently reported on a case study of a community where Laurie came to town and the people most concerned about the wind farm were the first to claim illness.

While the proposed bill was not intended to be an investigation of the health claims of infrasound by wind turbines, the Madigan/Xenophon team tried hard to make it so, but would have been disappointed with the outcome — pretty much a total rejection of their claims:

“The committee concludes that, while it is possible that the human body may detect infrasound in several ways, there is no evidence to suggest that inaudible infrasound (either from wind turbines or other sources) is creating health problems. In contrast,  there is an established literature confirming the existence of psychogenic, or “nocebo”, effects in general, and at least one study suggesting they may be responsible for symptoms in some wind turbine cases.”

Mike Barnard, a regular contributor to this website, recently wrote about Sarah Laurie’s bad day in court. You could say that yesterday was a bad day for her in the Senate. After 17 health reviews have concluded that there’s no evidence for her hypothesis, the pro-wind lobby believe it’s odds-on that she will have another bad day when the NHMRC reports back on its latest view next year.
You could also say that the wind industry still has challenges before it. The committee did fall in behind party lines, which leaves the question of just how far the bipartisan commitment to renewable energy extends. It recommends that states shoulder responsibility for the application of wind noise rules – inviting the likes of Premiers Baillieu, O’Farrell and Newman to exert their influence over an energy source that they have expressed open hostility towards. Madigan and Xenophon, of course, disagreed with just about all the committee findings.
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  • Beat Odermatt

    They all tried to become a new Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha and failed. The windmills won!

  • http://newtonwrites.com John Newton

    Did an expert witness from Spain, a certain Don Quixote, give evidence?

    • Beat Odermatt

      I am sure that Senator Nick Xenophon and his mates have moved on to new things to keep the media entertained. Will he push for a Senate Enquiry to proof the flat earth theory or has he got any other great ideas to keep himself in front of cameras?

  • Bring back the Battery Shed

    I come from a “plat pays” where windmills were as abundant as church towers, and wind farms gracious providers at almost every horizon. Never in 40 years did I hear anyone complain of ill effects. I had to drift “around half the world” to this country that couldn’t have developed without the “Southern Cross” wind pump and the “Dunlite” wind plant to learn that wind power should now be considered harmful and evil. How utterly odd.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think that some people are very sensitive to certain frequencies and their discomfort should somehow be accommodated. But I also think we should fight the wrecking actions of the “nocebians”.

    And now for a bit of Aussie history…
    ( http://www.ozvalveamps.org/vibrators.htm )

    “Vibrators

    Okay, settle down at the back there. When these were named the other sort were not the topic of polite conversation, in fact I’m not even sure the other type even existed yet.

    The vibrator was an electro-mechanical device for turning DC into two-phase chopped AC to allow it to be transformed up to generate HT for valves.

    After a fairly slow start radio was becoming a mass media by about the 1920’s, but rural electrification was yet to get going in Australia so manufacturers had to find ways of running sets on DC battery power which was very common on many homesteads.

    In fact the remains of these DC setups can still be found on many farms around Victoria and South Australia. These followed a pattern of having a quite solid brick battery shed a little apart from the main house, with a tower alongside carrying one of the many wind generators of the day.”

    Mark my words, Australia will be bringing back the battery shed. :-)

  • Alan Baird

    I’ve visited wind farms on quite a few occasions and one would have to have a very well tuned ear, turned up to full volume by a lobbyist, to complain. My suspicion is that the people who complain, also ‘hear voices’ (a la Joan of Arc), whispering very quietly so as to not spook them, from a coal mine.

  • BS

    How many parliamentary inquiries (Australia wide) have wasted taxpayers money investigating fake syndromes? It must be about 4 or 5?