Wind energy policy process fails all
In April the Senate Community Affairs committee will table its report into the social and economic impacts of rapidly proliferating wind farms around Australia. The committee has received over 1000 submissions on the deeply divisive issue of industrial wind farms, new applications for which are often in excess of 100 turbines with turbine heights exceeding 150 metres.
These giant structures now dominate some landscapes, often stretching for ten or more kilometres along ridgelines or, as in the case of south west Victoria, new projects abut existing projects established by multi-national energy companies in the rush to take advantage of generous taxpayer and electricity consumer subsidies offered by governments. This results in some existing farmhouses being unwillingly surrounded on three sides by large wind factories.
Whatever view one has of the positive or negative impacts of wind energy, it is a travesty for all Australians that we are subject to yet another failure of public policy development that has such far reaching consequences as electricity prices, electricity grid security, property rights and public health, just to mention a few of the issues raised.
A multitude of serious concerns exist that have not been subject to independent research, or specific public debate since the commissioning of the first industrial wind farm in 1998. Whether those concerns are seen to have merit or not depends on whether one chooses to examine available evidence. However, the first failing surely is the inept manner in which state and federal politicians imposed renewable energy targets, ineffectual policy guidelines, and fast tracked wind energy projects without due diligence or sufficient public consultation that has led to the significant growing opposition, primarily from the rural communities directly affected in the first instance.
Associate professor Richard Hindmarsh of Griffith University in a recent paper[i] analysing policy approaches to wind farm establishment queries the democratic legitimacy of various state government processes. “Current governmental policy responses to the problem of social conflict and community contestation of wind farms thus appear more about empowering wind farm development than also effectively addressing the important issues raised by those directly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of wind farms.”
In fact the attitude within government and the bureaucracy to wind farm complaints has been characterised more succinctly, with adversely affected persons within rural communities explicitly referred to as political “road kill”.
It has been instructional to read submissions to the inquiry posted online by the senate committee and observe the widely contrasting styles in presentation of arguments. There are informative, as well as dull submissions from both sides of the argument. Those supportive of the current system of wind farm approvals typically make statements of belief; those opposed to the present approval system or guidelines tend to relate real world experiences or supply data, facts and evidence in support of their arguments[ii].
It is also apparent in the submissions there is a total disconnect between the experiences of some people living near wind farms and the superficial experience of wind farms described by many who support them. This has led many supporters of wind farms to doubt the symptoms and health effects of Wind Turbine Syndrome[iii] as claimed by rural residents, as they themselves are unaffected, which is hardly surprising as most supporters do not live adjacent to wind farms. This same logic could be applied by the many smokers who do not contract lung cancer to cast doubt on the detrimental effects of cigarette smoking.
In the overwhelming majority of submissions supporting wind energy there is no analysis or justification of the hefty costs of wind power, nor any analysis of insignificant greenhouse gas emissions abatement. Given that emissions reduction is the primary driver for supporting wind energy it is reasonable to expect if supporters had any knowledge of data or evidence that would support their claims, it would be articulated in their submissions, which it was not. This reinforces the curious nature of many of the supportive submissions, where they could only be characterised as statements of belief based on wind industry rhetoric and representing a narrative they wish to believe.
Support for wind energy is generally sought from the public with motherhood statements embodying the virtues of wind energy as being cheap, clean and good for the environment (both people and nature). Submissions to the inquiry offered the chance to articulate facts and evidence to support these oft promoted values. Both industry and individuals failed profoundly to articulate an illustrative, coherent case that addressed deeply held concerns of many of their fellow citizens that wind power actually produces very expensive electricity for little or no environmental benefit while making some people seriously ill.
This is perhaps best demonstrated by the dozens of submissions supporting the community owned two-turbine Hepburn wind project in central Victoria, being built at an extraordinary cost of $13M with a capacity of just 4.2 megawatts (MW). That the majority of these submissions used exactly the same words and phrases to tell us this project will return $1M back into the local community over the next 25 years is to be expected of pro-forma type submissions. What these well meaning investors and supporters of renewable energy did not tell the rest of us is that this project has already spent $1.7M of Victorian taxpayer subsidies before it even becomes operational. Having only $1M of this returned to the community over a 25 year period does not seem like something to skite about.
Grant King, CEO of wind farm operator Origin Energy, recently stated[iv] that wind power “costs between $120 and $130 per MW” to produce, which makes it three times more expensive than coal and more than twice as expensive as natural gas, and this means the ‘feel good’ power produced by the Hepburn project may well be the most expensive power ever produced in Victoria. That it will do so on an erratic and unreliable basis because it will rely on the weather is no reason to deter people from investing their own funds in such a project. The problem is Victorian taxpayers have subsidised the construction of the project, the cost of which is 30 per cent above the industry benchmark on a dollar for MW basis, and worse, will continue to subsidise this expensive wind power for the next 25 years via our electricity bills. Most people will have no problem with Hepburn investors throwing their money at a project that would collapse like a house of cards if subsidies and taxpayer funded Renewable Energy Certificates were withdrawn, but please do not ask the rest of us to subsidise your ‘feel good’ 4MW of power!
The social callousness of needlessly expensive electricity produced by this community wind project, supported by otherwise well meaning affluent investors, is that it will be subsidised by pensioners and low income earners across the state who already struggle[v] to incorporate 54 per cent electricity increases over the last few years into tight budgets. The well-off make the poor pay more for basic necessities to salve their environmental conscience and do not have the decency to justify it with a plausible valid argument that extends vaguely beyond “doing something about global warming”.
There is no escaping the fact that wind power is little more than a mechanism to transfer wealth from electricity consumers to multi-national energy companies, falsely disguised as environmental benefit. Worse, as the Hepburn project demonstrates, is the imposition on the community of a set of unwanted beliefs unsupported by fact, the cost of which is bankrolled unknowingly by the wider community through hidden subsidies.
One of the many issues of concern rural communities have with wind farms is the substantial decrease in value of land and houses adjacent to wind farms. This decrease is disputed by the wind industry and supporters and was an embarrassing feature of many submissions to the senate inquiry. Because many wind farm supporters were using material in their submissions supplied to them, verbatim, they incorrectly asserted that the NSW Valuer-General had undertaken a study determining little impact to land values from wind farms, when in fact, no more than a preliminary assessment was undertaken by private consultants for the Valuer-General.
This preliminary assessment noted in its Executive Summary:
the small samples of sales transactions available for analysis limited the extent to which conclusions could be drawn” and “Overall, the inconclusive nature of the results is consistent with other studies that have also considered the potential impact of wind farms on property values.
It appeared that none of the submitters had even read the above preliminary assessment they were referencing or the executive summary in their haste to cut and paste the material supplied to them, as none acknowledged the inconclusiveness of the data as the report’s own authors had. They however did not let ‘facts’ get in the way of a good story.
Nevertheless, the wind industry and its supporters vehemently deny wind farms affect land values, therefore this problem can be readily resolved by planning guidelines incorporating an indemnity for loss of value to be provided by the wind farm applicant. If land values are not affected, as claimed by supporters, the indemnity will never be invoked.
It has been established that in a growing number of cases wind farm operators have purchased properties adjacent to wind farms, which are not required for operational reasons, following media coverage of local opposition to wind farms because of health effects. The vendors of such properties are subject to strict contractual ‘gag’ clauses.
For an industry that strongly asserts noise levels are not a problem and that land devaluation does not occur, they go to a lot of trouble through secretive ‘gag’ clauses to legally forbid people they have purchased property from to speak to friends, family or the media about these issues.
One can only draw the conclusion that the fundamental reason for these ‘gag’ clauses is to keep from public knowledge information that is detrimental to wind farm operators.
The widely discredited[vi] National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) document of July 2010 reviewing adverse health claims was repeatedly quoted by wind farm supporters in their inquiry submissions in an attempt to demonstrate “there is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects”. This statement is hardly surprising given that not a single government anywhere in the world has yet completed a comprehensive study into possible health effects of wind turbine operations. This is despite clear recommendations from their own planning review panels that they undertake such studies.
This document is not the result of research, but a “rapid review of the evidence from [some] current literature”.
The World Health Organisation Guidelines for Community Noise are unambiguous:
The potential health effects of community noise include hearing impairment; startle and defense reactions; aural pain; ear discomfort; speech interference; sleep disturbance; cardiovascular effects; performance reduction; and annoyance responses. These health effects can in turn, lead to social handicap; reduced productivity; decreased performance in learning; absenteeism in the workplace and school; increased drug use; and accidents.
These symptoms and their effects are startlingly similar in nature to the litany of complaints from residents living near established wind farms, some of whom are very ill and have never once been approached by public health officials or the NHMRC who refute their claims.
What has emerged from recent clinical studies and empirical evidence is that even if all wind farms were operating within the noise guidelines applicable, and clearly some wind farms for some of the time are exceeding these guidelines, is that our understanding of the detrimental effects of low frequency sound and infrasound on people is now sufficient to demand comprehensive research[vii].
As this understanding grows, it is becoming increasing clear there is at the very least, a strong prima facie case that the operation of wind turbines too close to residences is causing serious adverse health effects to an increasing number of people.
The amazingly inadequate response of state and federal governments to persistent concerns raised over health issues indicates a callous disregard for accepting a duty of care to citizens marginalised by large energy companies through critically deficient policy frameworks implemented by government in their rush to facilitate wind energy.
Many supporters of wind energy are hopeful that the current senate inquiry will not make recommendations which might constrain the expansion of the wind industry. However, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that current policy settings are producing serious unintended consequences which must be addressed, and these same policy settings fail to provide an economic or environmental rationale for wind energy.
Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation
[i] Wind Farms and Community Engagement in Australia: A Critical Analysis for Policy Learning Richard Hindmarsh Nov 2010
[vi] Analysis of the National Health & Medical Research Council Rapid Review http://www.windvigilance.com/downloads/nhmrc_analysis.pdf
[vii] Dr Christopher Hanning, BSc, MB, BS, MRCS, LRCP, FRCA, MD Sleep disturbance and wind turbine noise http://www.windaction.org/documents/22602