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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10186


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (10:58): I rise to also contribute to this debate on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012. I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate for us to make some comments on what is a genuine area of concern in parts of the community and for us to ensure that those concerns are appropriately reflected in this place and to make clear the inadequacy to date of government responses to those concerns.

All businesses require not just a legal permit to operate but also a social permit. What has occurred over recent years in the wind sector is that aspects of that social permit and social licence to operate have come under threat. They have come under threat because of genuine concerns that many people have about the impact that wind farms are having in their communities, on their lifestyles and on their health.

Those concerns should not be easily dismissed. Those concerns should be dealt with seriously. That is not to say that we should be shutting down the wind industry and not to say that we should not recognise the very important role that wind power has played in helping Australia to grow its renewable energy sector, because there is an important role being played there by the wind power sector within the renewable energy industry. And we want to see continued growth of renewable energy; that is an important part of Australia's energy mix for the future and important especially for how we deal with the issues of tackling climate change and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. But that does not mean that we just ignore or sweep under the carpet community concerns that exist.

In Senator Madigan's well-thought-out remarks—many of them were—he drew some very good comparisons and quoted from some of the Greens senators in this place in those comparisons. They were comparisons in the debates we have had in here—and there have been plenty—around coal seam gas. Or there were more recent debates around the so-called supertrawler. In all of those areas there were emphatic arguments to let science speak, to ensure that we have the best available science undertaken, that we rely on that research and that we act on what that research says. That is what the coalition believes should be the case here as well. We think that it is important to make sure that beyond any doubt the community, the wind industry and the regulators—at a state level in particular, who provide the planning approvals for these developments—all have sound evidence on which to base their decisions.

Indeed, submitters to the inquiry into this legislation made similar views known. Mrs Maria Linke wrote in her submission:

I feel there needs to be independent health studies into rural wind farms, focusing on excessive noise.

…   …   …

However until that happens, I fully support the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012.

Let us reflect on what Mrs Linke is saying there. She supports this bill because of the absence of other action, and it is the absence of other action that I condemn this government for.

There should have been underway by now very thorough and comprehensive reviews into the health effects of wind farms. Why should there have been such views? Because no less than a previous Senate inquiry had asked for them and made it clear that this was the best way forward to deal with the community concerns that exist.

On 23 June 2011 the Senate Community Affairs References Committee presented the Report into the social and economic impact of rural wind farms. Among several recommendations made by this committee—and can I emphasise, by the whole committee, including the Labor senators on that committee; the government senators—was one that says:

The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government initiate as a matter of priority thorough, adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health. This research must engage across industry and community, and include an advisory process representing the range of interests and concerns.

It is very clear from this recommendation what the committee sought—very, very clear. But far from treating the Senate committee's recommendation as a matter of priority, the Gillard Labor government took more than 14 months to respond to that inquiry—just to respond to it! It even took more than seven months after this Senate called on the government to act immediately on the Senate committee's recommendations.

The government finally responded on 13 September 2012 to the committee's report of 23 June 2011. The government should surely appreciate that such delays and tardiness in responding only add to the angst and concerns that do exist in parts of the community about the operation and impact of wind farms.

When it did come, the government response was manifestly inadequate. The government claimed to accept the recommendations in principle. However, what we got instead was effectively an NHMRC literature review. I have complete faith that the NHMRC review will be thorough. I am sure they will do a good job of it. But it is not what the Senate had recommended, and it is unlikely that the nature of this review—in fact, it is clear from the evidence already received—will satisfy the concerns of those in the community. It will not provide the Australian based type of research, with the thorough epidemiological and laboratory studies, that is necessary to provide the robust scientific evidence needed to manage this issue well into the future.

Just as senators frequently come into this place and call for us to act on the science, on this we should also act on the science. But we should acknowledge that wind farms have not been in existence in Australia for a century and so there is not a deep reservoir of well-established epidemiological and laboratory research about them. However, the industry has now been about for long enough to ensure that that research is undertaken, and we should commit to making sure that that research is undertaken. It is to the shame of the government that they did not grasp the opportunity more than a year ago to get that research underway about the concerns of the people who have come to see me and those I have gone to see, the people Senators Madigan and Xenophon have heard from and the people like Mrs Linke who made submissions to the Senate inquiry. These people have concerns and have a right to expect that those concerns will be listened to and acted upon.

There is some good research happening in places. There is some progress occurring. As recently as yesterday there was a news story from my home state about a University of Adelaide team that is trying to investigate precisely how turbines produce noise, especially in the low-frequency range. Universities do not start undertaking research in these areas if they do not think there is something to look into. Adelaide university and, in particular, Associate Professor Con Doolan obviously think there is something that needs to be looked at. Professor Doolan commented in the news story:

"We have a fair amount of knowledge around the noise generation mechanisms but, particularly in the low-frequency ranges, we don't know a lot about how they combine together," he said.

"This project is aimed at getting to the bottom of what is creating the noise that can cause disturbance."

The story went on to say that the Adelaide university team:

… will build a small wind turbine in the University's wind tunnel in Adelaide and use advanced techniques to measure aerodynamics and best practice.

"If we can understand what's creating these sounds then we can advise governments about wind farm regulation and policy and make recommendations about the design of wind farms or the turbine blades and industry," Professor Doolan said.

That is exceptionally welcome work from the University of Adelaide, Professor Doolan and his team. We welcome that type of progress because it will only be by providing the robust and sound scientific evidence that we will ensure the social licence to operate for the wind farm industry remains strong and well supported within the communities in which they operate.

The coalition believe that, after all the waiting for the government to act on last year's Senate inquiry, it is now time for the parliament to try to force the government's hand. So it will be our intention during the committee stages of debate on this bill—which I acknowledge are unlikely to be today—to move amendments to cause to have undertaken the type of NHMRC study that we have spoken off and that was recommended by the Community Affairs References Committee last year. There should be a study and a body of research that includes full spectrum acoustic monitoring with epidemiological and laboratory studies. It should be research that ensures the views of industry and the community are heard during its process so that it can seek to address and study the areas of concern. It should look at audible noise, low-frequency noise, infrasound, electromagnetic radiation and vibration arising from or associated with wind farms including wind turbines, transmission lines, substations, telecommunications towers and any other structures associated with industrial wind electricity generation. Importantly, it should ideally be undertaken in a way that has buy-in from both sides of this debate, from the Clean Energy Council and from the Waubra Foundation, so that at the outset there is some acceptance of who is undertaking the research, how it will be undertaken and what it will cover and there is some confidence that the outcomes we get can be used in a sound way to inform future regulation of this sector.

I said before in relation to the need for science and to act on science that we hear this pointed out about coal seam gas or CSG. We have seen actions taken by the Labor government to have thorough research undertaken into the impacts of the coal seam gas industry. We have seen the government set up an independent panel to oversee that research and to provide some certainty around its impacts, especially the impacts on groundwater systems. So there is no reason why the government should not embrace the type of action the coalition is proposing in relation to wind farms.

There is another area in this debate that is analogous to the position of coal seam gas, and that is that the Commonwealth with its research funds, expertise and expert bodies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council takes a lead role in helping to establish the evidence base. However, we should also acknowledge the Constitution under which we operate and the Federation that we have and respect the fact that state and territory governments are ultimately responsible for the type of planning decisions that relate to projects, be they coal seam gas projects on the one hand or wind farm projects on the other. That is why, whilst we have an understanding of the concerns that Senators Madigan and Xenophon are pursuing in this legislation, we equally think that the types of legislative reforms they are proposing are not the types that this parliament should be legislating for, because they do intrude on the rights of the states to regulate for their communities as they see appropriate.

We think that if you could get the ideal outcome, if you could get the comprehensive evidence base that informed what would be sensible exclusion zones, sensible noise limits, the types of regulations necessary for the wind farm industry, an evidence base that had the confidence of both sides of the debate in this argument, then the pressure and the expectation could be applied to those states to ensure that they enact the types of planning laws that operate on the best available scientific evidence.

We want it done in a way that provides some confidence and certainty for the future for the wind farm industry just as much as it does for the communities in which that industry operates. The wind farm industry has come a long way. Senator Cameron cited some of the statistics in his contribution about the global science of the wind farm sector as well as the number of wind farms operating in Australia—many of which are of course in my home state of South Australia.

Wind-farm and wind-power generation is critical to achieving the 20 per cent renewable energy target set by the Commonwealth. I have expressed in this place previously some concerns that we have not banded or set aside some of that target to ensure that other technologies, the emerging technologies, can definitely benefit from it. I think that is a genuine concern that we need to keep in mind for the future. Nonetheless, the wind farm industry deserves, just as much as the communities in which these concerns have emanated from, to have certainty for the future. There should be certainty for both sectors, certainty that everyone has confidence in the evidence base on which decisions are made and on which regulations are put in place. Everyone should have confidence that no harm is occurring or, if harm is occurring, it is being prevented by the actions taken by industry and government working together.

As I said, noting that we probably will not get to the committee stage today and that this is the last sitting day for the year, I invite the government over the next couple of months before the parliament returns to think long and hard about the type of inquiry this Senate called for more than a year ago and the type of inquiry that we have urged be undertaken—and, if necessary, the coalition will move through the parliament—to provide the type of sensible, sound evidence base for the future that the communities where wind farms are based deserve and the wind farm industry itself deserves as well.