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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS REFERENCES COMMITTEE
25/03/2011
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege has been given to all of you, and on the protection of witnesses and evidence. We have a spare copy if anybody wants to peruse it. Before I ask you to make an oral submission, I will just mention—and I know some of you have been in the audience so you know this—the Senate is sitting. We have not had a division for a little while, which does not bode well.—in other words, there is potential for a division and we will have to leave. We will only be about five or six minutes. We will come back and resume. We were not expecting that we would be sitting now, but that is what happens in this place. I apologise in advance.

We have your submissions. Thank you very much. I would like to invite each of your organisations to make an opening statement and then we will go to questions. I know we have a longer time frame, but because there are a number of you could you keep your statements fairly short and then we can go into a discussion. We tend to run these fairly informally. If we are running on a particular theme, I would like us senators, if we could, to follow that theme and then we will move on to another theme. Is that okay with everybody? Who is going to start first?

Ms McNamara —We can go first.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Ms McNamara —AGL Energy welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Senate’s inquiry, set up by Senator Fielding, into the social and economic impact of rural wind farms. As Australia’s leading investor in renewable energy in Australia, AGL is well placed to comment on this committee’s inquiry. AGL has in its portfolio of wind farm assets the set of five Hallett wind farms in South Australia comprising of five wind projects either operational or under development, representing some 510 megawatts of wind power.

Further, AGL and joint venture partner Meridian Energy have under construction of a 420-megawatt wind farm at Macarthur in Victoria’s southwest at a total capital cost of $1 billion. On completion this will be the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere. AGL is also currently constructing the 67-megawatt Oaklands Hill wind farm in western Victoria, and we operate and buy all the output from the Wattle Point wind farm in South Australia, which is located near Edithburgh. That wind farm has a capacity of 91 megawatts.

AGL works closely with local communities in the planning, construction and post-construction phases of rural wind farm operation. In doing so, we have a lot of contact across entire communities with landowners, interested citizens, local councillors, MPs at a state and at a federal level, as well as community groups. The message we have for this committee’s inquiry is that rural wind farms, properly planned and developed, represent positive impacts in the communities in which they operate. AGL believes that the wind energy industry is very significant to the economy of Australia and particularly regional Australia. The benefits of a wind farm to a local region are actually not confined to the initial investment in the project. They also provide a reliable source of future income for landowners, direct employment opportunities for locals, and flow-on employment for local businesses through the provision of products and services to the project and to its employees.

In fact, an independent study commissioned by AGL in 2010 confirmed that the regional economy in South Australia benefited greatly from the construction and operation of AGL’s Hallett group of wind farms. This study found that for every job created by the wind farms at least three further jobs are created indirectly. Furthermore, regional expenditure due to construction and operations activities in Hallett totalled $41.1 million in the last calendar year, with a further $15 million per year expected for the operational life of the wind farms. An average of 98 construction workers have been employed on the Hallett project sites at any one time from late 2005 to June 2010.

In relation to health and noise impacts, AGL refers the committee to the federal government’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s public statement dated July 2010, which presented the current evidence relating to potential health impacts of wind turbines on people living in close proximity. The NHMRC’s public statement concludes there is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects.

AGL notes that the committee is also interested in our views on the intersection between state and federal policy regimes. AGL operates in accordance with all relevant state and local council planning regimes. AGL is committed to ongoing consultation with local communities and the relevant state government about its wind farm projects. Federally, AGL welcomed the Senate’s passage of legislative changes to the operation of the Renewable Energy Target scheme in June 2010. These changes have provided greater investment certainty for the renewable energy industry. AGL is proud of its wind farm investments in Australia, an integral part of which is the thorough community and environmental consultations it commissions for all of its wind farm projects. AGL submits to the committee that these investments are positive developments for the communities in which they are located.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Rebbeck —Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you about wind farms. RES, the company I work for, is a global wind farm developer, owner and operator with over 30 years of experience. We have been involved in the development and construction of more than 5,000 megawatts of wind farm to date across the world. We have a strong reputation internationally for developing world-class wind farms. Through an open and responsible approach we develop environmentally sensitive wind farms that have strong support from the local community.

The benefits of wind farms are many and varied. Firstly, wind farms take advantage of an indigenous, free and everlasting fuel source. This provides energy security and long-term price certainty. Wind farms are clean; they reduce greenhouse gases and particulate pollution also. Unlike fossil fuel generation, they do not require huge amounts of water to operate. Wind farms are by far the lowest cost, most proven, renewable energy technology available today and that is particular true in areas of high wind, and Australia has a fantastic wind resource. Wind farms provide jobs, investment and general stimulus to rural communities.

I would now like to run through a number of the terms of reference to the inquiry. Firstly, I will go to any potential health effects, which have been talked about at length today. With more than 150,000 wind turbines operating globally, it would seem likely that any genuine adverse health effects would have been widely researched and published by now. However, we are not aware of any credible, peer reviewed, scientific literature that demonstrates that wind farms cause adverse health effects.

On to the NHMRC study that has been discussed at length today. Whilst they acknowledged that was a rapid review, it was a review that included a list of numerous peer reviewed papers. This is an Australia paper. We are a global developer. We have seen this health discussion being carried out over the world for a number of years now. There are numerous other papers that come to the same conclusion.

For example, the National Health Service in the UK in August 2009 carried out an assessment titled Are wind farms a health risk? They concluded that there is no evidence that wind farms have an effect on health or are causing the set of symptoms described as wind turbine syndrome. The group study by Pierpont was not sufficient to prove the claim stated.

In another review in the UK, specifically looking into the health condition known as wind turbine syndrome, a number of comments from that paper included, ‘Dr Pierpont’s use of epidemiological and statistical methods is seriously flawed. Dr Pierpont’s conclusions are completely unreliable.’ I thought it was worth just walking you quickly through the argument that is put forward by the wind industry against the adverse health effect, in particular the logic that is used by Pierpont and other people along the same lines.

An Australian acoustic consultant has carried out an assessment of Pierpont’s work and they note that the Pierpont report is not peer reviewed and the hypothesis is based on the assumption that infrasound near wind farms are higher than infrasound levels in the general environment. This is key and it is what Dr Pierpont said on the audio conference this morning. She said that, in her opinion, the adverse health effects are caused by low-frequency noise. This noise consultancy has looked at what the levels of low-frequency noise are in the general environment compared with what the levels are at a wind farm. This was, in my view, a particularly informative study, and I believe you have been provided this information through other submissions. The results I have in front of me say an awful lot.

Talking about low-frequency noise in the Adelaide CBD, the measurement is in dBG, which is neither dBA nor dBC, critically, and which is the noise level specifically designed to measure low-frequency noise. It is what you would use to assess the bass levels of the noise and that is where we are with low-frequency noise. The dBG levels in the Adelaide CBD are, for example, 76 decibels; at a local beach, 75 decibels; a gas-fired power station nearby, 74 decibels; at a cliff face, 69 decibels; and then we are down to the wind farms, 67 and 63 decibels, at 185 and 200 metres downwind of the closest turbine. Of course, the nearest neighbours are normally much further away than that.

So, there is a fundamental issue here with the Pierpont research in terms of the levels of low-frequency noise. Nobody disagrees with the fact that high levels of low-frequency noise cause health impacts. There are numerous volumes of research that demonstrate that, from fighter pilots to truck drivers, who are exposed to high levels for long periods of time. Nobody disputes that. The levels of low-frequency noise from wind farms are nothing like the levels that can cause health impacts, and this research has been carried out numerous times. It is easy to measure and we get the same results. It is also worth noting that wind farms have many positive health effects. As I said before, they reduce greenhouse gases and particulate pollution.

The next term of reference, concerns over excessive noise and vibration emitted by wind farms. We talked about it this morning. Wind farm noise is very low when compared with the everyday environment. We are talking about levels of 35 to 40 decibels. If everyone was completely silent in this room and you measured the noise levels it may get down to 40 decibels at the very quietest. They are remarkably quiet. The first response you will ever get—and I always get when I take people to a wind farm for the first time—is they cannot believe how quiet they are. I do not know if all of you, or any of you, have been to a wind farm yet, but I strongly suggest you do. It is a fantastic way to experience the low levels of noise from wind farms.

It is also worth noting that the noise levels applied to the planning guidelines in the various states in Australia are amongst the most strict noise guidelines of anywhere in the world. In our experience, the rate of noise complaints at the wind farms that we operate is remarkably low and many of these are operated in areas where the noise guidelines are much less stringent than those in Australia.

In terms of employment opportunities, as well as the numerous direct and indirect employment opportunities created by wind farms, we strongly support the local communities in which we work and we support the use of local contractors wherever possible. In terms of farm income, wind farms provide drought-proof and flood-proof income to farmers. They also provide income to rural communities beyond the local farmers, with businesses able to take advantage of the opportunities that construction, operation and tourism bring. RES strongly supports the use of community funds and has very good experience across the globe of these working to the benefit of the wider community.

In summary, wind energy is clean, low cost, safe and quiet. RES considers that the current planning requirements are more than adequate to mitigate any impacts of a wind farm development. In consideration of this, along with the wider benefits of wind farms, RES believes that further restrictions on wind farm developments are not appropriate. This is particularly important if the federal government’s 20 per cent by 2020 renewable energy target is to be achieved and implemented at lowest cost.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Mitchell —Union Fenosa Wind Australia is the Australian subsidiary of Spain’s Gas Natural Fenosa, which is a multinational company in the gas and electricity sector that has taken a leading role in developing the wind power industry in Spain. We were very encouraged by the number of submissions that were made to this inquiry, revealing that this issue is important to Australians and that this inquiry is certainly a worthwhile exercise. We are even more encouraged by the number of positive submissions that the inquiry received from the public. On an initial review, we understand that 62 per cent of submitting parties view wind farms in rural areas in a positive light. That was not surprising to us, as we understand from Newspoll that support for renewable wind energy in this country amongst Australians is in excess of 80 per cent.

We also understand that a large number of dissenting views to the inquiry were in fact from foreign parties that probably are not at the forefront of an important discussion within rural Australian communities, among the locals in those communities, about the merits of wind farm projects in rural areas. The people who are at the forefront of that discussion are people like Mr Donoghoe, whom we have invited to join us as a stakeholder landowner from our Crookwell 3 project. Crookwell is a small town just a touch north of Goulbourn, if you are not aware of where it is. It is very near to here. So, the people who are at the forefront of that discussion are people like Mr Donoghoe. They are our stakeholder landowners in the communities who have linked their support to the wind energy industry by writing submissions in their own words to express their support for wind farm projects, not just in their communities but on their land and in view of their homes. We received a number of submissions and I would like to take this opportunity publicly to acknowledge our stakeholders and thank them for their contribution and their continuing support.

Mr Donoghoe is here from our Crookwell 3 project. That is a project we have just shepherded through the process of testing the wind and preparing initial studies of the site. We commenced the planning approvals process by lodging documents with the Department of Planning a fortnight ago. The Crookwell area’s economy is founded firmly on agriculture, but there are changing patterns of land ownership and subdivision in the area. There has been a wool bust and there has been an awful drought. Crookwell has an ageing and static population, and all of these things pose significant economic challenges to the regional economy around Crookwell.

We want to support that economy through our capital investment in renewable wind energy. There are 30 towers slated for the Crookwell 3 project, and its total estimated cost is going to be between $90 million and $110 million. We want to create 40 full-time jobs during the construction period for that project. We want to provide ongoing employment for six people during the operational phase of the project and then there is going to be contracting work for 10 people on an ongoing basis.

We want to skill up the locals in the Crookwell district so that they can work on future projects in the district, and there should be more projects because the district is rightly recognised by the New South Wales government as a renewable energy precinct where wind power can coexist alongside traditional agriculture. Crookwell is already hard working. They boast an unemployment rate well below national averages. We do not doubt that more employment opportunity will only boost opportunities for more people to come to that district. There are going to be multiplier effects that flow from our investment—work for locals in logistics, upgrading roads and fencing. We are already collecting business cards from local businesses that want to share in the benefits of our Crookwell 3 project and we have not even received the construction permit yet.

There will undoubtedly be significant multiplier effects flowing from this increase in economic activity and from the local standing of ongoing lease payments that will be made to stakeholders in their local community. The benefits that Crookwell will see from our investment there will be equally apparent to the communities of Ryan Corner, Hawkesdale or Berrybank—our advanced Victorian projects—except the benefits there will be magnified because these projects are two and three times bigger than Crookwell 3.

Some parts of rural Australia have an historic opportunity to embrace wind energy, to bolster their local communities and augment their traditional strength in farming and agriculture. We really hope that this inquiry highlights that opportunity for farmers and their rural communities. We really hope that this inquiry galvanises support for wind energy projects and we really hope that it dispels the fear mongering campaigns of the anti-wind farm lobby.

This inquiry has an opportunity to educate the community about the safety of wind farms in their rural communities by dispelling myths surrounding arcane acoustics. We hope the inquiry also gives everyone a forum to air their views beyond the process already mandated by our planning authorities. Ours is a healthy democracy and we should not be afraid to have a discussion around facts, around well-founded science and around evidence based policymaking.

We are here to help highlight this historic opportunity for regional economies to the extent that we can. We should state up front that none of us is expert in every facet of every subject that has been raised in submissions to the inquiry, but we do point to sources that we trust that are represented among the submissions—the CSIRO, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and people like Peter Seligman from Cochlear, who was designer of the hearing transplant aid, an area of biomedical science which touches specifically on the interaction of acoustics with human health. These are all organisations that provide a strong and reliable basis for evidence based policymaking in Australia. They are the experts, they are independent and they are prepared to put their views on the record in the face of scientific scrutiny, too. So, these are the sources that can address and refute concerns regarding allegations of adverse health impacts linked to wind turbines, or claimed to be linked to wind turbines, that are driven by negative media campaigns.

In conclusion, we are very enthusiastic about the prospect for wind in Australia. This country has a very strong wind resource and many areas of open land. It also has a growing electricity demand and it recognises the need to develop a cleaner, less carbon polluting economy. We are prepared to commit our expertise and funding to projects using this proven mature technology in wind turbines and we know, from our Spanish experience, that wind energy can be a meaningful and substantial contributor to electricity supply in Australia. Most importantly, and in conclusion, we are prepared to invest in renewable wind energy at risk to our own capital at no cost to the Australian taxpayer and to the benefit of rural communities.

CHAIR —Did anybody else want to make an opening statement? Mr Donoghoe, did you?

Mr Donoghoe —No.

CHAIR —Senator Fielding.

Senator FIELDING —I am interested to know how you handle concerns from residents who live close by to existing wind turbines.

Mr Bean —We have a number of operating wind farms, particularly in South Australia—Wattle Point, Hallett 1, Hallett 2 and Hallett 4. We have arrangement where there are contact numbers available within AGL that are well-known in the community. People can phone us and essentially we are willing to talk and address their concerns and, if necessary, make further investigations. We have, for instance, in response to specific issues on noise carried out further monitoring of turbines for noise.

Senator FIELDING —I might come back to that answer if I can. I just want to keep on going with your, Mr Bean, if I can.

Mr Bean —Please.

Senator FIELDING —With respect to your existing established wind turbines, how close is the closest resident to any of them?

Mr Bean —I believe 1.2 kilometres would be the closest.

Senator FIELDING —Is it the home or the property boundary?

Mr Bean —No, that is the home, the residence.

Senator FIELDING —Any others closer than that?

Mr Rebbeck —We have been developing wind farms in Europe for a lot longer.

Senator FIELDING —Within Australia, I am talking about for the moment.

Mr Rebbeck —We have not built any—

Mr Mitchell —We do not run an operational wind farm at this stage, but the processes we use during the planning process, we provide people with a free call number and they can call and essentially speak with me about their concerns.

Senator FIELDING —Mr Bean, you said you have the closest one at 1.2 kilometres. How is that household? Are they happy or unhappy?

Mr Bean —That specific one, we had some noise complaints, which led us to carry on some additional noise monitoring, which has since led us to actually closing down some turbines while the turbine manufacturer carries out remedial works. So, we have responded to some concerns with that landowner.

Mr Rebbeck —If I can just add to that, because that mirrors our experience. As I said, with our operation of wind farms worldwide, which uses exactly the same technology as the wind turbines that are used in Australia, we have a very low rate of noise complaints. However, when we do have noise complaints, we take them very seriously and we go and talk to the landowners and we do further noise measurements as required. We invariably find that the reason for the valid noise complaints is that there is a mechanical failure with the closest turbine or a nearby turbine, so you are getting a tonal noise from that turbine. Tonal noise is picked up very well by the human ear. That is above and beyond your planning limits. You are effectively exceeding your planning limits. Once you fix that turbine and you correct that problem with the turbine and the turbines are operating within their planning guidelines, we do not have any noise complaints.

Senator FIELDING —Mr Bean, could you provide the committee with the complaint procedure process and how that is handled?

Mr Bean —We can take that one on notice and provide a submission on that.

Senator FIELDING —How close is the next house?

Mr Bean —We have a large number of turbines installed—several hundred—so I could not tell you much. But we have turbines 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 kilometres, quite a number at different distances.

Senator FIELDING —Say, out of the houses that are the closest, if you took the top 10 per cent of those, how many of those are happy or unhappy?

Mr Bean —Let me put it this way. Of the several hundred turbines we have operating we have only had one active noise complaint.

Senator FIELDING —No, I am talking about people who live the closest. If you live a long way away, you are not going to complain.

Mr Bean —As I said, that includes people who live the closest.

Senator FIELDING —I understand. My question was about those that live the closest—say, that the top 10 per cent of the people living the closest.

Mr Bean —I am unable to comment on whether or not people are happy. We have only had one active noise complaint, which we have addressed.

Senator BOYCE —What other sorts of complaints have you had?

Mr Bean —None that I am aware of. Let me correct that. We have had discussions about things like the state of access roads, and unsealed access roads, for instance. That would be one that comes to mind. I can think of no others.

Senator FIELDING —How many of the residents that are close by have you signed confidentiality agreements with—any, some or none?

Mr Bean —The only form of agreement that we sign is with our landowners where we enter into so-called agreements to lease, which defines our relationship where we rent land to install a turbine. There is an element of confidentiality on these. These are rental agreements, which have a lease consideration in there. We commit to keep those details confidential and not divulge them, just as the landowner commits to keep those arrangements confidential. The confidentiality arrangements refer to the components of the arrangement and they could in no way be characterised as gag arrangements. They are just standard commercial arrangements in a commercial lease.

CHAIR —Could we ask each of you what arrangements you require of landholders?

Mr Mitchell —Certainly. Again, we have a lease agreement with stakeholder landowners. There is only one commercial clause in that agreement which relates to confidentiality. It relates to the confidentiality of the wind data that we generate from our testing towers. That is very valuable intellectual property for our company. Our landowners are entitled to know some details of that data, but they are bound by the confidentiality clause they commit to in the lease agreement not to then go on and share that valuable intellectual property with others. It is a fairly standard commercial clause.

Mr Rebbeck —We have the same confidentiality clauses in our agreements and they are standard commercial agreements.

CHAIR —Can we be absolutely clear here. Do any of you have any gag orders or anything that prevents a landholder discussing any health effects they may or may not be feeling?

Mr Bean —AGL has no such agreements.

Mr Mohajerani —We do not have any agreements either. If anything, if there is a problem, it will show up through the complaint process that something is wrong, which is in breach of the permit anyway.

CHAIR —Thank you. I just wanted to get everybody on the record. Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —Others may have some other questions.

CHAIR —Did you have any other questions around the confidentiality issues? Let us clear that one up.

Senator BOYCE —No, but perhaps we could ask everyone to provide us with the number of complaints you have had and what they related to.

Mr Donoghoe —Complaints regarding noise for operating projects?

Senator BOYCE —Noise or anything else of that—

Mr Mohajerani —We do not have any operating projects at the moment.

Mr Rebbeck —In Australia we do not have any operational projects at the moment; worldwide, we do.

CHAIR —Mr Bean.

Mr Bean —Can I maybe just take half a step back to the previous question? I pointed out that our nearest resident or neighbour was 1.2 kilometres. That is our nearest non-financially involved neighbour. We actually have a number of landowners who are closer than that 1.2 kilometres, from whom, I might add, we have had no complaints of noise or other nuisance.

CHAIR —That is from your landholders?

Mr Bean —Financially involved, sorry. That is why I normally refer to the nearest non-involved neighbour.

CHAIR —Thank you for clarifying that.

Senator ADAMS —Just on—

CHAIR —On the confidentiality and the—

Senator ADAMS —Yes.

CHAIR —Okay.

Senator ADAMS —My question regards confidentiality during the planning process when you are actually looking at where the turbines are going to go and what properties they are going to go on, and just the confidentiality side of somebody agreeing to have so many turbines on their property and then their neighbours who will not be having any turbines on their property. Do you have any confidentiality clauses there as to the siting of the turbines?

Mr Mohajerani —We ask the participant landowners not to divulge that information. It is not in the agreement. It is just a request so that it does not raise anxiety within the community just to find out what it is until the final design is finished, so we do not have to go through multiple iterations to get the final design. They will find out what is really going to be lodged at the end, and so we do not like to, as I said, put out false designs or something that is still through the works at the moment. They can divulge that if they wish to. We just ask them not to until the final design is out.

Mr Bean —I think Mr Mohajerani has actually raised a point there where he mentions the final design. One of the issues why developers are often reluctant to issue maps showing where turbines are proposed until actual lodgement of a planning application is quite frankly turbines move around. You may start with a conceptual design for a wind farm once you have entered into agreements with landowners and may have identified a large number of potential sites. As you go through various siting studies and look at the entire gamut of constraints, which might include native vegetation, Aboriginal heritage, communications links, noise studies and shadow flicker, the number will change. You may not only remove turbines but as a result you may then redistribute them. Until you actually come to a point where you are able to lodge a planning application, it is very much a movable feast. I have certainly seen confusion in communities where developers have issued a number of wind farm layouts, each one appears a bit different and inconsistent, and people become frustrated. In community consultation you generally wish to get out as much information, but it is a very difficult process to manage when you are actively designing a wind farm.

Senator ADAMS —Once the final design is announced, can you just tell me the process as to how the rest of the community are going to be able to find out where things are, what the problems may be, what sort of grievance process they may have, or for putting in an objection to the actual siting of a particular turbine?

Mr Mitchell —Conceptually, for instance in New South Wales, the planning scheme is built around a design and consult phases of preparation. You design and then confirm with the community. So, having put together a project, it is at the phase where the project is taking shape and it is a viable project that the community is then invited in to give their views. They are informed about what the project is and given an opportunity to submit their views for consideration.

Mr Mohajerani —When we do start the initial consultation en masse, we doorknock within a radius of the site just to make sure everyone knows what is there and we provide what we refer to as the wind farm zone where we think we can utilise the land and we highlight that zone. So, within that zone we will need to finalise the design, where it is acceptable and where it is not acceptable, and according to all of the standards and guidelines that are available within that zone. But the final layout, again when it comes out, we will send to the Department of Planning in New South Wales for adequacy checks. Through that period they might still have issues that need to be resolved. That still does not go to public notice. Once they are happy that we have addressed all the original requirements, it gets publicised for public exhibition for a period of four to six weeks, or whatever they determine, and then it goes to public notice and everyone will get to view it. Through that period we will have an information day to show everyone what the actual design is and they can ask the consultants who prepared those designs any questions they like about it and then they make an informed decision on that submission—whether they want to be for or against—and then the department of planning packages all those submissions, provides it back to the proponent for response. Once people respond to that through the various consultants, they deem if it is an adequate response or not.

Mr Bean —There are generally multiple opportunities for response. For instance, we have carried out open days presenting conceptual design early and design where we have sought feedback and then moved and deleted turbines and moved roads as a result of that feedback. And then as Mr Mohajerani said, there is then a process post lodgement of a planning application to receive submissions and feedback, which again can have further input on design at that stage.

Senator ADAMS —I know that you have to do all your planning as far as where the wind is and where the best possible sites are for wherever you are going to put your wind farm. As far as the consultation goes, you are looking at people whose property the turbines can go on and then the adjacent properties. Those people on the adjacent properties where there will not be any turbines are not told anything—

Mr Mohajerani —But they will know where the turbine zones will be, but not the actual final location. Again, every time there is an issue and something needs to be moved, all the consultants will have to revise their report to see if it suits them as well. So, you cannot constantly tell the community, ‘It is going to be here. No, it is not going to be here.’ It is going to cause anxiety for no reason. We just tell them where the zones are. We have released drafts to some neighbouring landowners, because they just wanted to know roughly what the closest one could be to their house. We just mark it as draft and send it to them just so that they feel better about how they are situated to that closest turbine. We just tell them, ‘Look, this may change. It is not going to get any closer, but this may change because the studies haven’t finished.’

Senator ADAMS —So, they are actually advised that something is going to happen?

Mr Mohajerani —That is right. The hotlines, the emails, the 1800 numbers, the phone calls—they can get in contact with us if they wish and inquire about it. We do provide information. It is just that we always tell them, ‘This is in draft mode. If you see something different ...’ We do not want to cause concern twice for them and cause anxiety unnecessarily.

Senator ADAMS —I have a question on setback with Transfield.

CHAIR —Can we move on to consultation. I promise we will come back. Does anybody else have any other questions on consultation?

Senator FIELDING —No.

CHAIR —Did we cover that enough?

Senator FIELDING —Yes, for the moment. Let some others have a go.

CHAIR —I realise we went over the confidentiality stuff. Have we done that enough? I just wanted to check that because we moved along from confidentiality and consultation. I just wanted to make sure we covered it.

Senator BOYCE —The Department of Climate Change this morning told us about the guidelines for best practice methods for setting up wind farms. Could you tell me whether your companies use those best practice guidelines or how you measure your performance against what is seen as the best practice guidelines?

Mr Rebbeck —We review all of the guidelines in the industry in terms of community consultation.

Senator BOYCE —Sorry, I am having trouble hearing, Mr Rebbeck.

Mr Rebbeck —We review all of the guidelines in the industry with a view to community consultation. We use our experience of developing wind farms in other parts of the world as well, to take that onboard. Our experience is very much that early and open consultation leads to stronger support from the community, and that is always our approach.

Senator BOYCE —Would you have any comments at all on those guidelines? Do they constitute best practice in the view of the industry?

Mr Mohajerani —I guess you can never have too much consultation. The problem is at a point you will have to see if your project is viable to proceed, and you can never please everyone. You can never please someone who does not like a wind farm, so if they tell you they do not want a wind farm there because they do not like looking at it, it is very hard to negotiate. So, there is a point where you think, ‘Well, they don’t have a valid merit in their concern’, but they are raising the issue. We have had various landowners and non-participant landowners provide us with feedback that was invaluable and it really highlighted the local aspect where we were at and the issues with it. It has been very helpful and we listen but it is very hard to please someone who does not like a wind farm just because they do not like a wind farm.

So, we do have to say that if a person or a group are consistently commenting that they do not want a wind farm in their area, it is very hard to consult with them. We have tried multiple times, but you just keep hearing the same thing and you think, ‘Well, tell us what it is.’ They will bring in various things that really are not necessarily relevant to their initial issue, but they just use that as an excuse to object to the project. It is quite frustrating from a developer’s perspective because you are trying to do the right thing and you are trying to address as many things as you can, but you can never satisfy someone who does not like a wind farm.

CHAIR —Mr Bean.

Mr Bean —I will comment on the specific guidelines. For each of our projects we produce a customised community consultation plan relevant for that project which takes into account local conditions. Those guidelines are one source that we have referenced and we tend to draw upon the experience of our consultants, for instance, and our experiences in other places. So, they are a source that we have drawn on; whether they are the best practice, I cannot comment on, but they are a source that we call upon our consultants to draw upon and produce in consultation plans.

Senator BOYCE —The department of climate change assured us this morning that COAG was of the view that these guidelines included best practice methods for establishing wind farms. Am I correct in sensing a lack of enthusiasm for these guidelines from the industry?

Mr Mitchell —Perhaps one concern is that where those guidelines are not in accordance with the state planning schemes we really need to comply with this as a matter of jurisdiction. The national guidelines diverge from state planning schemes in two key respects. In one sense, they refer to using measures for stringent testing for noise using the most advanced technology for noise testing and in another sense they also—

CHAIR —I beg your pardon. Which one uses higher standards?

Mr Mitchell —The national guidelines use a more stringent test.

CHAIR —So, why can you then not comply with the national one? Surely you can do better than the state guidelines. You do not get penalised by the state for doing better, do you?

Senator BOYCE —Is it a matter of cost?

Mr Rebbeck —In some cases they are inconsistent to the extent that one guideline will ask you to do a certain noise study in a certain way and another one in a different way.

Senator BOYCE —Welcome to the Australian federation.

CHAIR —That helps clarify it for me, because if it was just as simple a matter of having a higher standard, I would say, ‘We’ll go for the higher standard’, but if it is using two different processes. Now I understand.

Mr Rebbeck —They are contradictory. It is impossible to comply. Absolutely.

Mr Bean —Processes are different from state to state and that is one challenge that any developer has to embrace if it wishes to operate nationally. Certainly, taking on another set of guidelines which may well be inconsistent complicates issues, particularly when they are not necessarily called out by the state planning authority, for instance.

CHAIR —That was the first example that you raised. You said there were two.

Mr Mitchell —The second inconsistency is that the National Wind Farm Development Guidelines refer to infrasound, but then within those guidelines it, in fact, says that there is ‘no verifiable evidence for infrasound production by modern wind turbines and there are very, very few, if any, confirmed reported cases of infrasound noise emission problems from wind farms’.

Senator BOYCE —So, they are asking you to measure something.

Mr Mitchell —The guidelines refer to infrasound in a broad based way, but then within the guidelines they then say, ‘Well, infrasound is not proved to cause anything.’

Senator BOYCE —So, they are asking you to measure something that they themselves say is not an issue.

Mr Mitchell —Yes, it is not an issue. So, it is an issue of evidence based policymaking.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you. That was all I had in that particular area.

CHAIR —Senator Brown has got another consultation question.

Senator ADAMS —On that, yes.

CHAIR —I promise I will not forget you.

Senator CAROL BROWN —I actually wanted to ask whether you undertake, or have undertaken on your behalf, any community surveys in regard to community support for wind farms, or do you know of any that have been undertaken?

Mr Mohajerani —When we do our doorknocks, we have got a list of questions and we do the survey. We just ask everyone how they feel about every aspect of something that may concern them, and generally you find that the majority of people are either in support or they are not too fussed about it. I think there is a lot of misinformation out there at times that triggers a concern, so what we do through the doorknocks is we provide them information or references to information so that they can go and set their mind at ease. Again, there is no point us going somewhere where the majority of people are against the wind farm, but everywhere we have gone—every doorknock we have done—most people have been supportive or neutral. It is only usually a small minority that are quite vocal and they do oppose quite aggressively.

Mr Bean —AGL has had some doorknock attitude surveys carried out early in the development process, generally before we have had public open days held and, again, they have been generally overwhelmingly supportive of the development of wind energy.

Senator CAROL BROWN —So, the consultation periods with stakeholders and the community are quite lengthy. It is a long process to get a wind farm built. How long, on average?

Mr Bean —That is very hard to say. I think you can bracket it a little. We have had projects which you might describe as fast track which have taken around about two years to go through a development process from initial feasibility to permit, and then around about two years of construction. That would be the case for our Hallett 4 wind farm. Other wind farms have been developed, have gone through a permitting process and then taken five years before there was a commitment to construct. That would be our Hallett 5 wind farm, for instance. Certainly, other projects have had longer gestations in the permit process. Maybe my colleagues could give some examples.

CHAIR —We have a division. We will be back as soon as we can. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 3.14 pm to 3.51 pm

CHAIR —We will resume taking evidence. Senator Adams has some questions.

Senator ADAMS —Transfield. I refer to a comment that you do not support the two-kilometre setback for wind turbines for residences. Could you tell me why?

Mr Rebbeck —You asked that of Transfield; do you mean RES Australia?

Senator ADAMS —You have obviously got turbines over in Europe, as you were saying. How close are they to people’s residences?

Mr Rebbeck —I would not know the closest distance, but it is very typical to have turbines closer than one kilometre to homes.

Senator ADAMS —With this two-kilometre setback, you think they should be closer; is that really the reason you put that in there?

Mr Rebbeck —We have an issue with arbitrary buffer zones. We think the planning rules should be absolutely evidence based, based on scientific principles. We think the noise restrictions in Australia, as I said before, are the most stringent noise guidelines for wind farms of anywhere in the world. They tend to be the planning limits that set the minimum distance and we have very low levels of complaints across the world.

Mr Bean —The general method of planning assessment that we come across for wind farms, gas turbines plants, whatever type of development we make, is essentially a merit based assessment where your impacts on sensitive receptors, such as residences are assessed, and you have to plan around these limits. That is the normal approach. In fact, the issue of standardised setback distances was canvassed, I remember, in a New South Wales inquiry where the department of planning said, in general, their view was that they were not in favour of prescribing distances because in some instances the distances might not be great enough and, in fact, a case-by-case assessment should be made. So, in general, an approach that we find, when it is defensible technically, is a merit based assessment where your impact is assessed, be it noise, be it shadow flicker, whatever, and your design is limited by those defined merit criteria.

Senator ADAMS —With these new guidelines that are coming out you would rather have it that way than a standardised two kilometres or whatever? This is really the reason I am asking the question. Do you think there should be this two kilometre setback in all states or would you just do it on a merit based one, as you are talking about, taking into consideration gullies and things like that and that noise travels in different ways—or over water? That would be the better way to go?

Mr Bean —I think a merit based assessment will generally allow best and most productive use of land and that is why it is generally used across all industries.

Senator ADAMS —Mr Donoghoe, I am quite interested in your situation. Would you like to just give us a brief description of where you are at with being a farmer, how many turbines are going to go on your property and just how the planning process and the consultation process has gone for you?

Mr Donoghoe —We were first approached by Union Fenosa in their earliest capacity about five or six years ago, at which stage my family farm was in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years in this country, so we were quite willing right from the outset to look at the alternative of having a wind farm on our property. So, really, to nail it, we see it as a win-win situation for my family farm and for Union Fenosa, I guess without having to look too deeply into the things we have been discussing here, which are the community effects.

Senator ADAMS —Is the wind farm going to be contained just on your property or is it going into neighbours?

Mr Donoghoe —No, a number of neighbouring properties—myself and one or two neighbours.

Senator ADAMS —How has the consultation gone with the rest of the community and your other neighbours?

Mr Donoghoe —We consult amongst ourselves either via the bush telegraph, telephone or over the back fence and we are all still on good terms—those people who have and have not. I have a neighbour who is ambivalent to the wind farm and really does not care either way whether he has a turbine or not. I have another neighbour who is getting turbines and he is quite happy to have them.

Senator ADAMS —Do you have any neighbours that are going the other way?

Mr Donoghoe —Vehemently opposed? Not really. I had a neighbour who sold his property after generations of being there about three years ago and he was pro-wind farm but just left the area because of the drought. He sold his property. He saw his property as more valuable as cash in the bank than wait for a wind farm to come along. We have decided to do the opposite and hopefully everything will work out for us.

Senator ADAMS —And how close are the turbines going to be to you as far as your homestead goes?

Mr Donoghoe —The closest one is about 1½ kilometres.

CHAIR —Senator Brown.

Senator CAROL BROWN —You are obviously not concerned about the alleged health impacts?

Mr Donoghoe —No, because I think my colleagues here have summarised my position pretty thoroughly.

Senator CAROL BROWN —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Boyce.

Senator BOYCE —Earlier today it was suggested to us that the German model of starting wind farms from a federal government telling provincial governments, ‘This is what you need to do. You work out how to do it’, so that you ended up with community planning and, in some cases, community ownership of wind farms and that that would be a good model for Australia to look at. I am presuming that a not-for-profit wind farm sector would not be exactly your idea of the best way to go, but I would like your comment on how the ownership and whatever of this industry should be structured. This was suggested as community ownership getting around the jealous neighbour issue, so could I have comments, please?

Mr Bean —From AGL’s point of view, I think there is only one comment we would make there. We have no issue with the community ownership of wind farms. I think the greatest challenge of the renewable energy target is the sheer volumes of renewable energy, and hence sheer numbers of turbines, which would need to be deployed and which will lead to a need for the industry to spend literally billions of dollars a year as we head towards the back end of this decade. So, whilst community ownership could play a part in there, I think it would necessarily play a very small part, given the size of the task facing the industry.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you. Any other comments?

Mr Mohajerani —I think what Mr Bean said is spot-on. We do encourage it because the more people you have onboard, the less upset neighbours you might have. I think one of the problems that we have seen is the higher cost of connection so that projects do seem to grow just to overcome the connection cost. I do not think you can get enough landholders to pitch in to have equity in such a large project and risk their asset, which is their land, on something that, again, with uncertainty in the market it could drag on for a long time, and it is not good for them because they cannot sustain it. That is why we have seen, I think up to now, two small community projects that have gone up and they have connected to very small lines and I think that is the extent. I think in Germany their regime is so heavily subsidised that they can overcome these costs and they are almost promoted to do these things, whereas here we are competing with cheap coal and it is not possible for the government to actively subsidise it, other than the RET scheme or possibly with a future carbon price.

Senator BOYCE —Would you see any issues around load planning if there were a substantial percentage of the industry owned by co-ops or whatever?

Mr Bean —Not really. The issue of management of load is now reasonably well managed because all wind farms are so-called semidispatched. They are controlled by the electricity market operator, EMO, and they can turn down the output of wind farms whenever necessary.

Senator BOYCE —My other question went to a suggestion made by the Aerial Agricultural Association this morning that the safest avenue to pursue here would be that wind farms would not be allowed in areas where low-flying aerial activities were likely to take place. I presume the industry has a view about that idea.

Mr Mitchell —Aerial agricultural spraying is very common on very flat lands which people use for growing grains and what have you. Typically that land is very flat. It is not heavily forested, so it means that the wind can actually flow at quite a high rate, which means it is a very good wind resource. You would certainly see a large overlap between areas that are agriculturally dusted and areas with a high wind resource, so you would be effectively banning large chunks of the best wind resource in the country.

Senator BOYCE —The association was also of the view that the majority of—and I hope I am not verballing them here but this is as I understood it—companies involved in wind farm development were not being cooperative in terms of marking where monitoring stations or turbines were located, therefore causing potential for harm to aerial operators. Again, can I have a comment?

Mr Mitchell —The gentleman representing the crop dusters, effectively, raised a very good point. There is a very real safety hazard for people flying low-flying planes. Aerial masts ought to be marked or at least flagged for their attention so they know where those very real hazards are.

Senator BOYCE —Are you saying marked on maps?

Mr Mitchell —The question there becomes a question of confidentiality. I mentioned before a key part of the process at the early stages of our projects is generating very valuable intellectual property for us, which is the wind data. That data needs to be collected over time and, essentially, by putting up a tower you are flagging, potentially, to competitors that you believe that there is a good, viable wind resource at that location. So, by putting everything on a map that is publicly available, you are belling the cat; you are telling everyone where you think there is a viable project.

Senator BOYCE —Can these monitoring towers be picked up on satellite? Can I Google them?

Mr Mitchell —I would believe not.

Mr Mohajerani —You would not see them very clearly because you would see a point from straight up. Just following on from what Mr Mitchell was saying, throughout some of our projects through the consultation process we did have aerial agricultural contractors ask us to notify them if any new masts go up so that they can look out for them instead of going in blind, so we have done that with the contractor. We cannot stop them from divulging that information, but we do not want to cause a safety issue, so we have notified them exactly where the turbine is in relation to the runways they use in the area. It is a better alternative than having them running into it, so we have done that. I think now, more and more, the masts do get higher and higher, so it is quite easy to spot them when you are driving along the road anyway; there is no point hiding anything.

Senator BOYCE —Mr Bean, how does your company handle this issue?

Mr Bean —I believe that we have supplied locations of masts to the Aerial Agricultural Association. We would have no issue supplying mast locations to some database.

Senator BOYCE —Do you think this is something that an organisation such as CASA, for instance, should administer?

Mr Bean —It would certainly be preferable for us if an organisation such as CASA had a clear and nominated group responsibility. I believe we supplied information to the Aerial Agricultural Association; that was on a voluntary and informal basis. We would have no issue if the process was more formalised.

Senator BOYCE —Does everyone agree with that view, or not?

Mr Mohajerani —I think Air Services Australia, the Aerial Agricultural Association and CASA are all informed when we do have one. Generally there is data and you can upload this information yourself. You go in just so that they are aware of it and they distribute that through their members.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Adams.

Senator ADAMS —As far as developers go, have your wind farms been able to actually hook straight into the grid through an existing line or have you had to actually supply a line yourselves or pay for a line to be constructed?

Mr Mohajerani —We have both options. There are areas that the line goes through our site and we have to build a substation and there are other places where you have to build a line to get to the line to build a substation.

Senator ADAMS —I am from Western Australia and I just note that the Meridian project has run into trouble there because their line is not big enough or strong enough, or whatever terminology you use for power going into a line, and they have come to a bit of a standstill. Could you comment on that as far as the environmental protection people are concerned? Who actually assesses whether the line is adequate for that particular output?

Mr Mohajerani —It is the network authority, which depending on the state could be various entities, but the environmental planning side is not in control of that. It is up to the proponent to do their homework and not spend millions developing a project if they have no capacity to connect to.

Senator BOYCE —That was really the reason I asked. It seems $176 million is sitting there and the line is not adequate, so therefore it has come to a bit of a standstill. I just wonder why the planning was not done more adequately for that.

Mr Mohajerani —They can always upgrade the line. I am not familiar with the exact parameters they can operate it on, but it is most probably just unviable to upgrade it at this point in time because they just cannot sell their energy at a higher cost.

Mr Bean —I am sorry. I have no knowledge of this specific project, so I am unable to—

Senator BOYCE —I am trying to think of the name of it but I just have not got that with me, unfortunately. It is quite a considerable wind farm that is going up there. Anyway, I will check it out. Thank you.

CHAIR —I have one final question. I think everybody else is done.

Senator BOYCE —Can you remember what the name of that—

CHAIR —No, I cannot. Have any of you done health assessments of your own? You have given us your feedback on how you have reviewed the literature but have any of you done any health impact assessments?

Mr Bean —AGL has carried out no health impact assessments on wind turbine technology, gas turbine technology, hydroelectric technology or photovoltaic technology—any of the technologies we deploy—which are all well-proven technologies.

CHAIR —Thank you. Nobody else?

Mr Mitchell —It is not our core business. If health issues do emerge as a real issue; in our opinion it is, essentially, a hypothesis at the moment. For instance, Pierpont’s position is, essentially, a hypothesis. It is certainly nothing we should be building evidence based policy around, but if it were to emerge it is certainly something we would have to look at.

CHAIR —If there are no final questions, I thank you very much for your submissions and taking the time to come in. I think there are bits of homework for people. Did anybody promise us any further information?

Mr Bean —AGL committed to respond with the details of its complaints/grievance procedure on the notification process.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. The committee will now adjourn and reconvene on Monday in Ballarat.

Committee adjourned at 4.10 pm