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Community Affairs References Committee
29/03/2011
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR (Senator Siewert) —Today the Senate Community Affairs References Committee continues its public hearings in its inquiry into social and economic impact of rural wind farms. I welcome Mr Ken McAlpine of Vestas. I understand the information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses’ evidence has been provided to you.

Mr McAlpine —That is correct.

CHAIR —Thank you. We have received your submission as No. 712. I would invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr McAlpine —Thank you, Chair. Vestas Australian Wind Technology Pty Ltd has supplied more than half of all the wind turbines installed in Australia. So for the purposes of this inquiry, we are well placed to cover many of the issues that are in the terms of reference. Our parent company in Denmark is the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of wind turbines. At last count, we had 23,000 employees worldwide in over 60 countries. Again, our experience in the area of wind turbines is probably unequalled around the world. Wind farms in rural areas in Australia have contributed many jobs and boosted the prospects of many towns and regions across Australia and, with the Australian government’s 20 per cent renewable energy target, this is set to continue. I am very pleased that the Senate is giving the industry the chance to put a few facts on the record, because we know that wind farms have been in the media and there has been quite a bit of debate over the past year in particular. So we welcome that opportunity.

I thought I might touch on a few of the issues that have been raised in the hearings to date and in a number of the submissions. Obviously the one that is of most interest to us and closest to our heart is safety. Vestas has safety as its No. 1 priority. The wind industry generally is a very safe industry. If you compare it to coal or gas or any other sort of production of electricity, you are going to find that wind energy is one of the safest around the globe, and we are proud of that. As I mentioned, we have thousands of employees and they work in and around wind turbines every day; so, if there is something about them that is not safe, we want to know and we want to fix it. Thankfully, that is not the case. There is nothing about wind turbines that is unsafe. There is nothing about them that is unhealthy.

Well over 100,000 wind turbines of various sizes have been installed around the world but this just keeps growing and growing. The biggest markets for wind energy are China, the US and of course Europe. Australia has been taking some small steps in this regard and hopefully, with the 20 per cent renewable energy target, this will continue. We are not the first to go down the path of wind energy and, in some countries, wind energy is already cost competitive with coal and gas.

Many of these wind turbines that I mentioned have been installed in Europe, which is Vestas’s home continent and Denmark its home country. So, of course, when health concerns were raised, I checked with my colleagues in Denmark and Europe and asked what their experience had been of this. There has been a lot of research done on wind turbines over the years. In Denmark in particular, in Germany and in many of the other countries in Europe where thousands of wind turbines have been installed, old ones and modern ones, there are not any health claims. Most of the health claims that you heard yesterday and that are in some of the submissions seem to come from Australia. They come from the north-eastern states of the US where Nina Pierpont comes from. There is a little bit of coverage of the issue in some regions of Canada, and of course the Country Guardians group in the UK has also raised the issue in amongst many of the issues it raised in trying to stop wind turbines being built.

In the other countries in which we operate this is a very rare thing. As I mentioned before, there is a lot of experience of wind turbines, both ones that have been there for 10, 20 years, and modern ones. I can tell you again that there is nothing about the wind turbines that we are installing that would be unhealthy or harmful to people’s health and wellbeing. So of course, naturally, the claims made during this inquiry concern us greatly because they affect our reputation and affect community support.

I was encouraged yesterday by Senator Boyce asking many of the people who appeared to focus on the evidence, asking them did they have any evidence for many of their claims. I think that is a good approach to take. What we are talking about here is eventually a set of recommendations that will be made by the committee, and we would want those to be evidence based. As an industry, we do not do things unless we have evidence of what might happen or what has happened, and we would urge the Senate to do the same here.

On Friday, we had the appearance from Nina Pierpont via a phone call and she said many things about the wind industry, things that really you could only say under parliamentary privilege. She was asked about her evidence and the process of peer review and why she avoids it. Peer review is an important and time-honoured scientific practice that ensures quality control in science. Her response to why she did not have her work peer-reviewed was that it was too long for a scientific journal. She published her work in a book, though. The editorial committee for her publishing company features herself and her husband. The company has published two books. The other one is a book by her husband. So let us be frank: this is self-published work. This is not widely accepted academic work. She is a paediatrician making claims about hearing and acoustics and about wind energy, yet she has the temerity to attack Dr Geoff Leventhall, who is one of the foremost experts in this field and the author of numerous pieces of peer-reviewed work, as if he is a mouthpiece for the wind industry. We completely reject that.

Later today you will get the chance to ask questions of Sarah Laurie, who calls herself a doctor, calls herself the medical director for the so-called Waubra Foundation. Nina Pierpont said on Friday that, in many respects, Sarah Laurie had already undertaken research that was beyond what Pierpont herself had undertaken. Sarah Laurie has no peer-reviewed research on wind turbines available either. Why would she, when Nina Pierpont never bothers with this? Sarah Laurie has been calling herself a rural GP but, in fact, she is not actually registered to practise, and you will get the chance to ask her why she chooses not to register as a health practitioner. In a recent TV interview, she conceded this publicly.

The other thing that I intend to address, because I know you have got the CFA appearing later, is fire risk. Some of the submissions from the landscape guardian groups raise the question of fire risk. We would say that the risk of fire from wind turbines is very low, and the evidence bears that out. This was noted yesterday by all of the local councils that appeared before you. Many of our staff, in fact, on all of our wind turbine sites, are CFA volunteers; so we are in the community making sure that the fire risk is low and stays that way. Fire risk of course also needs to be put in context when people are suggesting that wind turbines cause fires or bushfires. They need to look at some of the other things that cause fires. If the Senate committee wishes, I can provide numbers on fire risk for the wind turbine industry later, on notice.

I will leave it there because we only have half an hour and I welcome your questions.

CHAIR —If you could provide that information, it would be useful. Senator Fielding.

Senator FIELDING —Thanks, Chair and Mr McAlpine. You said that there is nothing about wind turbines that is unsafe. So, if you had a residence that was very close to one and there was a lot of shadow flicker, people living in it would not have any effects on their health at all?

Mr McAlpine —No, that is not what I am saying at all.

Senator FIELDING —You said there was nothing about them—

Mr McAlpine —I said there was nothing unsafe about our wind turbines. You are talking about a situation there, a hypothetical one perhaps, of shadow flicker. That is all to do with the location of a wind turbine and not about the wind turbine itself. There is nothing about the machines that we produce, supply and install that would make people sick.

Senator FIELDING —I understand that your parent company in Denmark have announced that there will be binding limits that will be legislated on all wind turbine infrasound.

Mr McAlpine —Who is ‘they’, sorry?

Senator FIELDING —Is that correct? I understand that there would be binding limits legislated on wind turbine infrasound.

Mr McAlpine —You are talking about whom? You are talking about the parliament?

Senator FIELDING —From what I have been told. I am interested to know: are you aware that they are looking at legislating?

Mr McAlpine —I am not aware of what you are referring to. You might want to provide that later and I could respond, but I cannot respond now when you are not telling me who is providing that.

Senator FIELDING —You want me to double-check the information I have got?

Mr McAlpine —That would be good.

Senator FIELDING —A state owned electricity company called DONG Energy has announced that it is abandoning the development of onshore wind turbines as a result of concerns about human health.

Mr McAlpine —No, they did not announce that.

Senator FIELDING —I will need to—

Mr McAlpine —They have said they are going offshore and focusing—they are a customer of ours. They said they are going offshore.

Senator FIELDING —Do you know why?

Mr McAlpine —They said there is better return offshore and, indeed, they also made reference to complaints about noise. There is absolutely no doubt about that. But you just said health, and that is quite another thing.

Senator FIELDING —I need to double-check.

Mr McAlpine —I am telling you right now that they never mentioned health. I do not think you should take them out of context. I do not think you should misquote them in a situation here.

Senator FIELDING —Have any of your turbines ever caught fire at all?

Mr McAlpine —Yes. I discussed fire risk and put it in a context, and fire risk is very, very low.

Senator FIELDING —When you say that there is nothing about them that is unsafe, I think that statement would not be a hundred per cent correct.

Mr McAlpine —That is drawing a bit of a long bow. Lots of things catch on fire. Are you going to call everything that catches on fire unsafe?

Senator FIELDING —You say that peer review is important. Are you aware of the National Health and Medical Research Council report? Do you know whether that has been peer-reviewed at all?

Mr McAlpine —The NHMRC report—

Senator FIELDING —The one that the industry relies on for claiming it is safe.

Mr McAlpine —That you are referring to, yes. I include it in my submission. That is a rapid review of all of the peer-reviewed research around the world. What the NHMRC did was examine all of the evidence, which I suggest that you do as well. The NHMRC has not been called before this inquiry, as I understand it, but I think it would be a good thing if it did.

Senator FIELDING —Can I correct that. We have asked them to appear. They had not agreed to appear until I think late yesterday.

Mr McAlpine —Do you not have the power to compel them?

CHAIR —I am the chair and, as the chair, I am telling you we have asked them to appear and they have conceded. They said yes, they will appear.

Mr McAlpine —Okay.

CHAIR —It would be appreciated if you did not argue with the senators.

Mr McAlpine —I am just asking the senator a question. To go on with the point about the NHMRC, if you have any questions about the way in which they produced their report, or about the evidence they considered when they did that report, I suggest that you ask them about it if they are going to appear. I was not involved in the production of that report of course.

CHAIR —Senator Adams, do you have any questions?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, I have. I would just like to continue. Thank you for your opening statement. I have a question about the NHMRC publication. I have had colleagues that have approached the NHMRC about the authors of their report, which was the rapid review of the evidence. Unfortunately, NHMRC have just come back and said that there are numerous authors. They will not name them. Really, the evidence that they have come up with includes the American and Canadian wind energy associations, which have come in as expert peer reviewers. These people are actually involved with the wind industry. As far as the report goes, I note that in your submission you have several quotes and you have really linked your health claims and the evidence to use that as your main issue against any health problems. But once we do get NHMRC in, it will be interesting to see what their evidence is. This document is not as watertight as was first thought, and a number of our submitters of course are using that as their evidence.

I have a question for you. You have said that none of your wind farms are causing problems. I wonder, with your community consultation, whether you have done any surveys of people outside, not the people that are actually putting turbines on their properties but neighbours. Have you done any sort of survey of those other people around the perimeter of any of your wind farms at all?

Mr McAlpine —I should clarify that Vestas is not a developer of wind farm sites. We are a supplier to the industry. So the industry uses our equipment but we do not seek planning permits. We do not do the community consultation. Our customers, such as AGL, Pacific Hydro and others, do that work. We are a supplier to the industry. We are not out there doing all of those roles. That is the developer’s job or the generator’s job.

Senator ADAMS —You did make the statement that none of your equipment would cause health problems—

Mr McAlpine —That is correct.

Senator ADAMS —That was the reason I was asking. I was thinking, if you can come out and say that, has your company done any surveys to see whether people have been affected, despite the fact that your company is not the actual contractor? But to come out and make a statement like that, I presume you have some evidence behind that to say that this is the reason why.

Mr McAlpine —Sorry, you said ‘surveys’. What you mean is health research.

Senator ADAMS —That is right.

Mr McAlpine —The industry more broadly, which we fund and participate in, has done work on this. You have mentioned a couple of the studies that have been conducted in some of our biggest markets, Canada and the USA. I understand that work is also being done in Denmark and in the UK as to, I guess, not only noise but also health. As you have probably seen, both through the submissions and in the hearings that you have had to date, when people are making claims that wind turbines are making people sick they are never quite clear about why they say that is so. Whether it is noise or whether it is annoyance, whether it is shadow flicker, as Senator Fielding mentioned, they are never actually clear about what it is about the wind turbine that they are blaming for making them sick, what aspect actually does make them sick. So we have looked at the issue of noise of course, because we are always trying to reduce noise from wind turbines. But we have found no evidence of any direct link to health impacts.

I do say, in the submission that we have lodged, that we are very concerned about stress. Stress is real, and stress has health impacts. We reference this and so does the NHMRC in looking at all the evidence on the table. Stress is something quite different to any aspect of the machines that we produce and stress has a health impact. Stress can result from all kinds of thing. I do not pretend to be an expert in it, but stress is a widely accepted medical condition and a lot of, I guess, the testimony yesterday and the submissions and claims that have been made would seem to me to be consistent with stress. But you are getting the NHMRC in and they can respond to that.

As I also mentioned in the submission, Victoria’s chief medical officer, John Carnie, has put a statement on the record about health; so too has WorkSafe Victoria. And that is important to us for the safety of our employees as well. There is plenty of research out there and the NHMRC has done a review of that evidence, that research. We have participated in it in jurisdictions such as the US and Canada. I think that is all I can say.

Senator ADAMS —Have you actually seen the report that the chief medical officer has produced or the WorkSafe report?

Mr McAlpine —In the case of WorkSafe, I believe they made a submission to a panel hearing in Victoria. It was not a report as such, not a big volume. It was a communication they made when they were asked by a planning panel in Victoria over the last year or the year before. I can produce that for you on notice if you would like.

Senator ADAMS —It would be good if you could.

CHAIR —If you could make that available.

Mr McAlpine —The comments by the chief medical officer in Victoria were made on the record in a media interview and were reported widely during 2010. Again, if you like, I can produce that for you, but it is publicly available.

Senator ADAMS —We will follow that up anyway and see if the chief medical officer has actually done a report to back up his statements.

Mr McAlpine —I am not sure what he reviewed in coming to that conclusion, but it is likely that he has looked at much of the publicly available evidence out there.

Senator ADAMS —I have one question on employees. How many people do you employ in Australia?

Mr McAlpine —In Australia it is just over 200. We are expecting that to increase. We are currently building a couple of wind farms in Western Australia and Victoria, and construction in Victoria is yet to reach its peak. We are building the Macarthur wind farm through the rest of this year, in conjunction with Leighton Contractors for AGL and Meridian Energy, and construction will take place through the rest of this year and next year. We are expecting our employee numbers to rise significantly because that will be a very large wind farm when completed—420 megawatts, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Senator ADAMS —What about Western Australia?

Mr McAlpine —In Western Australia we are currently building the Collgar wind farm. We are supplying the turbines and installing them for Collgar. I am not sure of the exact numbers but I can provide them on notice to you. I am going to be in Perth observing the hearings on Thursday so, if you like, I can bring that information.

Senator ADAMS —What is the other one?

Mr McAlpine —Sorry, to finish on that, I understand that Collgar wind farm, our customer, will be appearing before the committee as well.

Senator ADAMS —And the second one?

Mr McAlpine —When I said ‘two’ I was referring to one in Victoria one in WA.

Senator ADAMS —I am from Western Australia, as is Senator Siewert, and I was wondering where the other one was.

Mr McAlpine —We would love to build a second one in Western Australia.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Boyce.

Senator BOYCE —First off, how many people does Vestas employ in Australia?

Mr McAlpine —I was just asked. It is a little over 200 but we are expecting that number to rise.

Senator BOYCE —About 200?

Mr McAlpine —Yes.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you. As the manufacturer, you may be able to answer this: in the event that there is a bushfire in a wind farm area, what would the procedure be in regard to the turbines?

Mr McAlpine —I can provide our material on that, our briefings for staff. That is a document that I am happy to provide. I am not sure of it myself because I am not a site employee. We work closely with the CFA or CFS, the relevant authority in each state. There have been turbine fires in Australia and, where that has occurred, they have not spread, mainly because the area is cordoned off. Usually the fire has occurred in the top part of the wind turbine, which is known as the nacelle. At that height it is not safe for anyone to approach the fire or to try to put it out. So the area is cordoned off. Typically, wind farms are built in open grassland where the grass is maintained at a low level. So there is very little risk of the fire spreading anywhere else. All the power lines are underground as well. Unlike Black Saturday, where there was conjecture over whether power lines had contributed to fires there, with the wind turbines we make it our practice to put the power lines on the site underground. So we take a number of steps to reduce and mitigate fire risk. As I said, I can provide that sort of material on notice to the committee. I would be happy to do that.

Senator BOYCE —You refer to the Waubra Foundation as secretive. Why do you say that?

Mr McAlpine —They have a website and they have statements in the press, yet they do not disclose their funding or their shareholders. They seem to have appeared from nowhere. They describe themselves as independent. On their website there is a list of principles that they set out as to what they are involved in. They talk about wind farm research and describe themselves as independent, yet funnily enough down the bottom of the web page they have a post office box in South Melbourne. That is their only physical address. It is no coincidence that that is also the post office box of the Australian Landscape Guardians. You will see supplementary submission 6 by Peter Mitchell of the Australian Landscape Guardians also has the very same post office box. I say they are secretive but they are also a little misleading too because they say they are independent yet they share digs with the Australian Landscape Guardians. So I am not sure how independent the Waubra Foundation could ever be.

Senator BOYCE —You have written at length about groups such as the Landscape Guardians and their concerns, which you dismiss. This has to be based on something. The reason they are doing this has to be based on something. Presumably, investors have thought quite long and hard about what it is that is prompting these organisations. If you do not think it is adverse health effects, what do you think is prompting the opposition to wind farms?

Mr McAlpine —That is going to take longer than half an hour. I really do not know what motivates these people. I certainly do not know who funds them. There are a lot of people in the landscape guardian groups that do spend a lot of time attacking the wind industry on all kinds of bases, and the latest one seems to be allegations about health because they think that will concern people more than anything else. It seems to be almost their best tactic to date, but they have tried a few over the years. I do not know where they get their money from and I do not know why they are coming after us. All we are trying to do is help Australia get to its 20 per cent renewable energy target and reduce its greenhouse emissions. We have never set out to do any harm, yet it seems to be their stated purpose to stop us going ahead with our projects.

They sometimes talk about a two-kilometre buffer but in the next breath they will talk about people having heart attacks 10 kilometres away from wind turbines. These people are incredibly inconsistent and they will use whatever is convenient to stop wind farms. We do not meet with them. They do not seek to meet with us. Their communications with us are through the media. So it is very hard to understand where they are coming from and why they would do this. We definitely feel like we are in the gun, as it were. They are a committed and well-funded group of people that are seeking to attack us. It is unfortunate but that is what we are dealing with.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Moore.

Senator MOORE —I am on the same track as Senator Boyce. You spoke in your evidence about the reputation of the industry. What role do you take as a turbine producer to be part of the general public perception of the industry?

Mr McAlpine —We work very closely as part of the Clean Energy Council in Australia. I will restrict my comments to Australia. When we are building projects, we work with our customers very closely to integrate within the community and promote wind energy and ensure that the community is supportive of the projects too. Where wind farms have been built, in our experience they have been very successful. A good example of that is in Western Australia at Meridian, where we are building the Collgar wind farm. The community response has been terrific. In terms of tangible things, most of our employees live in and around the communities. A certain level of staff is required to operate a wind farm, maintain it and keep it going. Those people either buy or rent houses. They set up camp in these towns. They bring their families and they send their kids to school locally. So they become part of the community. As I mentioned, our staff typically, if they are on a site, will also be members of the local fire service and get involved in the community in other ways. So even though typically the bulk of our role, I guess, is in the construction stage, we always have employees left behind who stay there and operate and maintain the wind turbines too where we have got the service contract for each site. We have built wind farms in a number of states. I think the only one we have not built a project in to date is New South Wales. So we are very proud of our role within the community, and we want that to expand, as the renewable energy target would hopefully encourage.

Senator MOORE —You are very much aware of the evidence that we have had from people who have concerns. You have also indicated in your evidence that similar concerns have been raised in some other countries. It is not unknown that people have raised issues about difficulties with the whole process. In the panel this afternoon, I will be talking to Clean Energy and to other providers. I am trying to find out whether there is any process to develop a best practice approach for engaging with communities and identifying the kinds of issues that we heard about yesterday. It was not from small areas. It was a response from across a whole range of organisations and areas in Victoria which raised very similar things.

If those things are on the table, I want to know, from your perspective, as a member of the industry who takes a high-profile role in the industry, is there a best practice way that is a model that clients of yours and various providers have a process of providing? Comments you have made about your concerns about transparency and openness from people who oppose the industry were put clearly on the record yesterday by people who have concerns about the industry. One of the common statements was that big businesses are not being open and transparent and have got secret motivations—all that rhetoric. Is there an agreed way of how you engage, how you put evidence into the situation and how you ensure that people are not damaged in any way? You are never going to stop people having concerns, but is there a process for discussing the extra damage in the concerns we saw yesterday?

Mr McAlpine —There has been since 2006. Those were the best practice guidelines that the industry developed together with stakeholders back in 2006. It is available on the Clean Energy Council website, so you can get a copy of that.

Senator MOORE —We have that.

Mr McAlpine —As I understand it, most developers in Australia stick to that. Some of them go above and beyond that. I think some developers are quite proud of the efforts they make in community consultation and the role they take, and it is almost intellectual property to them. You will get the chance later today to ask a number of developers what things they do above and beyond what is in the best practice guidelines that are on the CEC website. So I will leave that to them to answer. Yes, there is a model to follow, and that is the one initially developed by Auswind, as it was then, and now the Clean Energy Council. It is available publicly and everyone can have notice of that.

Senator BOYCE —Is that the same as the best practice guidelines that the department of climate change developed in the COAG process or—

Mr McAlpine —No, that is something quite different.

Senator BOYCE —That was what I wanted to clarify.

Mr McAlpine —The draft that the department of climate change referred to on Friday is something quite different and its fate is unknown, because there does not seem to be a lot of stakeholder support for it across the board. I think in the end, with wind farms, as Senator Moore was heading down this road, people want to know the rules and want to know how they will be treated. There is nothing special about whether the guidelines are industry guidelines or whether they are national guidelines, state guidelines or New Zealand guidelines. I think people just want to know what to expect. For most people in communities—

Senator BOYCE —Consistent guidelines are always a good thing.

CHAIR —Senator Boyce, we have run out of time, so we will finish here. Thank you very much. We appreciate the evidence. Also you have been given some homework, I think.

Mr McAlpine —I have.

CHAIR —Or you have taken on some homework. If you could get that to the secretariat within the next couple of weeks, that would be appreciated.

Mr McAlpine —Great. Thank you for the opportunity.

[9.20 am]