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Community Affairs References Committee
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome. I understand the information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses’ evidence has been given to you.

Mr Bray —That is correct.

CHAIR —We have your submission, which is No. 720. I would like to invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Bray —Firstly, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear today. You heard a number of voices yesterday in Ballarat speaking against wind farms, but I would like to assure the committee that there are many people in Ballarat who support wind farms and their further development. BREAZE is one of the strongest public voices of support in Ballarat. To give you an idea of why a bunch of greenies like us—and go on, you are thinking it—would put in a submission that dwells so heavily on economic opportunity—

CHAIR —You have not got a sign over your head.

Mr Bray —You just get used to it, I guess. I would like to take a moment to describe who BREAZE is and give you a sense of why we talk about the things that we do. We are one of the largest climate and sustainability groups in Australia, of which there are around 200—probably more. Their main purpose is to bring together people to demonstrate support for a more sustainable way of living. We aim to demonstrate that support to our communities, and engage our communities thereby, and also to governments.

We are a community based group that formed around four years ago and our aim is to energise our local community to make big achievements locally that inspire bigger changes further afield. We do not care who does the work and who makes the changes, but it certainly does not have to be us. We only really care that the work gets done. In those four years we have developed quite strongly and now have a financial membership of around 600 people, and our newsletters go out to about 2,000 people each month. We have assisted in the installation of about half a megawatt of photovoltaic panels on homes and schools and around 250 solar hot water systems. So our business is to help and assist the community in those projects.

We have run education forums and supported people interested in things like local food and retrofitting their houses. We participate in community debates around sustainability and climate issues. Why do we go to all of this effort? It is because the people of BREAZE really care about the long-term future of the planet. That is what drives us and our members.

Financially, we turn over around $2 million each year from solar income, grants and membership fees, and we employ 11 people. We have daily contacts with local businesses and, through our sustainability activities we have become a notable player in our local economy. And like every one of our members, we contribute to Ballarat’s economy and we depend upon the prosperity of that economy for our own prosperity.

Ballarat is a proud city with a diverse regional economy and strong employment in retail, in health, in manufacturing and in education. It is home to innovative and award-winning companies like Gekko Systems, who supply mining equipment internationally. BREAZE understands that, like Australia, we are a kind of microcosm. Ballarat must be able to survive in the low-carbon economy of the future. So being ready to embrace renewable energy in new ways of doing business is crucial to that.

Senators, when you voted for the renewable energy target legislation—or the RET—in the last parliament you helped kick-start the transformation of Australia’s energy generation system from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The RET is really an unprecedented stimulus for a single industry and it is the primary economic reason we are discussing wind turbines here today. As I have no doubt that you foresaw when you voted this way, you have put regions like Ballarat in an excellent position to capitalise on the investment flows that come from the RET, which are estimated at around $20 billion until 2020.

Western Victoria is the logical location for the wind industry. We have excellent wind resources, we are close to the backbones of the electricity grid and we have skills and the business base to capture this investment and add value. You heard a lot about the Waubra wind farm yesterday, of course. The one thing you did not hear was that the construction of the wind farm provided a one-off boost of $58.4 million to the local economy just through the economic activity associated with the 160 jobs that were sourced locally. Ongoing employment at Waubra adds a further $7.79 million to the local economy each year just from the jobs. These were figures that were generated by the City of Ballarat, using REMPLAN modelling, and I am happy to table those later. Other benefits accrued to local businesses such as Ballarat City Mazda, who enjoyed almost half a million dollars of business from Acciona, and Hip Pocket Workwear and Safety, who have been an exclusive supplier of uniform and protective equipment, and those submissions were made to the inquiry.

All the money that finds its way to one business carries on through to the numerous other businesses in the town. Troy Beaston, the general manager of Eureka Concrete—and it is not every day that an environmental group gets behind a concreting company—eloquently describes that in our submission:

… the continuous work after construction is never ending. It embarks into many industries such as transport, maintenance, hire of plant, professional people, finance companies and others. It helps businesses to grow thus giving more employment not only directly to the wind farm industry but these businesses indirectly involved.

You also heard a lot about Stockyard Hill yesterday, but you did not hear the voices of the good people of the Skipton Progress Association. From yesterday’s claims, Skipton is about to be overrun by wind turbines, yet the Skipton Progress Association says in a letter to the Victorian planning minister, which again I am happy to table, that they are ‘in no doubt that Stockyard Hill will have a financial input into the township. We believe this will come not only from direct money investments but also from the creation of jobs, development of infrastructure and the boost to local businesses. From this perspective, we support the development of the Stockyard wind farm.’

But it is not all dollars and cents, of course. The submission from the Waubra Football-Netball Club describes how Acciona has supported the club in a number of extremely positive ways. Chances are that income from turbines has allowed families to remain farming in the area that may not have been able to remain there. This will give a better chance that there are enough kids to keep Waubra’s primary school open and that the Waubra Football-Netball Club can continue to field teams into the future. This is something that we see in farming land, which is becoming increasingly marginal across the country.

Did I mention that building more wind farms in western Victoria is an excellent way to cut greenhouse gases and reduce our dependence on Victoria’s appallingly dirty coal-fired power stations? That would be a local achievement that brings bigger impacts further afield.

The economic and social benefits that I have described here are real, and they make real differences to people’s businesses and real differences to people’s lives. Yesterday you heard a number of grievances that were raised, but BREAZE believes that, on balance, the substantive problems hinge around proper process and procedural issues and, because of that, these problems are fixable. They are problems of process; they are not fundamental problems. Unlike yesterday, BREAZE would like to leave you with a really positive taste in your mouth as you contemplate your findings. I would ask you to consider the economic future of regional centres like Ballarat in your deliberations, and potentially wind is a real economic boon for our city. It strengthens existing businesses and stimulates new ones. The future of energy needs to be a renewable one. The fact that the renewable energy provided by wind stands to bring untold and diversified economic benefits to the Ballarat region is a stunning opportunity that we really should not be letting go by. So I hope you will settle on arrangements that allow regional cities like Ballarat to benefit to the fullest from these economic opportunities.

CHAIR —Thank you. Before I forget, can I say that, yes, we would appreciate you tabling those documents. Thank you. Senator Fielding.

Senator FIELDING —Mr Bray, I cannot remember whether you were there yesterday or not and whether you heard a lot of the residents—

Mr Bray —I was.

Senator FIELDING —What do you say to those people that come forward with the claims that people who live close to the wind turbines in that region have had adverse health effects? What do you actually say to those claims?

Mr Bray —No-one who was there yesterday when the Stepnells were giving evidence could have been unmoved by their story. In fact, I did go and speak to them afterwards and thanked them for sharing what was obviously a very painful story they have to tell. I thought they did it with great dignity. Clearly that is a family that is going through a lot of distress and dislocation, and that is a huge problem. But BREAZE is not a group of health professionals and it is not really our place to get into the details of that. It is far better to accept the weight of evidence that has come to the inquiry already through the submissions from Dr Geoffrey Leventhall and the National Health and Medical Research Council report that we know. The Australian Psychological Society submission is a very interesting one and presents strategies that will allow wind farms to be incorporated into local communities in a way that minimises those kinds of community disruptions. BREAZE is a community group, so cohesion and health of communities is something that is important for us.

Senator FIELDING —If there were some link between living close by the wind turbines and adverse health effects, would that concern you? It is not a matter of just jobs at all cost or the socio-economic benefits at all costs. If there were adverse health effects you would then—

Mr Bray —If there were a clear link demonstrated between the wind farms and health effects, of course we would be calling for changes to the planning procedures that would minimise and eradicate those. At this stage, as lay readers of the evidence that is before us, there really is not anything to suggest that we are in any way sure that that is the case.

Senator FIELDING —Like a lot of people, I have read the National Health and Medical Research Council report. I have also read a lot of the footnotes that make it clear that it relies very heavily on papers that were funded by the wind industry. That is the reason why I still have some concerns about everybody relying on one paper which relies on a lot of papers from wind industry experts. Earlier on, everybody was claiming, even for things like the tobacco industry, that it is about jobs and it is all safe. I get very nervous about living close to wind turbines from the stories that I have heard. We are trying to get to the bottom of whether there are actually adverse health effects. That is the issue. You have done no scientific research, have you, from that point of view?

Mr Bray —No. As I say, we are not health professionals. We are not scientists. As I said before, our driving motivation is that we accept the virtual scientific consensus on climate change and the dangers and health effects that that poses. Essentially we see the science as it is, and we act on that. At this stage, the science does not suggest that there is a genuine health issue to be grappled with.

CHAIR —Senator Adams.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you for your opening statement. I note that you said you have 600 members. In the background to your organisation, you are saying you are representing over 2,000 residents within the municipality and the surrounding districts. If you have got 600 members, how do you represent the other 1,400? What gives you the right to represent them?

Mr Bray —The 2,000 number refers to our email list. The 600 are financial members.

Senator ADAMS —Have you got any members that are currently having health problems with the wind farms being in close proximity to them?

Mr Bray —There are none that we are aware of, no.

Senator ADAMS —So at your meetings or whatever, the attendance of your members, you have never had any complaints whatsoever?

Mr Bray —No. We have members who live around the Waubra area. Further south there are proposed developments around Lal Lal and those kinds of places and we have members in all those different places. No, we have not had specific complaints from our members.

Senator ADAMS —I note in your overview that you say, ‘We believe there is room for Community Engagement processes to be improved.’ Would you like to tell me a little about why you think the community engagement process should be improved?

Mr Bray —We heard a number of the problems yesterday from people. They had someone come up to them in the paddock and say, ‘This is what we would like to do.’ Then they agreed or did not agree and something happened on their neighbour’s land and they were unaware of it. I think they generally felt in those instances that they had been kept in the dark and that later on things would change. For instance, in Waubra, the lighting requirements around the airport were added later on. I think those things took people by surprise. I think it is just being a bit clearer in the opening stages as to what developers are asking of people who live there, following up and taking note of and acting on any objections or discussions that take place as part of that.

Senator ADAMS —As a group, you are very keen about clean energy. Do you see your group becoming involved in this community engagement process?

Mr Bray —The Hepburn Wind model, which you of course got to see firsthand yesterday, is a fantastic community engagement model. What they have done is really got down and talked. They were in the main street of Daylesford for weekends on end, talking to people, anyone who came by, about the benefits of wind. They bussed them out to Challicum Hills so that people could see firsthand and hear firsthand that the turbines themselves were fairly quiet. They did all that kind of groundwork. They raised capital and allowed people to share in the economic benefits of the turbines that were going up next to them. At some stage in the future, that is something that BREAZE would consider being involved in. It is a huge undertaking. For instance, there is a three-turbine proposal at Chepstowe, which is just to our west. That is something that could work as a community owned model. But at this stage, it has proceeded no further than ‘it is a good idea’.

Senator MOORE —I have one question in two bits because we are running out of time. You were there yesterday. People said one had no right to comment unless one lived in the region and actually was part of it and heard it and lived there. That was one thing.

Mr Bray —Samantha Stepnell that to me.

Senator MOORE —And the second point is in terms of some of the expressions that were made yesterday that communities had been destroyed sociologically by the division that had been caused by the actions. There was also an underlying element, in some places, of violence. I felt that in the room yesterday, that there could have been physical violence, with people being so upset. Are you aware, your local community group, of elements where there has been any kind of violence in terms of fighting, graffiti, damage and family breakdown? I am wondering whether, through the wider network—this is a question I am very interested in generally—there has been that degree of dislocation. When you have a lot of people who are upset, that sometimes can occur.

Mr Bray —The only examples I know of are the ones that I read in the Courier. There were some examples of graffiti, I think, and signs that were put up in places, in some farms, and taken down again. But in terms of violence, I am not aware of any, no.

As I mentioned, when I spoke to Sam Stepnell after the Stepnells gave evidence yesterday, yes, she said to me, ‘If you do not live here, you have no right to talk about it.’ My response to her was that BREAZE will carry on engaging in the debate and talking about it, because it is a very wide- and broad-ranging issue. It gets to the heart of how Australia makes its electricity generation and what kind of economy we have, whether it continues to be high carbon or it moves to low carbon. There are all sorts of issues that are in it, lots of them that are big. I would never presume to say what it feels like to live near them. That is for those people to do and I would not presume to speak on that.

CHAIR —Senator Boyce.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you. How is BREAZE funded?

Mr Bray —As I mentioned, it is predominantly income from solar panels and solar hot water sales, government and philanthropic grants and membership fees. We have publicly available annual reports, so that is all there.

Senator BOYCE —Roughly, what is your annual turnover?

Mr Bray —It is a little under $2 million, I think.

Senator BOYCE —I am just following on from Senator Moore’s comments. This is part of that statement that rural residents are suffering, for the sake of urban residents, because of the development of wind farms. What is BREAZE’s response to that claim?

Mr Bray —One of the more creative responses is from a group in St Kilda, ‘How about we have a whole row of wind turbines through the middle of Port Phillip Bay?’ That would be something to put the cat among the pigeons because, quite rightly, people are saying, ‘How come we are bearing the brunt of the electricity generation, when most of it is going to Melbourne and being used there?’ Equally, you could say, ‘How come the people in Traralgon or in Morwell have to deal with health problems, which are documented and genuine, to supply electricity?’ As our electricity generation system evolves and moves towards a more distributed and renewable thing, this is an issue that is going to come up more and more.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

CHAIR —I know Senator Adams wanted to ask about planning, as did I. One of the issues that came up yesterday and has come up previously is the issue around planning. From listening to the shires yesterday and all the witnesses, I have to say that it seemed to me that planning was one of the very significant issues. Have you thought about that, and what comments do you make about it?

Mr Bray —We have thought about it, but I would not say that we had strong opinions on how it should be upgraded or whether you move to a federal uniform system. I think one thing that was clear was that devolving it to individual councils to manage is peculiar. Certainly something that is at least at state level, so that the people enforcing the compliance and assessing the planning have the proper experience and resourcing to do it, I think, would be crucial. Moving it down to the council level in that sense, in maybe smaller applications with only a handful of turbines, I think, would be more appropriate.

CHAIR —I certainly got the sense from witnesses yesterday that there was a call for or there was support for a more national approach. There were different rules within shires or in local government areas and then nationally as well. What is your opinion on that?

Mr Bray —I would not say we had a valuable opinion to add to that. You would be better to go to the councils and get their thinking.

Senator FIELDING —I have one further question.

CHAIR —Okay, if it is pretty short.

Senator FIELDING —I was not sure, but were you saying you would support wind turbines in the bay in Melbourne? Was that what you are saying?

Mr Bray —I think it is an interesting proposal. I think a bit of a discussion on that in the bayside suburbs of Melbourne, where incidentally I grew up—

Senator FIELDING —But you would not be against it, though, would you?

Mr Bray —I can see you are leading me down a path that you know the end point of, and I am not sure I do yet.

Senator FIELDING —I am interested to know, though, given that you say wind farms are safe and there are no health problems, whether you think having a wind farm on the foreshore in St Kilda or—

Mr Bray —I think it is definitely a proposal that would be worth some exploration.

CHAIR —I should note that in Western Australia there is a proposal for at least one, if not two, in Fremantle.

Mr Bray —I think you would find there would be quite a bit of support for it, actually.

Senator MOORE —Subject to appropriate community consultation.

CHAIR —Let us not go there.

Mr Bray —And a bullet-proof planning guideline.

CHAIR —We have not got the rest of the day to talk about that. Thank you very much. You have a bit of homework, I think, to table some documents. If you could do that now or within the next couple of weeks, that would be appreciated.

Mr Bray —Okay.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Bray —Thank you.

[9.46 am]