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

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

Mr Holmes a Court —It has. Thank you very much.

CHAIR —We have your submission, which is numbered 732. I would like to invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will ask you some questions. Are these documents that you wish to table?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes, they are.

CHAIR —Okay, thank you.

Mr Holmes a Court —Madam Chair and senators, thank you very much for this opportunity to address you today. As you know, our community has just built its own wind farm—the ninth wind farm in Victoria and the first in Australia to be initiated and owned by a community. It was a great pleasure for me to show it to you yesterday, just outside Daylesford in Leonards Hill, Victoria. Sixteen hundred people, mostly local, have contributed $8.7 million to build this 4.1 megawatt wind farm. Just two turbines are projected to generate 12,200 megawatt hours per year, more than is used by the 2,000 homes of Daylesford.

Ten days ago, 300 people came to watch and cheer as the first tower was lifted into position. After a week of delays due to strong winds, the final piece was lifted into position just last Sunday. In just six weeks we will begin generating clean, safe power into the local electricity network.

Our project enjoys overwhelming but not absolute support in our community. When our project went before council, there were 325 letters in favour and just 18 against. Our supporters have made more than 1,066 submissions to this inquiry, lending support for the community ownership model. I have submitted a list of those submissions as my first paper for today. So far, more than 40 communities from around the country have informed us that they wish to build similar projects in their own area, based on what we have learned from the Hepburn Wind project.

On 28 April 2010, we held our AGM in Daylesford—150 in our community came together. We had just signed our construction contract and our members heard that the wind farm was going ahead. It was the end of five years of mostly volunteer effort that had paid off and the positive energy in the room was palpable as people cheered. The very next night, I attended a meeting in the Ballan Mechanics Institute, just 30 kilometres away—our next shire, only 400 metres from our project. The Moorabool council called a town meeting to discuss two proposals in front of them. I was one of the four who spoke in favour of wind energy, amongst an aggressive crowd of more than 200. The difference could not have been starker. It was incredibly moving to hear the negative experiences of the few who came with genuine concerns and their genuine medical issues. I do not discount these at any time. But I was disgusted by the thuggish behaviour of so many who verbally and physically intimidated those identified and pointed out as ‘windies’. I remembered the story of former energy minister Peter Batchelor having his leg slammed in a car door at a similar gathering, and I did not hang around after the meeting.

How is it that most of one community can embrace the opportunity of wind energy while most of another vilifies it with thuggery and intimidation, reminiscent of the Salem witch trials? There has not always been such a welcoming reception for wind energy in my own community. In late 2004, the developer of the proposed Clarkes Hill wind farm held a community information session in Dean. Like many such meetings, an angry mob of 200 negative voices drowned out the five voices in favour of the proposal. Driving back from the meeting that day, the founder of Hepburn Wind, Per Bernard, was disappointed at our community’s first response to the prospect of a local wind farm. Per grew up in Denmark where wind farms are all around. There are over 5,000 turbines owned by over 2,100 communities.

There is not a person in Denmark who would live more than 10 kilometres from a wind turbine. Per Bernard committed himself to educate the entire community. He spoke of a vision where we could own and operate our own wind farm for the entire community’s benefit. Per formed a steering committee, and together embarked on the most thorough community engagement process that I believe has ever been held in this country. They started with a card table in the main street with flyers explaining their vision. They were out there almost every week in the early stages—rain, hail or shine, loud and proud, open and transparent.

We started running these street stalls some six years ago and now we have held more than 120 across the shire. We ran bus tours to visit nearby wind farms and we have taken more than 250 people to experience wind turbines firsthand and to speak with landowners nearby. We held town forums and met with local community groups. We spoke of our vision and we listened to a range of opinions.

Interestingly, in the days before our site was chosen there was only one local objector. He was invited to join the steering committee and, to his credit, he did attend one or two meetings. Of course, once the site was chosen there was significant concern in that neighbourhood. We worked hard to address these concerns with more than 80 home visits. We have sent thousands of updates to our mailing list. We use social media wherever possible to get out our message and show that we are loud and proud, and open and transparent with our vision.

Despite all of this engagement, we cannot say that we have universal support. Even though more than 95 per cent of submissions to our planning application were positive, it was our mayor’s casting vote that granted the permit. The permit was immediately challenged at VCAT, where we were accused of everything under the sun. A Melbourne university professor, who should know better, produced a flawed report understating our energy estimates by a factor of eight—a document that you can still find on the Spa Country Landscape Guardians website. The objections included the non-viability of wind turbines, electronic magnetic interference, light pollution, human health, distraction to passing drivers, hazard to overflying aircraft, impact on social fabric, interruption of spring water flows, groundwater contamination from underground power cables, leaching from concrete foundations, blasting for foundations causing vibration and other unknown impacts, concern for soil stability, proximity to gas pipeline, lightning strikes, burial of human remains, blade flicker effect on cattle, denial of natural justice, and violation of human rights.

VCAT upheld our permit, but not before giving significant concessions to our neighbours. We continue to work hard to ensure that the whole community benefits from our project. We have committed to give $15,000 per turbine per year to a community sustainability fund. That is 30 times as much per turbine as the closest wind farm. It will add up to $1 million over the next 25 years. We employ three locals and we have engaged the services of dozens of local firms. Of the $7 million of Australian content in our project, the majority has been spent in regional Victoria. We have offered a gift of share ownership in the project to all those living close to the wind farm, and we are currently working hard to arrange for electricity at a discount to our neighbours.

Some of our neighbours are quite excited. Some are taking a wait-and-see approach and a handful are hostile. We are proud that we play by the rules of civil society. We tell the truth. We follow the law. We comply with our permit conditions and we treat all with respect. But this has not always been reciprocated. Just two weeks ago, we were taken to VCAT by an objector. Apparently, our turbines were in the wrong location. It cost just $37 to make this complaint but it cost our project $2,000 of community funds to prove that the turbines were within one inch of their permitted location—one inch.

Late last year, WorkSafe received a complaint that we were working too close to the gas main. We are more than 400 metres from this pipe. Neither of these complaints was made to us in the first instance. Our staff and voluntary directors have received threats by telephone, had stones thrown at them and received verbal abuse in the main street. Just five minutes ago outside I was given verbal abuse from someone I have never met before.

Signs accusing us of lying and greed were posted for months on end in one of the busiest thoroughfares in town, but through this whole period we have never fought back once—not once. Fortunately, all these actions stem from just three people in our shire of 10,000.

The objectors have refused preconstruction noise monitoring—an irony, as this measure was ordered at our expense by VCAT to protect the rights of those concerned. We have tried hard to meet with the few remaining objectors, but our requests to meet have been repeatedly rebuffed and our letters childishly returned to sender or simply ignored.

I am sure we have made some mistakes along the way but I think we have run one of the best community engagement processes anywhere in the country. While some developers are going to get a pasting in this inquiry for their mistakes, and perhaps deservedly so, let it go on record that it is very difficult to engage with everyone in the community when a very small minority do not play by society’s rules. Personally, I think it will be fascinating to see how the Baillieu government intends to implement its right of veto against this backdrop.

We have only ever had one protest. On 8 October last year, 40 people turned up for a very aggressive rally. At most, four of these were local—four from 40. I have submitted a photo to the committee. In the photo, you will see some signs and some very angry people. Again, as I say, in that photo you will see one or maybe two locals.

I further submit an email sent from the cynically named Australian Environment Foundation to the Landscape Guardians, including Peter Mitchell and Kathy Russell—from one extremist group to another. The email is basically a run sheet for the protest and includes the artwork for the signage held by the rent-a-crowd you will see in the photo. It was an ugly protest, very similar to the one that we all sadly witnessed last week in Canberra. Cars were beaten with placards. Cars were shaken. My children heard a man yell, ‘I hope you all die of cancer.’ A woman who has been a pillar of the central Victorian community—whose her sister-in-law is here today and who abused me earlier—was stood over as the vile words were spat into her face, ‘F off back to Melbourne you sanctimonious middle-class C!’

We were there to celebrate one community’s achievement and positive contribution to the challenge of climate change. It is very hard to see what was achieved by the Landscape Guardians and the Australian Environment Foundation’s protest. Against this backdrop, I have to ask you: is it really wind farms that divide communities?

Perhaps the saddest thing I have seen to date was the wind farm information session held by the Landscape Guardians in Sunbury on the eve of last November’s Victorian state election. Amongst the speakers were Randall Bell and Kathy Russell of the Landscape Guardians and their shiny new secret weapon, Sarah Laurie. The meeting was bizarre. A local landowner had got terribly upset that a monitoring tower was erected some two kilometres from his home—a 10-metre monitoring tower. He was paranoid that his property values would plummet so he organised an information session. Randall and Kathy produced a litany of rubbish that varied between misinformation and downright lies denigrating wind farms’ economics, efficiency, effectiveness and environmental credentials. I really did not know whether I was at a witch trial or a political rally to vote out the Brumby government; perhaps both.

Sarah scared the wits out of this community. Although she very carefully never made the direct link, by the end of her talk members of the audience believed that wind farms would give them heart attacks or even cancer. Since Sarah’s name is preceded by those two letters that spell ‘doctor’, the good people of Sunbury hung off her every word. As she recounted the symptoms of so-called wind turbine syndrome—headache, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate and irritability—I realised that I too had developed this new syndrome right there in that room that night. I too had ‘Sarah Laurie syndrome’.

A local woman, Lynne Hovey, deserves to go on record as the only one to speak out that night against deliberate misinformation and planned hysteria. Lynne spoke for perhaps 30 seconds before she was shouted down. It was as if she was advocating infanticide.

CHAIR —Mr Holmes a Court, I am conscious of time, so if you—

Mr Holmes a Court —I am very close to the end. This is played out in towns across Australia. Sarah has assisted those extreme groups across the country. Presumably not bound by the code of ethics of a practising doctor, she has contributed to a mass hysteria sweeping regional Australia. And she knows it but she does not mind because, despite not having done the research, she knows that she is right.

After hearing from Sarah that people as far away as 10 kilometres are getting sick from turbines, a prominent businessman recently met with a wind farm executive to accuse his development of endangering the life of his pregnant daughter’s child. The daughter lives some 10 kilometres from the proposed wind farm.

Senators, you will be aware that there are more than 100,000 turbines globally, spread across 70 countries. More than 100 million Europeans live within 10 kilometres of a wind turbine, and most have done so for a decade or two. Does it not speak volumes that there is not a single national academy of science, national health institute or recognised medical journal that is singing from this hymn sheet?

Is it ethical to spread hysteria before a link between turbines and ill health has been scientifically established? Good people around Australia are being made to worry themselves sick as a result of an orchestrated campaign run by extreme groups. Isn’t it ironic that the groups that are so quick to spread unscientific mumbo jumbo about infrasound are often the ones so firm in their rejection of the rigorous body of climate change science?

Back to Hepburn Wind. Our project has earned its social licence as a result of years of communication in both directions. In fact, the only people who do not like our project are the ones who refuse engagement. It took two years for us to build the first 200 supporters of our project and it took the Landscape Guardians and Sarah Laurie just two hours to destroy any social licence for wind energy in Sunbury for many years. How much easier is it, I ask, to destroy than to build? Is it wind farms that divide communities? Sure, some developers have done a major disservice to regional Australia and to our clean energy future. But in 2011 I put it to you that it is extreme groups such as the Australian Environment Foundation and the Landscape Guardians, with their campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt, that currently are the most divisive force in regional Australia. At Hepburn Wind we are close to generating clean, safe electricity into the local network—our two turbines for a town of 2,000.

Our job is not done. We are working with Embark, a non-profit body that I chair, to spread our message and our model to other communities. We are already working with more than 40 other optimistic communities. We see a big role for community energy projects, and Embark in particular, in educating Australia and building social licence for a clean, safe, renewable energy future. I believe it is partly up to community efforts like our own to undo the past decade of damage done by a handful of developers and the extreme antiwind groups. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you. Before I go to Senator Fielding, I would like to clarify that email that you have tabled.

Mr Holmes a Court —That was an email sent out about three days before our ground-breaking event where we had been advised that the environment minister and the Premier were going to be in attendance. That email was intercepted by a member of our own organisation.

CHAIR —Somebody was sent it?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you. I wanted to clarify where it came from.

Senator FIELDING —Mr Holmes a Court, with the people that we heard from yesterday—you would be aware of some of those people whose health has deteriorated—are you saying they are experiencing those health effects because they are listening to people who are scare mongering?

Mr Holmes a Court —I do not believe there is a direct relationship between the health effects that you heard yesterday and the turbines, or that any such health effects have been established. I am certainly informed by other submissions, such as the Australian Psychological Society’s and the testimony of Dr Wittert, who you will be speaking to on Monday. I see no conclusive evidence from the turbines. Personally, I believe that the fear campaign that we are seeing is significantly responsible for a large amount of the stress and genuine health effects that you saw yesterday on display in Ballarat.

Senator FIELDING —I will leave it there. You have said what you think. That is a statement; I will not put my views on that. That is your statement. How many houses are within a two-kilometre and five-kilometre radius of the two wind turbines that have just been constructed that we saw yesterday?

Mr Holmes a Court —Within 10 kilometres, I can say we have about 8,000 people.

Senator FIELDING —Within five kilometres?

Mr Holmes a Court —Within five, I would say we probably have many hundreds. Within two kilometres, we have about 40 households, and within one kilometre we have 17. The closest house we have to the turbines is 520 metres.

Senator FIELDING —I think it is those within two kilometres—17 within two kilometres, was it?

Mr Holmes a Court —Seventeen within one.

Senator FIELDING —They are the 17 houses that VCAT put a requirement on you to monitor; is that correct?

Mr Holmes a Court —Correct. As I mentioned, strangely, it is only the six objectors that we have in our area who rejected the preconstruction noise monitoring: the very people who that condition was set down to protect.

Senator FIELDING —Could we get a copy of the noise monitoring that you have done on those 11, I think it would be?

Mr Holmes a Court —We did more than 11. We chose sites that we believe are representative of the houses that refused monitoring, and I am more than happy to make that report available to the Senate.

Senator FIELDING —That would be useful. Is it a summary report? I would not mind seeing from one site the exact measurements rather than just a summary report. Is this a summary report or is this the actual report from each site—the actual measurement?

Mr Holmes a Court —What I have is the preliminary summary of the preconstruction noise monitoring.

Senator FIELDING —Would you be able to table—

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes, absolutely. Within two months of construction, we must complete post-construction monitoring and then submit a final report to the responsible authority. I am happy to submit that too, when the time comes.

Senator FIELDING —Okay. Can I just confirm that you will supply the summary and the detail of it? I want to see the actual measurements.

Mr Holmes a Court —Sure. I can give you a zip file of several hundred thousand measurements.

Senator FIELDING —It will be very long, I understand, but a zip file would be good.

Mr Holmes a Court —I am very happy to give that. One aspect about our project is, I guess, radical transparency. If you want our wind data, come and get it. If you want our production data, come and get it. We will have a sign on the front gate for people in our area. People have said, ‘Oh, wind farms don’t make any energy.’ I will happily put a couple of electrodes on the front gate and you can hold on to them if you think it does not.

CHAIR —I might not take you up on that offer, thanks!

Mr Holmes a Court —There is really nothing to hide with our project. Any document that you want whatsoever is available to anybody.

Senator ADAMS —We have had a bit of criticism about the monitors once they do get going, and that they have not left them there for long enough. They have only been there for a short time. With your preconstruction monitoring, how long were they in the houses to get the—

Mr Holmes a Court —The monitoring was done to the relevant standard. We did them in two tranches: one for about 2½ weeks and one we had to do for about five weeks because we had construction noise and unseasonal weather which had to be filtered out. I believe 2,000 times 10-minute periods without construction noise and without weather events were recorded at each of the sites.

Senator ADAMS —This was at night as well?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes, 24/7. And it was correlated with wind speed.

Senator ADAMS —When you go back, what do you have to do then?

Mr Holmes a Court —When we go back we have to repeat the analysis and we have to show that there has not been an increase in sound levels above the standards.

Senator ADAMS —That will be the same—it will be continuous?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes, exactly the same procedure.

Senator ADAMS —I just could not understand—

Mr Holmes a Court —I am very happy to make all of this data available.

Senator ADAMS —Some of the criticism was that they were only there during the day, the turbine had only just started, they were not there at night and all these sorts of things. It is very hard; we are not involved in this.

Mr Holmes a Court —I understand. It would be good, if possible, to speak to one of the noise monitoring companies that do this. They are following the standards. There are very strict guidelines as to how the monitoring is to be done, the placement of the receptors et cetera. It is an exact science. I could put you in touch with the experts in that field.

Senator ADAMS —Good, thank you. I note that you are saying that the nearest house, which we saw yesterday—and thank you very much for your hospitality; that was good—

Mr Holmes a Court —My pleasure.

Senator ADAMS —You have one that is owned by the people who own the farm that the towers are on, is that correct?

Mr Holmes a Court —The nearest house is owned by the landlord but it has a tenant who has been there since 1985, so I think he pretty much considers it his house.

Senator ADAMS —The next one is 519 metres away. Is that person happy with the wind farm or not?

Mr Holmes a Court —I am not sure which house you are referring to.

Senator ADAMS —I am just going back through the submission.

Mr Holmes a Court —I know there is a house—

Senator ADAMS —The submission says:

The nearest house to our turbines is 509 m, and the nearest house not in the ownership of our landowner is 519 m.

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes, I think I know the landowner. Yes, that landowner is not happy about the project.

Senator ADAMS —Is not happy?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes. Interestingly, that landowner is the first cousin of our landowner. I think these issues started long before we came on the scene.

Senator ADAMS —You made the comment that this is safe energy and all the rest that goes with it. I am just looking at your Embark pamphlet, which you gave us yesterday. As a community, because of all the perceived health issues, are you going to do any research once the turbines start and see if people are being affected? Is that in your program or not?

Mr Holmes a Court —No, it is not in our program for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I do not think it is in our remit and, secondly, I do not personally think it is a fruitful scientific endeavour. I think it might be a very useful social endeavour for us to do this research. I do not want to trivialise the pain that was heard about yesterday in Ballarat and I reaffirm my respect for what those people have been through. But this assumption that we need to prove that something is right in the absence of proof that it is wrong seems to me no sillier than someone saying, ‘Muffins will kill you and there’s been no scientific research that muffins make you better, so let’s have a moratorium on muffins.’

Senator ADAMS —I will not start debating. What worries me, as we go around, is that this whole inquiry has been based on whether there is a health problem associated with wind energy. You are going around talking to communities with your Embark program and building up the same sort of—

Mr Holmes a Court —I think I know where you are going. Our group has been doing this for five years on the main street of Daylesford. We have been addressing these concerns for a very long time. In other communities, we will be doing the same when they launch their own initiatives. Mount Alexander, Woodend, Armidale in New South Wales—these communities are all facing the same issues we faced at the beginning. They are all facing reflexive opposition and they are all trying to bust through it by busting the myths.

Senator ADAMS —That is the reason that I ask—because you are saying that it is safe energy but you have not got that research. I just felt that it might be easier, with you doing all of this community consultation, which seems to be the biggest problem, and I have already cited what is happening in Western Australia at the moment, and we will have evidence on Thursday on that. If there was any way that we could have research into whether these things are safe or not, would it help?

Mr Holmes a Court —With respect, Senator, I mentioned the list of objections we had. Four years ago, we were talking about the insulation on underground wiring poisoning the groundwater. Then we were talking about blasting of rock. Then we were talking about leaching of concrete. If it is not one thing, it is another. You will finish this research and those who would want to undermine the industry will move on to the next objection. Health is currently the issue de jour. We have dealt with 20 before. When this one is behind, there will be another one.

Senator ADAMS —So my question is: if there was research done to prove one way or the other that health is not an issue, it would certainly help your community consultation, I would think.

Mr Holmes a Court —Absolutely. If a definitive report said it and it was a report that everyone could stand behind, that everyone agreed was independent and was constructed by proper epidemiologists, people without barrows to push, by all means. But start talking to the epidemiologists and understanding it. I have spoken with Sarah Laurie. One of the things that is the greatest problem in doing research in this area is: how do you cancel out the Sarah Laurie effect? How do you find a community that has not been scared witless by the claims that Sarah has been making? Unfortunately, I think the activism that we have seen from Sarah Laurie has undermined the ability of anyone to do research in this country on this issue.

Senator ADAMS —So you do not think there are any independent researchers out there that could do it?

Mr Holmes a Court —I think you would have to find a community that has not been tainted with the hysteria that has been on display. I submit to you that I am not aware of one.

Senator ADAMS —Thanks.

Senator MOORE —Mr Holmes a Court, I have a similar range of questions as Senator Adams. I take your point and I raised these issues with Dr Laurie when she gave evidence earlier. In terms of the ongoing credibility of the industry, what has occurred because of the emotion around it is that very dangerous precedents have been quoted in the process around the aspects of tobacco and also asbestos. People have raised that in the debate, saying, ‘If people had acted years ago.’ Certainly, I agree with the point about independence in terms of focusing. From your perspective as a provider and a proposed proponent of the industry, is there a way that there could be some form of research done that would engage with all parties? I know that is a big question. Have you thought about that? In the work that you have done over the last five years have you thought about that?

Mr Holmes a Court —I will pick up the point I made before. I am not sure that there is scientific merit in pursuing the study, but I am convinced by the argument that there may be social benefit in performing that study. Finding a way to get these groups together and agree would be about as difficult as getting Australia to currently agree on whether climate change is real. I think it is actually a very similar issue. By all means, get the best people in the room, get the epidemiologists, try to find a community that has not been scared witless and try to design an experiment. But I do not think on one hand we can say we are going to get the scientists in to study this and solve it when half of the debate here does not care about the science.

Senator MOORE —I take your point, but I am struggling myself. I expressed it to the committee about where we move it forward.

Mr Holmes a Court —I would dearly love a report that says—with all these other issues we can dismiss them all so easily. When it was claimed at VCAT that our hill was an Aboriginal sacred site we got two local cultural representatives and a representative from Aboriginal Affairs Victoria at VCAT—all three of them, to say, ‘No, it’s not.’ I can point to about 10 other examples. We did a very extensive bat study on site that shows that, although our forest near us is teeming with bats, there are no bats on the hill and our turbines will pose no threat to them. Each one of those things we can put in a box and put those objections aside.

Health is a very tricky issue, especially as there is a significant psychosocial dimension. If you can find an expert who can design a study and could help us put that objection in a box so that the Landscape Guardians and the Australian Environment Foundation come up with their next objection, I would be very happy to have that, and I look forward to finding out what that next objection is.

Senator MOORE —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —Mr Holmes a Court, you obviously get another company involved to monitor the noise. Which company is it that you engage?

Mr Holmes a Court —We have engaged Marshall Day Acoustics, which I understand have done the majority of wind proposals and pre- and post-construction monitoring in Victoria.

Senator FIELDING —Could you provide the methodology that they are using, please, for those reports as well?

Mr Holmes a Court —Yes. The methodology is the relevant standard, which is—

Senator FIELDING —I would not mind knowing what that company is actually using, what methodology.

Mr Holmes a Court —So you would like the data from our preconstruction monitoring?

Senator FIELDING —Yes. The raw level data as well as the summary.

Mr Holmes a Court —And the methodology. Senator, may I ask: what is the basis of your interest?

Senator FIELDING —I think we could possibly learn from it. I am just interested to know what methodology it is; that way I can understand exactly what is being measured.

Mr Holmes a Court —I will very happily present that to the secretariat.

Senator FIELDING —Thank you.

CHAIR —There being no further questions, thank you very much for both your evidence today and showing us around the wind farm yesterday. It was much appreciated. We have given you some homework. Could you be in contact with the secretariat with that within a couple of weeks? We have a fairly tight deadline on when we are reporting. That would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Mr Holmes a Court —Thank you very much, Madam Chair and fellow senators.

Proceedings suspended from 12.49 pm to 1.44 pm