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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 given to you. The committee has before it your submission. For our purposes, it has been numbered 325. I am sure that you know the drill. I invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Walker —Thank you, Madam Chair and other committee members. I would like to start by looking a bit ‘big picture’ before I bring it back to the very local issues around health that we have been grappling with over the last few days. In approaching the conversation around the costs and benefits of wind energy, we need to remember that climate science tells us that we have to reduce our greenhouse emissions as soon and as fast as is humanly possible if we want to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. As a wealthy nation, with one of the largest per capita carbon footprints, Australia must show leadership in this regard. We believe that wind power, as the cheapest form of commercial-scale renewable energy that we have available to us, must play a key role in replacing our current reliance on fossil fuels.

Having said that, we understand the fears being raised around health issues that were made very clearly yesterday. We are not health specialists; we are an environmental organisation with a social justice perspective. I am not going to pretend to be able to give you the fine-print detail of the science for or against the concept of wind farm syndrome. But I want to outline how we approach our campaigning, because it is important to understand the nub of the question around health. Our model for campaigning is to go to a community first, to engage with it, to ask its opinion and then to start to work in support of it. More often than not, we find ourselves standing with communities against large-scale developers. As we speak here today, we have people at Tara in south-east Queensland working with blockies against the coal seam gas exploration that is occurring up there. So that model makes us inherently distrustful of what corporations have to say.

When we entered this space of wind energy about eight months ago, we started to go to rural areas across Victoria—our work at this point in wind is primarily in this state. We wanted to ask communities what they felt about wind energy and what the story was around health. What we found both surprised and heartened us. First and foremost, we were struck by the very high levels of support that we found across central and western Victoria. Our experience was that in most areas there was a small and vocal group of people opposed to wind farms but that the majority of people in these regions had quite a different approach to the industry. I live in regional Victoria and am working particularly in the area from Bendigo through to Hamilton. So they are primarily the areas we are working in. Many people I have spoken with—and this is many hundreds of conversations in the last few months—have said that they have lived with turbines for years without health or other problems. A considerable number of them have said that they believe that the health concerns are being substantially overstated. A common term that has been put to me is that there is a ‘pandemic of fear’ being created by anti-wind campaigners. That certainly has been my experience of attending public hearings around wind farm projects.

It is obvious to us that ideology drives a lot of the organised campaigning against wind farms. This is different from average people in communities who may have concerns around health impacts of turbines. The engine room, if you like, behind the anti-wind campaign, to our mind, is very ideological. A number of the key people in organisations like the Landscape Guardians are well documented as being climate sceptics. So immediately the conversation becomes more complex, because we are not talking about the issue at hand—be it health, planning or the right to be heard—we are, in effect, having a de facto debate around climate science.

When we launched a pro-renewables website mid-last year, I was overwhelmed by the response we got from regional Victoria. The main response was people saying to us that they were grateful for our intervention—the website was pro-renewables and pro-wind—because many people felt uncomfortable with speaking out in favour of wind energy for fear of being shouted down. I even had a number of people ring me last night to apologise for not coming to the hearing yesterday; people said that they did not feel up to going to what is potentially a highly charged and high-conflict situation to express their support for wind energy. Many of the people I have spoken with, even in places like Waubra, point out that wind energy brings substantial benefits to communities.

We do take the concerns of ill-health very seriously; however, we keep coming back to the fact that the research shows that there is no peer-reviewed research at this point that proves a connection between wind farms and ill-health. On the question of health, given that I am not a health professional, I refer you to some of the key submissions that you have received: the work of Peter Seligman, submission No. 353; the work of Geoff Leventhall, submission No. 465, who has substantial experience in the realm of infrasound and low-frequency noise; Doctors for the Environment, whom I understand you will be hearing from later; and the Australian Psychological Society, submission No. 801.

If you think further research into the matter of ill-health is needed, we urge you to be careful about who does that research. I heard Dr Sarah Laurie today mention the name of Bob Thorne as someone who would be suitable to do that research. In my understanding, he is one of the people who have very clearly aligned themselves with the anti-wind campaign. If this research is once and for all to get to the bottom of what is going on, it needs to be absolutely cleanskin and independent. That is important for us all to be able to move on. Some outlandish claims are being made about the wind industry. I do not have time to go into them, but I would certainly hope and trust that you can see through some of those outlandish claims.

I turn to the other issues. As outlined in our submission, we believe that it is necessary to keep the health debate in context. We know that there are major health problems already with fossil fuel production. Respiratory death rates are high in regions where coal is burnt to produce energy. If you do want to consider, as you need to, the health impacts of wind farms, I urge you to be mindful of the very real existing risks that people in the Latrobe Valley, the Hunter and the other coal areas face every single day of their lives. If we are to propose stricter controls on the rollout of wind energy, what alternative renewable sources are available to us? We need to transition away from coal; we need to remove the health risks that these communities face day by day.

We also need to remember that globally it will be the poor who suffer the most from climate change. The World Health Organisation—and there is a wealth of data out there, but I pick them as one example—say that already 150,000 people die every single year from the impacts of climate change. Women and children are greatly overrepresented in this figure. It is the poorest who die first from things like drought and changed weather conditions that impact on agriculture and the spread of vector-borne disease. These people also deserve our attention and our care. In considering our response to climate change, wind energy provides us with one of our most viable pathways to dramatically reduce our emissions now and therefore to reduce our contribution to climate change.

While the media debate around wind farming focuses strongly on fear and ill health, there is another side to the story, and I hope that the committee is hearing this; Mr Holmes a Court gave part of that story this morning. Firstly, employment benefits and downstream benefits are substantial. Having wind farms in regional areas provides lots of opportunities for young people in a range of skill sets. As you would know, that is important for regional towns that are seeking to hold on to their younger populations. Unlike coal production, wind farming is compatible with continued use of land for agriculture—we heard that in the last panel. It complements rather than competes with most types of farming. The submission by the WA Farmers Federation, No. 657, has some interesting data on the benefits to rural communities.

Just an observation from here in Victoria: you will be aware that we have had a decade of drought. That has cut agricultural output. It has placed massive emotional and financial stress on farming communities and families. Tourism has suffered partly because of natural disasters—the fires, droughts and floods that we have had. Regional manufacturing has suffered even more than tourism. Against that backdrop, the regular income that goes to farmers for hosting turbines becomes even more important. To give the example of Victoria—you have to extrapolate for national figures—once all the currently approved wind farms are up and running, they will generate $16 million a year for the length of their operation for rural landholders and $4.6 million for local councils annually—not an insubstantial amount of money.

Substantial greenhouse abatement benefits come with the rollout of the wind industry. The Clean Energy Council talks about the fact that present turbines produce energy for about 700,000 homes. That is equivalent to two cities the size of Canberra—again, not inconsequential. Wind farming uses far less land than any other commercial energy production system other than rooftop solar. Unlike coal, it does not use water in the production phase; that is important in a time of drought and climate stress. Finally, we need to remember that wind energy is well supported in rural Australia; polling continues to show between 80 and 90 per cent, even in areas where wind farms are planned or up and running. The current media debate around wind farms is focused strongly on the negative side of the story. It is important that we do not allow that story to eclipse the positive news story that it is for many people.

I just want to finish by making a point about something I heard earlier today. One of the beauties of living in a democracy is that anyone with an opinion can put that opinion to a Senate hearing—and that is a very good thing—but there is an onus on us all to be reasonable in our statements. I was quite disturbed to hear the wind industry compared with the tobacco and the asbestos industries. I see this as part of a dedicated campaign to demonise this industry. We need to remember that, at this point, wind disease or turbine syndrome is anecdotal. We need to remember that Cancer from tobacco and illness from asbestos was proven, but it took decades to ensure adequate regulation of these industries; in that time, many companies falsified research and destroyed evidence. If anyone were seriously prepared to compare the wind sector with the tobacco and asbestos sectors, that would have the potential to be defamatory. I certainly suggest that it would be unfair and incorrect. We can do better than that. I urge you, in the strongest possible way, to make sure that your findings from this hearing are based on science and facts and not anecdotes, innuendo and fear campaigns. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —Page 17 of your submission is to do with the health impacts of wind farms. ‘Noise and vibrations’, I think, was the section. At the very end, it states that the Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association has concluded that it would be desirable for an independent epidemiological study to be conducted. You may have different reasons for that—I suppose the concerns that have been raised and the debate that has been going on. It would be nice to get to some conclusion on those issues. It would be great if both sides could agree on the research and the terms of reference and who should conduct it. I do not think anyone likes knowing that there are people out there who have real concerns. They presented to us yesterday with serious health issues, which they really believe are coming from the wind turbines. The companies are here, within their rights, saying that they are not coming from the wind turbines; it is scaremongering. We need to get to the bottom of it. You are saying that you think it is a good idea to try to get to the bottom of those issues as well from the perspective of health impacts?

Mr Walker —The health concerns are not going away. I would reiterate that we need truly independent researchers to do this work. There is a danger, if names being bandied around now are clearly aligned in their opinions. The bottom line will be who makes up that panel and controls the research. In those circumstances—if they were truly independent people—we would be happy to see an end to this conversation. I was just reading some research by an academic from Queensland called Richard Hindmarsh, who did some work on community consultation around wind farms. His work focused on planning issues because he was writing a couple of years ago. If he were writing that project now, it would be on health. There have been issues before—the current focus is health—there will be issues in future. The reporting in The Australian at present focuses on minority rights and human rights around wind farms. We need to get to the bottom of the health issue, but the people who are ideologically opposed to wind farms are using health at present, piggybacking on legitimate concerns. There will be another problem tomorrow. So we need to deal with health but we also need to be ready for the next reason that will come up for knocking off the wind industry.

Senator FIELDING —Thank you, Mr Walker.

CHAIR —Can I follow up a comment that has been made several times today and, I think, in other hearings. Are people opposed to wind because they do not like turbines in the landscape or is it more ideological than that?

Mr Walker —I see a clear wedge based on doing stalls and talking to people. You get the people who are for wind who come and talk to you straight away. Then you get the people who are against wind who come and talk to you straight away. Then there are the majority of the people, who will wander over eventually and ask you questions: What about health? What about birds? What about fire? They probably are the majority of the people and they are amenable to supporting wind farms. They are not ideologically committed. But we need to remember that the groups that are active in this space opposing wind farms tend to have a particular ideology. So I see a very great difference between average punters—people who are paying attention to the news and wondering what is going on—and the antiwind activists who are very prominent in a lot of the campaigns.

Senator ADAMS —Coming back to community consultation, I come from a very small community that has a proposed wind farm. People feel that rural communities are being imposed upon by these wind farms just arriving—they will be there whether you like it or not, there is nothing you can do about it. As far as I am aware, there has not been any of what you have seen here going on in this area. It is just that, unfortunately, the community was not informed to start with about what was going on. It has been word of mouth. It has blown up bigger than Ben Hur now unfortunately. It has split the community completely. For those people who have said today that it does not split communities, I can assure you that it certainly does. Property rights have now been raised. A neighbour is going to have turbines—and that is fine; that is their choice—but the neighbour across the road feels that their property rights are being impinged upon. I see that you do not think there is any problem with the sale of property. But, in an area that probably has some of the best productive land in Western Australia, it is a concern to the community as a whole and to those people who own the land that abuts the place where the wind farm is going to go. Could you comment on that?

Mr Walker —Certainly there is some discussion around community benefit models, where it is not just immediate landholders but also people within a specified area who might get an annual allocation. That might be something to consider. Certainly some models in Europe would be worth investigating. I have to echo what I heard from the industry representatives, which is that, after all, they are just another form of infrastructure. If a neighbour’s amenity is impacted, would we expect a freeway proponent to provide recompense to people who look out on the freeway? We need a fair go for the wind industry, which is to treat it as other sectors are treated.

I cannot pretend to explain what is going on in Western Australia, but here in Victoria we have recently found out that very large areas of our most productive agricultural land are subject to coal exploration. Until recently, communities did not even know that it was going on and they certainly have no right of veto; whereas with a wind farm, under the Victorian guidelines that are being put through at present, a single household can stop a project from occurring. So we would argue that there is a very unlevel playing field here. Wind is being pulled out from all the other industrial players in the landscape and treated very differently. That is wrong and should not be allowed to continue.

Senator ADAMS —This committee is looking specifically at wind. That is the terms of reference, which you are fully aware of. Unfortunately each state seems to have a different planning system. The department appeared before us with draft national guidelines. Could you comment on how you think that might be implemented, seeing that the states have their own constitutional rights, and how the national guidelines work?

Mr Walker —The planning group that is speaking after me could perhaps answer that more effectively. But, from my limited observation of the national rules, they do seem quite unwieldy. I am not sure whether the best bet is to harmonise the state-level guidelines that we currently have or move to a single model. I do not have a strong opinion either way.

Senator ADAMS —On the resale of property and the problems associated with that: yesterday a number of examples were given to us at Ballarat. That is one of the concerns from the area I come from. The land is highly priced and they are worried about resale if they have turbines going right along their boundaries.

Mr Walker —I suppose it depends on whether you are selling land for agriculture—in which case it should not have an impact, because your agriculture can continue—of whether you are selling it for the lifestyle aspects of that land. It is certainly a mixed batch of information. As we heard, the situation down past Portland is that they cannot sell properties fast enough—and that is even looking out at wind farms. Here in Victoria, at Kilcunda—I do not know whether you have been down there—there is a wind farm right along the coast in a major coastal village environment and there are no problems there with selling properties, and that has been there for a decade or more. So it is a mixed bag, but my experience is that it does not necessarily impact negatively.

Senator MOORE —Mr Walker, the comments about asbestos and tobacco were made by people who lived in the regions themselves; they were not made by professional advocates. So I draw your attention to those comparisons made yesterday.

Mr Walker —I am aware of that; yes.

Senator MOORE —My understanding of their comments is that they were arguing that, if there is no independent scientific evidence in a process, people need to speak out. So I think to threaten defamation for people who make those arguments is a step too far.

Mr Walker —Yes; sure.

Senator MOORE —If that can be done by one community organisation to another, it is very worrying. Just remember what those people said. In terms of the process, they were talking about things that were impacting on their lives in their communities and they were seeking independent research. My understanding from the evidence you have given today is that you support trying to find independent evidence to ensure that people are safe. Is that right?

Mr Walker —My reading of the data is that it is not required. But many people are saying that it is, so we are happy to support an independent process to get to the bottom of the problem. I should point out that I certainly was not threatening legal action against these people; I was just noting that I thought it was a very long bow to draw to compare the wind sector with sectors that are so badly tarnished in the public realm. I did not think it was very helpful to the debate.

Senator MOORE —That debate is already there, in terms of process.

Senator BOYCE —I have a couple of questions relating to the interface, as you have called it here, between Commonwealth, state and local planning laws. Changes are going to be made by the Victorian government. We had evidence yesterday that the councils felt they did not have the right resources to undertake the work that was needed to go through a real approvals process, and you have raised some concerns here. Could you outline how Friends of the Earth think the planning processes should be handled?

Mr Walker —Our experience is just at the state level in Victoria, so I cannot comment out of state. Our feeling is that the process works quite well. We would cite a number of examples where proposals are put forward and, when they finally go through the process, they look quite different to the original idea. That is because developers often attempt to do the right thing but they are also forced to do the right thing through the panels process or however it may work. In a number of instances, clusters of turbines have been removed in final outlines because of perhaps the impact on brolga populations or heritage concerns. We think the system is not broke and so it does not need to be fixed. Certainly we hold grave concerns around the Victorian government’s plan to give all the planning powers back to councils. We are hearing clearly that, in spite of promises for resourcing for councils, many of the councils do not have the skills or the ability to intervene with large-scale projects, in particular.

Senator BOYCE —Councils also commented that there were virtually no independent experts around to hire because most of them were currently working for the industry. Would you like to comment on that?

Mr Walker —No, I do not have an opinion on that.

CHAIR —Have you seen examples of where you think the community consultation process works and where it does not work?

Mr Walker —My experience has been that many developers go into communities quite early and start to engage. So they get ahead of what they are forced to do in the planning process. This is a relatively new industry here in Australia. It is much further down the track in Europe. Here the industry has been learning as it goes. We can all cite examples of where some of the earlier projects perhaps were not brilliantly done in terms of community consultation, but we have to give credit where it is due: the industry is evolving and adopting better practices. I refer you to the work by Richard Hindmarsh. He has done some interesting work around what he calls ‘collaborative consultation’ as opposed to ‘consult and inform’ or ‘consult and engage’ consultation models. I can send through that link. He believes that there are several levels of consultation beyond the current practice in the industry that would greatly build community support for projects when they are in the final planning phase.

CHAIR —If you could send through that link it would be appreciated. Amongst other issues, Landscape Guardians have brought up one issue in particular. have not tested it that much, but I will test it as much as I can from now on. It is an assumption about the modified landscape. I get the sense that what they are saying is that they want the landscape to remain as it is. It is already a modified landscape, so how do you have a discussion around it? It relates to the issues of amenity. Some people obviously like the rural landscape as it is. So one of the issues—I am not saying it is the only issue—is that people do not want the landscape changed in an already modified landscape. It also relates to consultation about the environment that the community wants to live in. Are there examples elsewhere where there have been these community discussions? Did they occur in Europe? Have they occurred elsewhere in Australia?

Mr Walker —I am aware of conversations in Ontario, where there has been a rollout of wind energy in quite modified landscapes in recent years, as to how we mesh the intrusion of industrial landscapes into deeply agricultural, mixed, small-scale agriculture. Some of those models have been really good, where people talk about what their connection is to their place and how the imposition of a turbine might influence that. I cannot give you any paperwork on that; that is just my experience of having sat in some community meetings. It sounds a bit harsh, but in some ways we have to accept that the world is changing. It will certainly change a great deal more under climate change if we do not get that under control. Wind energy, by definition, is being placed in modified landscapes—it is not going in national parks. There has to be a degree of reasonableness around where people are prepared to have wind farms placed.

There is also a risk that in our society we turn on the switch and here, in Victoria, that power will be coming from coal. We are not aware of the cost of that. There is a certain value in having wind farms visible from population centres where people are reminded of where their energy might be coming from. One of my fears is that we set in place a boundary around populated areas that means that any future wind farm operations occur offshore or in very underpopulated areas and we lose the benefit of reminding people about where their energy comes from and that they need to be frugal and careful with their energy use. It will also knock off any opportunity for community wind farm operations, because they will only occur in areas with relatively dense populations. As Mr Holmes a Court said before, there are already 40 projects around Australia that are being put forward by community members. It would be terrible to lose the future opportunity to have great locally owned wind enterprise.

CHAIR —Thank you. You have a bit of homework. If you could send that in during the next couple of weeks, that would be appreciated.

Mr Walker —I will. Thank you.

[4.17 pm]