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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3437

Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (18:59): Because I am the first speaker to this motion tonight, I take the opportunity to thank my colleagues from both sides of the chamber for making a contribution to this debate. I notice that there has been considerable interest in it. In particular I thank my colleague the member for Hume for co-sponsoring this motion. I know he has long been talking about this issue and the need for it to be satisfactorily resolved. I will speak, of course, to the motion on wind turbine planning policies. I will not read out the motion in full, as time does not permit. But, as a clean and relatively cheap technology, wind power has become one of the fastest growing sources of energy in Australia. The industry has expanded at a rate of 30 per cent annually since 2001 and at least 90 new wind farms are currently proposed across the country, in addition to the 87 now operating. The rapid growth of this industry highlights the significant potential for clean energy in Australia. I am very supportive of a strong renewable program. In fact, a timely piece on Fran Kelly's ABC Breakfast program last Thursday reinforced the fact that a renewable energy program can provide greater security of energy supply. German politician Hans-Josef Fell told listeners that France, which derives nearly 75 per cent of its energy from nuclear power today, has recently been unable to meet its energy demands with its bitterly cold winter and poor installation of housing and buildings. France therefore had to look to Germany to import energy. Germany now gains more than 20 per cent of its power from renewable sources, with wind power making up 40 per cent of that renewable energy source.

Renewable energy and particularly wind power are viable sources of energy that have a strong future in Australia. That future can only be strengthened by ensuring that there are robust rules about the location and construction of wind farms. Wind farms are decades old; they are not new. But in modern times the magnitude and the proliferation have grown exponentially. A single wind farm can require tens of thousands of hectares of land, housing hundreds of turbines as tall as the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A single project may amount to a billion-dollar investment. Despite the fact that wind power projects are set to quadruple over the next 30 years under the government's clean energy package, there are no nationally consistent policies or laws governing their development. Planning decisions taken by state governments vary and may involve legislation that uses an arbitrary rule in relation to proximity to dwellings and workplaces. They do not necessarily take into account the geography or the topographical features of a landscape that wind farms will be located in. In Western Australia, for example, there is no legislation enforcing development plans—just guidelines loosely developed with consideration to the rapid review undertaken by the federal government.

In any jurisdiction in the country, stringent planning policies apply to everything from a backyard shed, or indeed a fence, to an airport. Just ask any developer. Yet planning policies for wind farms are approached on an ad hoc basis, informed by cursory investigations into concerns that in some cases are tearing communities apart, particularly rural communities, and causing many people to vacate their homes. The increased size of turbines and the increased amount of land utilised for the farms are growing to mammoth proportions. Therefore, it seems fundamental that we need proper planning procedure to ensure that the community anxiety is addressed and that the best outcome is achieved for all stakeholders.

I think that we should work on the basis that we should do no harm with this policy. Although wind power is a clean technology, that does not mean that it has no environmental impact. A number of people living near to wind farms have reported a myriad of health issues. The low-frequency noise and infrasound produced by wind turbines has been identified as a potential cause of some of these problems. The science behind infrasound is quite detailed and requires a thorough examination. We certainly do not have the capacity in this debate to go into that in any great detail, but it is apparent that not enough investigation has been undertaken by Australian authorities. In evidence to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, investigating the social and economic impact of rural wind farms, both wind farm operators and state governments continued to cite the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council's rapid review in 2010, which concluded:

There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms …

Yet the review was not a scientific investigation or even an analysis, but simply a compilation of existing literature on the subject of low-frequency noise in wind farms. From reading a number of studies on the topic, it appears that the potential for harm arising from low-frequency noise depends on many factors, including the size of the turbine blades—and, as I said, these are getting larger and larger—the number of turbines, the variation in the topography and the wind speed. An increase in any of these factors may increase the amount of infrasound. There are even suggestions that infrasound travels further diagonally to the wind farm, rather than downwind, where most measurements are taken. But many of these are hypotheses requiring much more study.

A related question which also needs to be investigated is why this issue is becoming more prominent now. The forerunners to modern wind turbines were created in the 1940s, and commercial sized wind farms have been in existence since the 1970s in the United States and the 1980s in Europe. Many countries such as Denmark and Spain appear to have successfully integrated wind power with little concern, yet the experience in others, such as the UK, has been vastly different. In fact, the United Kingdom House of Commons is currently considering a private member's bill on best practice in buffer zones, from the member for Daventry, Mr Chris Heaton-Harris. We need to investigate why international experiences have been vastly different and use that knowledge to inform best practice in setting Australian guidelines.

With such uncertainty on the subject, and compelling anecdotal evidence of people suffering harm, surely it is prudent that in-depth research is commenced as a matter of urgency and planning policies take a cautious approach in the interim. The Senate committee came to a similar conclusion in June 2011, with all of its recommendations calling for either further research into the area of infrasound as a priority or improved planning policies. But the government has taken little action to take up the recommendations of that committee, and $3 billion worth of wind power assets have been announced in the meantime across Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. With even more billions to be invested in wind farms in the future, I am sure business would also prefer certainty, with regulations informed by comprehensive evidence rather than being beholden to the view of the government of the day and increasing community concern.

As I have noted, state regulations vary widely. Most states employ a one- to two-kilometre buffer zone, but whether that is sufficient remains a point to be argued, especially as turbine blades are heading towards over 150 metres in diameter. A buffer zone proportional to the blade diameter is being proposed in the United Kingdom by the member for Daventry and may provide a useful template for Australia, or other solutions may arise through thoughtful study and investigation.

I stress again that, while critics may suggest that this motion is anti-wind or will damage investment in industry, I am not against this technology. I am strongly supportive of wind power, of any renewable power. I think we must do whatever we can do to mitigate the worst effects of dangerous elements within our atmosphere. This motion is about proper risk management and evidence based policy for the sake of all stakeholders. I call on the government to urgently and comprehensively investigate this issue and in the meantime err on the side of caution and adopt national policies that protect the public from potential harm.