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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
08/04/2019
Estimates
ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY PORTFOLIO
National Wind Farm Commissioner

National Wind Farm Commissioner

[12:04]

CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Dyer. Do you have an opening statement?

Mr Dyer : I do. I would like to read out an opening statement and then take questions. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before Senate estimates. This is my fourth appearance since commencing in the role in late 2015. I have previously summarised my role for the committee and will assume the role is now well understood. For those members who are new to the committee, my terms of reference, role, and other documents that may be helpful are available on the commission's website, nwfc.gov.au. The role was recently renewed for a further three-year term, commencing on 1 November 2018, following a review of the role by the Climate Change Authority and acceptance of their recommendations by the government and the minister. Of note is that our scope has been expanded to now include large-scale solar and storage projects.

I would like to commence by updating the committee on our complaints statistics. Overall, wind farm complaints received are predominantly from Victoria, followed by New South Wales and South Australia, with small numbers of complaints from wind farms in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. The clear majority of complaints received are about proposed wind farms, with a decline in complaints being lodged about operating wind farms. As of 31 March 2019, the key complaint statistics since inception of the office are as follows: a total of 297 complaint matters have been received and 286 of these matters have been closed. Of the total complaints received, 65 were about operating wind farms, 199 matters related to proposed wind farms, 29 matters did not specify a wind farm and four matters have been received about proposed solar farms.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, Mr Dyer. I don't want to interrupt you, but was that for 2018?

Mr Dyer : This is since scheme.

Senator URQUHART: Okay, thanks.

Mr Dyer : I just want to give you the higher level numbers; I could go into a ton of detail. The 65 matters about operating wind farms relate to 11 operating wind farms. Seven of these wind farms are in Victoria, two are in New South Wales and two are in South Australia. Of these 65 matters about operating wind farms, 64 have been closed. The 199 matters about proposed wind farms relate to 53 proposed wind farms. Twenty-five of these proposed wind farms are in Victoria, 15 are in New South Wales, three are in Queensland, six are in South Australia, three are in Tasmania and one is in WA. Of the 199 matters about proposed wind farms, 190 have been closed. Of the total of 264 matters received that specified a wind farm, 170 were about wind farms in Victoria, 49 were from New South Wales, 36 were from South Australia, five were from Queensland, three were from Tasmania and one was from Western Australia.

Of note is that, for the 2018 calendar year, we received just eight complaint matters about four operating wind farms. All of these wind farms are in Victoria, and only one of those wind farms had been commissioned since we commenced operations. This result could indicate that, once a wind farm is built and operating and things have settled down post construction, there's a high degree of acceptance of the wind farm. It may also indicate that, with more being invested in effective community engagement and complaint resolution during the development stages, the likely of complaints post construction is low.

The dominant issues cited in complaints raised with our office in 2018 were amenity, community engagement, planning process, noise and environmental issues. Over the three calendar years of our operations, cited issues in complaints received that have dropped considerably include health, from 46 instances to 18; noise, from 55 to 38; and vibration, from 19 to zero. Cited issues that have increased over this time include visual amenity, from 24 instances to 57; lack of community engagement, from 15 to 41; construction, from seven to 14; and planning processes, from 26 to 42.

Moving on to engagement, we continued to place a heavy emphasis on outreach and stakeholder engagement. During 2018, I visited a number of wind farm and solar sites, and I have now visited approximately 52 sites across Australia. We regularly present and meet with community groups, including presentations to project community consultative committees. I'm a regular presenter and session chair at the Clean Energy Council conferences and will present at the CEC's wind and solar forums as well as the summit in 2019. We engage with media on a variety of topics as they arise. As an example, in 2018 I conducted two lengthy interviews in a series on ABC's Australia Wideprogram about wind farm topics of interest to the community.

At the state government level, we are in regular engagement with relevant ministers and departments, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria, where the bulk of our complaint activities occur. At the federal level, we have close working relationships with sister agencies such as the Clean Energy Regulator, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, ARENA, the AER, AEMO and, of course, the department.

Finally, we continue to proactively engage with the significant and complex stakeholder network required for this role, which constantly changes as people move for whatever reason. Since commencing the role, I've met with over 1,200 stakeholders at all levels of government, community and industry.

I'd also like to mention some of the outcomes resulting from our advocacy and recommendations regarding best practices. These include: the introduction of independent audits for both pre-and post-construction assessment of wind-farm noise; a similar audit regime being adopted for aviation safety assessments; the requirement for transmission lines that connect wind and solar farms to now have a planning permit issued in Victoria; substantive updates to the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council's revised position on wind farms and bushfire operations; material improvements to wind-farm complaint-handling procedures utilised by industry and compliance authorities; the hosting of roundtables to address specific issues, including transportation of longer blades; consistency of aviation safety lighting of turbines; the sharing of best-practice planning approaches across all state based agencies; and progressive adoption of various recommendations that we have made by state and local governments, as well as industry. These outcomes and related recommendations are detailed in our 2018 annual report. Our office will continue to identify and champion improvements to the operation and governance of the industry, particularly arising from systemic issues.

Regarding transparency, I encourage committee members to view our website and let me know of any feedback. The site has come a long way from the temporary website that was initially set up back in early 2016. The upgraded site includes a wide range of documentation with links to improve transparency of information about wind farms, best practices and complaint handling. It also includes my annual report and links to presentations to various forums and community groups. We're in the process of further revising the website to include appropriate information on solar and storage matters. My office is also constantly working with industry members to identify and encourage improvements in their websites, particularly around contact information, product information and how to lodge a complaint.

In closing, I trust this update has been helpful. I'd particularly like to thank the department for their ongoing support and assistance to our small team. I'd also like to acknowledge the strong support and encouragement we have received from state and local governments, where much of our efforts are expended in the pursuit of improvements and resolutions. I'll now hand back to the chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Dyer. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: Thanks, Mr Dyer. You did cover a lot of areas there, but I'll probably just go back to some in my questions to seek clarification.

Mr Dyer : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: First of all, has the agency that you are in charge of spent any money on advertising this week?

Mr Dyer : No.

Senator URQUHART: Is there any intention to spend any money on advertising this week?

Mr Dyer : Not in the budget.

Senator URQUHART: What about out of the budget?

Mr Dyer : No. We're a low-budget movie!

Senator URQUHART: So, given your experience, how would you characterise the evolution of community concerns about wind farms over the last few years? Have they dissipated? And, if they have, why is that the case?

Mr Dyer : I think they have dissipated, and I think our statistics show that. I think a lot of work was done to dispel some of the misinformation that was going around about wind farms, by using evidence-based approaches to complaint handling and resolution. I do think the industry has come a long way in their efforts to be more effective at community engagement and complaint handling, and understanding the economic, social and physical impacts that a wind farm makes on a community, and I think being smarter and better at choosing the right sites that will minimise impact on large populated areas. So there's no one single thing; it's a basket of activities that have improved things.

Senator URQUHART: It's a package, yes. Do you believe there is more community support for wind energy now than there was, say, three and six years ago?

Mr Dyer : I can only answer that on the reverse—by measuring the complaints and the reduction in complaints. As I said in my opening statement, I think it's telling that, as to complaints about operating wind farms, there were a total of eight complaints for the whole of 2018. But we don't have the reverse survey, going out to the community to see what the support is more broadly.

Senator URQUHART: Given that you've only had eight complaints on operating wind farms, you would have to think that there is more acceptance in communities around all the things that you're talking about—

Mr Dyer : I think that, as I said, once the thing is actually built and is running and operating, people go, 'Actually, that's not as bad as I thought it was going to be.' That makes a big difference.

Senator URQUHART: Do you expect that that support will grow over time?

Mr Dyer : It will, but I think we do have to be careful about too many cumulative effects of multiple wind farms in specific geographies. There is the work that AEMO is doing to look at the long-term grid. The grid we have is largely built around a coal resource, and augmenting the grid to be around a renewable resource will give us better locations. So I think there's a balance you've got to strike in that regard.

Senator URQUHART: What's the commission's total budget for 2018-19?

Mr Dyer : I might rely on departmental colleagues.

Ms Evans : I don't have that in front of me. We can come back to it in outcome 2. I might have some people here from the division.

Senator URQUHART: You can get that for me. Also, could you get it for 2019-20 and into the forward estimates. Mr Dyer, I think, if I heard you correctly—and you speak very fast, so apologies if I don't get the numbers right.

Mr Dyer : Sorry, I was trying—

CHAIR: It's all right; it's all in Hansard.

Senator URQUHART: No, it's fine. If I get them wrong, just correct me.

Mr Dyer : Sure.

Senator URQUHART: In 2018, is it correct that you got 65 complaints relating to wind farms, or did I hear that wrongly?

Mr Dyer : Let me clarify that—and I'll speak slowly. Of the complaints we've had since the scheme started, which was in November 2015, we've had 65 complaints in total about operating wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: Right. So how many did you receive in 2018?

Mr Dyer : Eight, in relation to operating wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: How many of those complaints—the eight in 2018—involved people who said that wind turbines were negatively affecting their health?

Mr Dyer : Three of the four wind farms—all four of them are in Victoria. Three of the four were pre-existing—

Senator URQUHART: That's the highest number of complaints?

Mr Dyer : Yes. Victoria is the capital of complaints for wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: The capital of complaints?

Mr Dyer : Yes—

CHAIR: And a number of other things too, I suspect, Mr Dyer. They're a capital for a lot of things, not just complaints about this.

Mr Dyer : And good things.

CHAIR: There are no Victorian senators here, so we can bag them out all we like!

Senator URQUHART: Pay no attention to the chair, Mr Dyer.

CHAIR: She doesn't!

Mr Dyer : Three of the four wind farms were existing wind farms that were operating before I started in this role. So they are in what I call legacy chapter of wind farms, where, perhaps if time was replayed, they may have done things differently. So there are some hangover complaints about those legacy wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, included in that eight?

Mr Dyer : Yes. We only had one complaint about one wind farm that's been commissioned since we commenced our role. I think that's a very good signal that if you handle the complaints in the development phases—during the proposals, the permitting, through to construction—you're less likely to have complaints once it's built and running.

Senator URQUHART: I'm interested in the health complaints. How many have you had? How many complaints involved people who said that wind turbines were negatively affecting their health? Put aside whether they were about a noise thing, a big tower next door or whatever. How many actually said it's affecting their health?

Mr Dyer : I've got that data. When someone makes a complaint to our office, they might have a basket of issues. It could be about health, visual amenity, economic loss—a range of things. We track each of those issues that are part of the complaint. In the 2016 year, we had 46 complaints that cited health as one of the issues. In 2017, we had 20 complaints that cited health, and in 2018 we had 18 complaints that cited health. I would say, by mathematics, that most of the complaints in 2018 would've been about proposed wind farms. So, that's a concern about health impacts as opposed to a health issue.

Senator URQUHART: Right. But you only had eight complaints in 2018?

Mr Dyer : For operating wind farms. You can still make a complaint about health about proposed wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: If we take the eight, rather than the 18, for 2018—

Mr Dyer : Can I suggest a slightly different construct that may be helpful?

Senator URQUHART: No, not at all. I just want to know: how many people complained that wind farms were negatively affecting their health in 2018, and what evidence did those complainants provide to you to support their complaints?

Mr Dyer : In the case of 2018, those eight complaints—I will have to double-check, but I would say about half of them may have stated health as an issue.

Senator URQUHART: What evidence have they provided to support their claim?

Mr Dyer : For those, none.

Senator URQUHART: None.

Mr Dyer : Where I was going, Senator, was to say that of the 65 complaints I've had in total about operating wind farms—if you make the premise that a wind farm has to be operating to affect your health—about half of those complaints cited health as an issue. Of those half—let's call that about 30 or so complaints—three provided evidence.

Senator URQUHART: Was the evidence substantiated?

Mr Dyer : In all cases, it turned out not to be the wind farm.

Senator URQUHART: So for the three that produced evidence in relation to their health, the causal link was not the wind farm?

Mr Dyer : Correct.

Senator URQUHART: So, effectively, you've had no people provide evidence to support that the wind farm was the causing link of their health issues. Great.

Mr Dyer : I made that very clear in my report.

Senator URQUHART: The commission has previously said it's monitoring the progress of the two National Health and Medical Research Council funded studies regarding wind farms and health. The studies are examining impacts wind farms may have on sleep and health. When is that research due to be delivered?

Mr Dyer : 2021.

Senator URQUHART: What research activity has been carried out so far, and what preliminary results, if any, have you been made aware of?

Mr Dyer : In terms of results, none yet, because they're longitudinal studies. That's understandable, given the very nature. There are two different focuses to the studies. The Flinders University study is based on audible noise and the effect of audible noise on human health as a result of the wind farm. The University of New South Wales study is based on inaudible noise, more commonly known as infrasound. That's a combination of lab studies—where you go and have a very enjoyable weekend in the sleep lab in Sydney, in Glebe, for two consecutive weekends, at three days a pop—and the second part is the field study, where they actually put speakers inside people's homes, typically in the bedroom, and the recipient does not know if they're receiving infrasound or not. So it's both a sham study as well as an impact study.

Senator URQUHART: So you haven't had any preliminary results at all?

Mr Dyer : No, it wouldn't be appropriate for them to report at this stage.

Senator URQUHART: Is it your understanding some of the research was delayed due to a lack of suitable participants that were wishing to take part in it?

Mr Dyer : I'm aware there's a challenge in the infrasound study in getting volunteers for the field study.

Senator URQUHART: Why do you think that is?

Mr Dyer : I'd have to speculate that perhaps people don't want speakers in their bedrooms, thumping away with infrasound. I haven't actually interviewed someone who declined to volunteer.

Senator URQUHART: How many complaints has the commission received about solar farms and energy storage facilities since that's become part of your responsibility?

Mr Dyer : Four for solar or proposed solar forms, and none for storage.

Senator URQUHART: None for storage. Four for solar or proposed.

Mr Dyer : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: What's the general nature of those complaints in terms of the solar? What have people complained about?

Mr Dyer : Most of them come with a basket of goods.

Senator URQUHART: Is it the same as for wind turbines or different?

Mr Dyer : Very similar. It's about visual amenity, setback distances and economic disparity. Loss of agricultural land is a more unique issue to solar, and heat flux and flooding. Those were the general basket of goods there.

Senator URQUHART: I think earlier you said you had 65 complaints. Is that since the inception of the commission?

Mr Dyer : For operating wind farms.

Senator URQUHART: And 64 have been resolved?

Mr Dyer : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: So there's one outstanding.

Mr Dyer : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Is there a likely closure date on that? What's the process?

Mr Dyer : That's one of the eight that I mentioned and it's very close to closure.

Senator URQUHART: And, in terms of the solar complaints, have they been closed or have they been resolved?

Mr Dyer : I don't have that precise information in front of me. There are probably a couple that are still open and a couple in watching brief.

Senator URQUHART: So none of them have been closed?

Mr Dyer : The watching brief ones would have been closed.

Senator URQUHART: None of those solar ones relate to any operations that currently exist—that's correct?

Mr Dyer : Correct.

Senator URQUHART: That's all I have. Thank you very much.

Mr Dyer : Thank you, Senator.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Urquhart; thank you, Mr Dyer. For a low-budget movie, you're always very entertaining, so thanks for your time today.

Proceedings suspended from 12:25 to 13:25