Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR (Senator Siewert) —Welcome, everybody. Today the Senate Community Affairs References Committee continues the public hearings for its inquiry into the social and economic impacts of rural wind farms. I welcome the representative of the Sustainable Energy Association of Australia. Mr Prentice, I would like to double-check that you have had information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence.

Mr Prentice —Yes, I have.

CHAIR —Thank you. We have your submission; it is No. 56. I invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Prentice —Thank you. Firstly, I would like to thank the committee this morning for the opportunity to provide additional information regarding our submission. Secondly, I would like to pass on the apologies of Professor Ray Wills, the CEO of the association. He was unable to make it this morning due to travel commitments.

As a little bit of background, the Sustainable Energy Association is a member based group of enterprises who provide commercial solutions to climate change through products and services that aspire to be more sustainable, and those who also aspire to be more sustainable in their own energy use. In terms of sustainability, we are of the belief that not everything that is renewable is sustainable. ‘Sustainable’ must address all three aspects of sustainability: economic, social and environmental.

The SEA constitution has objectives which include the following elements and which are of direct relevance to the committee’s inquiry: promoting the adoption of sustainable energy solutions to encourage protection of the environment to which existing traditional energy sources are damaging; facilitating the adoption of sustainable energy technologies and practices as a method for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the Australian economy across urban, rural, remote and regional Australia, both on-and off-grid; and, furthermore, increasing employment opportunities in a sustainable energy industry across all regions of Australia, contributing to a more sustainable future.

The SEA has over 400 members from diverse enterprises and industries from all states of Australia. This range of companies, businesses, organisations and individuals is involved in sustainable energy practices including energy efficiency, transport, energy generation, infrastructure, architecture and design, and the performance of appliances. We believe that a sustainable economy is the future for Australia.

We have a number of comments which we will break down based on the committee’s terms of reference. First, we will deal with the issue of adverse health effects of people living in close proximity to wind farms. We are of the view that this is a difficult area to objectively assess, not only because of the emotive nature of health issues in the community but also because, unlike atmospheric and environmental pollution from other sources such as coal or nuclear power, sound and amenity can be far more difficult to quantify.

To summarise the SEA’s position: first, the NHMRC in 2010 produced a meta review of the health effects of wind farms which concluded that there is no direct evidence of systemic health effects from wind farms. While this study is not authoritative, it reviews a number of studies on the matter. Further research must be encouraged in this area to ascertain if there are tangible, direct or indirect negative health effects.

Many of the claims purported in relation to impacts on health relate to that of sound, in particular low frequency and infrasound emission, and shadow flicker. In both of these cases the SEA contends that the scientific and medical information put forward in submissions offers no credible evidence for direct pathological health impacts from wind farms. Furthermore, SEA’s assessment is that the popularised terms ‘wind farm syndrome’ or ‘wind turbine syndrome’ are not supported by rigorous and peer reviewed clinical evidence and in appropriately designed studies. We refer the committee to the research of Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney, which was highlighted in his article on the ABC’s The Drum on his views on the quality of the science involved in identifying wind turbine syndrome. SEA accepts his conclusion on the current quality of the proposition.

On the issue of the current lack of evidence of direct and documented pathological health effects, SEA accepts that such claims should be thoroughly and rigorously investigated. Sustainability also involves societal impacts on energy generation. In individual cases where health effects have been reported, these should be investigated to see how and why they have occurred and whether the wind farms may have played a role. SEA contends that there is no evidence to suggest that wind farms are solely to blame—as has been suggested and portrayed in the media—but accepts that, as a medical premise, this possibility must be explored.

Some groups who oppose wind power generation do not have a clear option on alternative low-polluting sources of energy. Internationally, some of these groups have been shown to have strong ties and have, in fact, been founded by the pro-nuclear lobby. These groups have had a long-standing opposition to commercial wind turbines for a commercial motive and have used community groups to further this.

Finally, on all existing data, the overall health impacts of wind energy are clearly much more benign than other forms of energy generation. Globally, the impacts of electricity generation technologies such as coal and nuclear have a far greater human health and environmental impact than those of the installation of wind farms.

Ultimately, the wind industry must act responsibly in addressing the concerns from the local community and, in return, community assessments must pay due regard to the conclusions of rigorous science. Health effects should be investigated and their root causes and effects understood. The greatest risk to creating a sustainable business environment is to enact restrictions or to undertake actions based on a lack of reliable and sound information. This would be the antithesis of the concept of sound evidence based policy to which I think all parties are committed.

I will now turn to the concerns about excessive noise and vibrations emitted by wind farms that are in close proximity to people’s homes. The general nature of this issue means we can only rely on generalities and must make a number of assumptions as to what this may mean. Any proximity would be dependent upon the size and number of wind turbines in the farm, and all of our following comments should be taken in this context.

Based on the reviews and reports submitted to the inquiry and cited within the NHMRC report, we do not believe that other than transient and irregular occasions there is likely to be significant impact arising from excessive audible noise and vibrations generated by wind farms at distances under the current regulations which have been deemed acceptable. One should compare the impact of wind farms to living close to a train line, under a flight path of an airport or in a busy nightlife precinct. On an existing scale these are far more likely to have an impact on auditory amenity than wind farms. While rural communities are unlikely to face such noise loads, much of the significance of this issue we have seen appears to arise from a change in the noise environment and this change has had some amenity impact. Such concerns regarding noise levels are able to be dealt with under existing guidelines and regulatory regimes. The wind industry here in Australia and globally is well aware of the issues and is not of the opinion that these would constitute a significant issue.

Finally I will address the impact on rural farms, property values, employment opportunities and farm income. The SEA’s assessment is that there are benefits to be derived by local communities from the existence of wind farms in regional and rural Australia. These include temporary and permanent employment, including indirect positions supporting new workers in the area, increased income to the area from land leases and improving the value of certain properties, which will have a trickle down effect on the local economy, and the support of local community institutions, such as sporting clubs, from wind farm owners and operators. A number of companies have such policies in place to support the local community.

Globally a number of countries have a large number of community owned and operated wind farms. These are based on community ownership, cooperative energy companies and those owned by the municipality. These are primarily seen in the European Union. There are two examples we would provide here. In Denmark by 2001 over 100,000 families belonged to wind turbine cooperatives, which had installed 86 per cent of all wind turbines in Denmark, which is a world leader in wind power. It should be noted that the population in Denmark has a very high acceptance of wind power as a generation opportunity.

The second example is in Germany. Thousands of small- and medium-sized enterprises are running successful businesses in a new sector that in 2008 employed 90,000 people and generated eight per cent of Germany’s electricity. In the UK there are a number of community owned wind farms and this number is increasing but as yet has not reached the high levels seen in other parts of the European Union.

In relation to the interface of the Commonwealth, state and local planning laws as they pertain to wind farms, the SEA asserts that there needs to be a better process across the planning spectrum that recognises its members’ support of best practice in the planning and development of wind farm assets for sustainable energy generation.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator FIELDING —I understand why you would say the adverse health effects are difficult to assess. The committee has heard over a number of days opposing views. Some say there are clearly adverse health impacts from living nearby wind turbines but other, predominantly from the industry, say there are no adverse health impacts from living close to wind turbines. There is a view that more research does need to be done on the issue, and I think you have acknowledged that as well. Does the Sustainable Energy Association of Australia support the Victorian government’s move in regard to having buffer zones or setbacks of two kilometres?

Mr Prentice —I think a buffer zone should be entirely dependent on the actual physical characteristics of the wind farm, such as the number and size of turbines, its siting and location, and the acoustic factors in the area—these are used by the wind industry to determine what the zone should be. A blanket buffer zone does not face the realities of what is actually there. So we perfectly accept that there is a noise place and a noise amenity issue, but we do not believe a blanket zone is best practice either here in Australia or globally. We also recognise that we already have some of the toughest restrictions in the world on wind farms, so to put further restrictions on them without evidence or knowing what the effects are is probably a little bit a reaction that does not have a sound basis, we believe.

Senator FIELDING —So do you support the Victorian government’s move in that area?

Mr Prentice —In terms of creating a specific two-kilometre buffer zone, no.

Senator FIELDING —Is the Victorian government’s decision to look at the 2010 New Zealand standard something that you would support?

Mr Prentice —I am unfamiliar with the New Zealand 2010 standard and the current Victorian efforts to look at that, so I would not be able to make a clear comment.

CHAIR —Sorry, Senator Fielding; can I just go back to the issue of the two-kilometre buffer. My understanding of that, from the various interpretations during our two days of hearings in Victoria earlier in the week, is that it is not strictly a two-kilometre buffer; it is a requirement that any of the residences within two kilometres of the buffer need to be taken into consideration.

Senator BOYCE —It is not the buffer. The buffer is different.

CHAIR —Yes. The buffer is different. What they are saying is that, if you are within that zone, we need to then—

Mr Prentice —Consider them, absolutely. We agree with that, whether or not a dwelling later comes into that zone—which can obviously then become a problem for businesses because they have no control of later development—at the time, there should absolutely be consideration of what the effects will be within that zone. Whether out at two kilometres there are any audible or visual effects can be quite arguable. Certainly, we are of the view that people in noise affected residences or who construct dwellings within that zone should be aware that there might be impacts, and that wind companies should not be made responsible for things that are beyond their control.

CHAIR —Okay. Thank you. Senator Fielding. Sorry I interrupted.

Senator FIELDING —The Victorian plan is that people within a two-kilometre radius have to give consent. So it is a bit of a buffer zone, because if someone says no then there is a problem. Does that make sense?

Mr Prentice —Yes.

Senator FIELDING —Are you aware that in Canada there is a minimum setback of 550 metres?

Mr Prentice —I believe that all over the world there are various setback areas for noise affected area dwellings.

Senator FIELDING —But you do not agree with any sort of setback limits unless they are based on—

Mr Prentice —I think it is entirely dependent on the size and scale. Guaranteeing a specific setback could lump together a five-megawatt community farm and a 200-megawatt commercial farm. The idea of a blanket buffer zone really creates concerns within the industry that, with the stroke of a pen, that 550-metre or whatever setback could become a kilometre or two kilometres. While that may not be likely, there is concern within the industry about having the certainty to be able to continue their business.

Senator FIELDING —Also in Canada, as the number of wind turbines goes up, the actual setback increases as the noise increases, so they do have minimum setbacks in Canada. Are you aware of research conducted by Dr Pierpont at all?

Mr Prentice —Yes, we are aware of that.

Senator FIELDING —Before you mentioned Professor Chapman as someone to really look at. Do you know whether he is a sound expert?

Mr Prentice —He is a public health professor from the University of Sydney.

Senator FIELDING —What is his training?

Mr Prentice —I do not know if he is a sound expert, to be honest.

Senator FIELDING —No, he is not.

Mr Prentice —But in terms of public health issues and public science issues I believe his commentary on Dr Pierpont’s work was quite valid. Certainly, having examined a number of the submissions, including those from sound experts—and I cannot remember the chap’s name who worked on the cochlear project—on the infrasound issue, we would place greater validity on comments by him over those by Dr Pierpont, whose work we do not believe is scientifically credible because of the structure and nature of her study which would not be of a standard to be published in a peer review journal.

CHAIR —For the record, there was a bit of a side conversation here around Dr Pierpont and acknowledging that Dr Pierpont is not a sound expert either.

Senator MOORE —I would like to know how your organisation and clean energy Australia operate. You have both appeared as umbrella bodies. Do you have links? Do you work together? Do you have common membership?

Mr Prentice —Are you referring to the Clean Energy Council?

Senator MOORE —Yes. The Clean Energy Council has given evidence. I want to clarify where you all fit in the jigsaw.

Mr Prentice —We, like the Clean Energy Council, are a member based organisation. We have not been around as long as the Clean Energy Council. We have generally a broader member base in terms of the diversity of companies and organisations involved with the SEA. We do have some common membership. Some companies like what the Clean Energy Council do and some people like what we do. We do occasionally discuss policy issues with them, but on other things we do have our own views based on the views provided to us by members. In some cases we do not necessarily agree 100 per cent with the Clean Energy Council.

Senator MOORE —Sure. There is wider discussion in the community. I am trying to get a sense of the organisations that operate in this way in the community. You have some common members and you communicate?

Mr Prentice —We do communicate, absolutely. It would be rather counterproductive if we did not.

Senator MOORE —That is not always a deterrent.

Mr Prentice —That is true.

Senator MOORE —You made some strong comments about people opposing wind energy and raising issues about the effectiveness and health impacts of wind energy linked to people who may be linked to other energy sources. That was a comment in your evidence. I want to tease that out and see what the basis of checking is on such a wide comment.

Mr Prentice —While we are not saying that every community group is like that or not necessarily any in Australia are, it has been recognised that Sir Bernard Ingham—a very vociferous anti-environmental group proponent—who co-founded the Country Guardians in the UK, holds a very high position in the Supporters of Nuclear Energy. In the UK for a very long time there has been a commercial butting of heads between the nuclear and wind energy industries. This may recently have changed. We saw he did not necessarily have the environmental community interests at best heart because of his support and commentary on the environmental lobby, which at times was extremely derogatory.

Senator BOYCE —Can you relate that to the Australian scene please?

Mr Prentice —The Country Guardians, for example, in the UK provide information to people globally. There are groups which will refer to information provided by the Country Guardians, which we do not believe is necessarily an unbiased source.

Senator BOYCE —Are you saying for instance that groups in Australia are the unwitting proponents of anti-wind energy or that they have been established by groups who are opposed to wind energy or supportive of other forms of energy?

Mr Prentice —Without the personal knowledge, I would not say that they have been formed for that sole purpose. I think they are potentially utilising information which has ulterior motives, not necessarily with a considered knowledge of that—so they are unwitting, as you referred to.

Senator MOORE —This has been a part of this inquiry: the difficulty of identifying true independence. Any kind of report or evidence has been accused by people of either being supported or coloured by those who are pro-wind or against wind—all those kinds of things. From your perspective as a kind of energy group, is there any process by which you would identify independence? I am sure there are groups that are being formed locally on any side of the argument. What could we do to ensure that there is exposure of links or things like that? I am struggling with the same questions as Senator Boyce. When organisations form around a topic and there are people who are going to benefit either way, is there anything your group has looked at around what we could do to make the process more transparent so that there would be some kind of guideline, when groups are formed, to identify where their links are and where people come from?

Mr Prentice —We are a great believer in openness in that respect. We believe that if a group is being funded or has been formed in relation to any issue—whether that issue be wind, solar, solar thermal, geothermal or whatever—industry links should be identified. Support of a financial nature from independent think tanks et cetera should also be identified. It is a difficult thing.

Senator MOORE —It is very difficult.

Mr Prentice —It is something people are struggling with globally, particularly with—I do not know if you are aware of the term—astroturfing. It is seen as an issue within the industry. We make no bones about the fact that we are here to support our members but we do not only have members in wind; we have members who are in all aspects of sustainable energy. We do not believe that any one single thing is the panacea.

Senator MOORE —And you mentioned that in your submission.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you for presentation. You spoke about Denmark. I will be there next week, which is going to be very interesting, and I will be visiting wind farms while I am there. Denmark is now building its wind farms offshore. Could you tell me the reason?

Mr Prentice —Denmark has a lot less land. Offshore wind, we think, is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, it is very expensive in Australia. In northern Europe it is much cheaper due to access to all the drilling equipment. For example, for drilling offshore in Western Australia we would have to bring rigs down from Singapore. In northern Europe you have the opportunity to do so on a large scale with local assets. Also you can build much larger wind farms offshore. I am not sure if you are familiar with the round 3 Dogger Bank proposal, which is talking of about 9 gigawatts of offshore wind.

CHAIR —Who owns those ones?

Mr Prentice —The larger offshore ones are now tending to be commercial. They are beyond the scale of what a community wind farm would be able to afford.

CHAIR —But some communities are building offshore?

Mr Prentice —Yes, a small number. They tend to be the smaller scale ones. But the large-scale, obviously, are the commercial energy entities.

Senator ADAMS —Some of the evidence we have been given is that these turbines are a lot taller. And, as you said, the winds will be reliable but, being built on land, they have too much impact. The reason that is being given is that the generators are so much larger and the noise problem is so much larger.

Mr Prentice —Yes. That is certainly one aspect of it. If you are going to do it on a big scale you have to go off shore. Also, the economics over there work. Unfortunately they do not work here in Australia.

Senator ADAMS —That is just a fact. You mentioned Denmark. I will be going there next week. That was very much the flavour of the question.

We have had quite a number of complaints during our inquiries about the behaviour of wind farm developers. In particular, claims have been made about poor consultation, secrecy and intimidation. Have your members reported any of this back to you?

Mr Prentice —No. Certainly if any of our members were involved in such things we would be looking at whether or not they were fit and proper people to be members of the association. We do not have a lot of members in the wind space—particularly in the commercial wind space.

Senator ADAMS —No the question was: have your members had any complaints?

Mr Prentice —No. We have not—not that we are aware of.

Senator ADAMS —How closely are they working with people who are going to host wind farms or be part of the scene with the developers? I thought you would have had something coming back.

Mr Prentice —Certainly we have had no negative aspects. We have consulted with our members in relation to this to ask, ‘Has this been an issue?’ In some cases we are well aware that some of the consultation processes have been less than best practice. I am not sure whether you are aware of Richard Hindmarsh’s research from the university. I see that you are. Certainly some of the examples given in his research, we believe, are less than best practice. We are unaware of any intimidation, which we would consider to be unethical at its minimum. That is not about sustainability. Unfortunately, people tend to forget that sustainability does involve the local community and the societal impacts. We certainly would not condone any such action. We believe that openness and transparency are important in respect of this because of the potential impacts on local communities. A lot of negative things can be said about wind proponents but it also needs to be recognised that that is not all of the industry and that certain entities within the industry—I refer to one of our members specifically: Pacific Hydro—are also involved with local communities where they have winds farms.

Senator ADAMS —Where there are proposed wind farms and community consultation you have not had any feedback on that?

Mr Prentice —No, we have not.

Senator ADAMS —That is unlike a number of our other submitters. As we have moved around I can assure you that that seems to have been the biggest issue.

Mr Prentice —We certainly recognise that community consultation at times has been less than best practice. But that is not always the case.

CHAIR —How proactive are you in terms of addressing that and setting best practice standards?

Mr Prentice —In terms of setting best practice standards we encourage our members to look at what is out there and what the potentials are. We cannot do everything; we would love to. Obviously we have limited resources and that is not an area which has been a key area of focus for us. For example, at the moment we are trying to work with our members in relation to best practice in residential solar in terms of the ethics and ethical conduct, because that is an issue that we are aware of in the industry here in Perth and nationally.

Senator ADAMS —Do you have members in rural areas?

Mr Prentice —Yes. We have members nationally—in urban, rural and regional areas.

Senator ADAMS —It has been suggested that wind farms are being imposed on rural areas. There is a terrific lot of wind farm development going on throughout Australia. This is often against the wishes of local residents for the benefit of those in metropolitan areas. Do you believe that this is the case?

Mr Prentice —I do not necessarily agree with that statement. I suppose one could ask the question: are they being imposed in spite of opposition? Is that opposition from the majority of people or just a few people within the community? Without specific statistics or information on that, it is very difficult to say it is against the will of the community. Is that half and half? Do half the people want it or does the whole community not want it?

Senator ADAMS —Have you had any feedback on it?

Mr Prentice —Not specifically against us. Because there is not a lot of wind farm development over here at the moment, we are really only getting second-hand information, and that is normally post the fact, after it has all happened.

Senator ADAMS —I would have thought that as a body with that number of members you would be looking at it from the national perspective as well, not just WA’s.

Mr Prentice —We are looking at it from a national perspective. But, as I mentioned, we still have limited resources. We cannot do everything. We would love to do everything but we only have so many people to work on so many things at the one time.

Senator ADAMS —So, if you are going to get this research on health done, what process are you looking at to do that when you have so few people?

Mr Prentice —We would not undertake the research ourselves. We would be looking at some of our members, such as a number of universities, to see what opportunities there were to link them into the wind industry and the community to conduct the sort of research that needs to be done. Certainly, we are aware that the federal government has a number of different programs to fund such research which will probably be applicable. We are not a funding body but we are very much about creating collaborations between communities, the industry and research institutes to undertake the research to a suitable standard that has scientific credibility.

Senator ADAMS —Okay.

Senator BOYCE —I do not know if I missed you saying it, but when was SEA established, Mr Prentice?

Mr Prentice —We were originally established as the Western Australian Sustainable Energy Association back in about 2001. Last year, we changed our name to the Sustainable Energy Association of Australia to reflect the increased membership of companies and organisations outside of Western Australia.

Senator BOYCE —So nothing like it existed outside of Western Australia and you went national; is that how it was?

Mr Prentice —The Clean Energy Council existed, but we probably aim for businesses and organisations in a slightly different way from them and we do not necessarily agree with them on everything. For example, they are supporters of clean coal; we do not believe that clean coal is a long-term, sustainable solution. So there are philosophical differences. Also, we are working with different and broader sectors of the energy industry, and that does include consumers of energy. So we are working towards energy efficiency in that respect, for example.

Senator BOYCE —Do you have any community organisations or not-for-profits, so to speak, among your membership?

Mr Prentice —Yes, we do. I believe there are not-for-profits, industry associations, government departments and agencies, private businesses, publicly listed companies and research institutions.

Senator BOYCE —Does SEA have a code of conduct for members?

Mr Prentice —We do. Basically, the code of conduct is described within the constitution. We are looking at the issue of specific industry codes of conduct at this time, but there is also, we believe, work being done by specific industry sectors to address this, so we are creating relationships there to deal with specific sectoral things. A broad code of conduct is being of good character and acting in an appropriate manner that is sustainable.

Senator BOYCE —If someone were to come to you with a complaint about a breach of your code of conduct, what would the process be?

Mr Prentice —I have never experienced it personally. Basically any allegations are brought before the board and the board then requests a response. It is a process of assessment and investigation. The board would make a decision on whether or not there was substance and whether that breached the code of conduct.

Senator BOYCE —And the options then would be to—

Mr Prentice —The option would be the terminate the person’s membership—

Senator BOYCE —Any other options?

Mr Prentice —We are not in a position to do anything else other than to say, ‘This person is no longer a member because—

Senator BOYCE —As far as you are aware there have been no complaints brought to the SEA about members’ behaviour?

Mr Prentice —There have been, at times. An example is, ‘This person was doing this thing here; I don’t agree with it.’ It was more a personal point of view. There was nothing where there was illegality or—

Senator BOYCE —Or a suggested breach?

Mr Prentice —a breach of the requirements of the—

Senator BOYCE —So nobody has suggested unethical behaviour.

Mr Prentice —Yes.

CHAIR —I wanted to go back to the issue of Denmark and the community wind farms. Are 86 per cent owned by the community? Did I understand correctly?

Mr Prentice —I believe that that was in the 2001 statistics that we had. They are dated. Unfortunately it is not always easy to get the latest information. Certainly there is always a delay in the statistics. I daresay now that that has probably been diluted by large commercial enterprises entering the market as well.

CHAIR —I appreciate that the information is dated but I was wondering what the average size was of a community owned wind farm in Denmark.

Mr Prentice —I do not have that information. I could not tell you. Certainly I know that within Australia the hundreds of kilowatts to low megawatt scale would be what people are looking at for community wind farms. Most commercial wind farms, from comments we have received from the industry, will not look at anything unless it is 30-plus megawatts. It is just too small.

CHAIR —That is why I was asking. We visited the Hepburn community wind farm in Victoria. I have got to say I was pretty impressed with it but it is a much smaller size than one of the commercial sizes. Is there a different situation in Denmark?

Mr Prentice —To be honest I do not have that information to hand. It is something I could find out.

CHAIR —If it is not too much trouble, if you could take that on notice that would be appreciated.

Mr Prentice —I am more than happy to do that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your time. You have a little bit of homework.

[9.44 am]