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Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

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

Mr Hodgson —Correct.

CHAIR —We have your submission, which is numbered 836. I would like to invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Hodgson —Firstly, thank you for this opportunity. In my view, it must be understood that these rural wind farms are not wind farms comprised of windmills, they are industrial facilities composed of industrial wind turbines. There is a compelling prima facie case that wind farms have adverse effects on human health and, in my view, that demands your attention and further investigation. Rural communities, except host landholders, do not welcome these industrial developments. In fact, the entire rural wind industry is premised upon the exploitation of a power imbalance between large developer corporations—acting in concert with complicit governments—and small, vulnerable rural communities.

Collector is a town deeply divided, and the bonds of the community are stretched to breaking point. Destructive social conflict of this kind is the reality of all inappropriately sited rural wind farms. As set out in our submission to the inquiry, we call for an immediate, substantial and scientifically valid investigation into the health, social and economic impacts of rural industrial wind facilities. In our view these investigations are necessary because the health of vulnerable members of the Australian community is at risk, because the fabric of rural life is threatened and because the entire wind experiment is currently conducted in a fundamentally dishonest manner. It is reminiscent of the deny-at-all-costs approach by big tobacco and big asbestos companies—deny the evidence, challenge any research, claim that nothing is wrong and no-one really believes the naysayers. That has got to change.

Already Denmark, the home of wind power, with the highest electricity prices in Europe, has flagged regulation of infrasound at wind farms; Japan last year started a four-year study into the health effects; and the UK government in February announced a major reform of the planning and approval process to address what they call ‘the democracy deficit around wind farms’.

It is Commonwealth government policies which are driving the wind rush. The Commonwealth government must bear responsibility for the consequences of its policies and should therefore fully investigate the emerging evidence both here and overseas of their adverse effects. Australia needs sober, principled leadership on this issue. I conclude this opening statement by repeating that a comprehensive government inquiry is an absolute priority. Thank you for the opportunity to attend.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Fielding.

Senator FIELDING —I am just wondering whether you know any more about the four-year study in Japan. I do not think the committee has heard about that from anyone, so I am interested to know if you know any more on that. We as a committee may need to find out more ourselves.

Mr Hodgson —I got my information from Maurice Newman, who has a son working in Japan who sent that information down to us about six weeks ago. I can get further details of that if you would like.

Senator FIELDING —That would be very good. Obviously the committee is grappling with very strongly held opposing views on this issue. The core question is: are there any adverse health effects from living near wind turbines? What do you propose as a step forward? Given what the committee has heard in the last few days it is difficult to really understand whether there are any adverse health effects or not. What do you propose that the next step should be?

Mr Hodgson —In all the discussions that I and my colleagues from the Friends of Collector have had with the proposed developer here, Transfield, and other groups with which I have been in touch, their standard response when we talk about health issues is to totally rely on the NHMRC submission—who, it is interesting to note, in their latest submission to your inquiry have increased their reservations about their initial report. In my view, that undermines the position of developers who are heavily reliant on this report. It is exactly the same when you start to talk about the impact on property values. They rely on the 2009 report by the New South Wales Valuer-General, which itself was very preliminary. To me it is quite clear that unless we are going down the track of the asbestos and tobacco industries, where it was allowed to go on until the damage had been done, there should be a halt to all these developments, a moratorium, pending a full investigation. It would be terrible to go ahead with these things and find that all the health impacts that people here and overseas have got are real. Why take the risk?

Senator FIELDING —I can understand the argument and I am very sympathetic to it. The issue is: how do we get some definitive research done on this given that there are two opposing views? Both sides are saying the reports are biased, that they are, or are not, peer reviewed, that the research is funded by the energy industry and that someone else’s view should be discounted because it has not been peer reviewed. How do we get both sides together to agree on the terms of reference of some sort of study?

Mr Hodgson —In all the work that I did in my previous life, you would put people in the room until they sorted it out; you would just make it happen. But you need somebody in authority to lay down the rules and set the guidelines. In my view it is quite clear that the Commonwealth government must set up this inquiry and organise it.

Senator MOORE —Thank you for your submission; it is quite comprehensive. After reading it, I know more about Collector than I ever did before—and that is what we need. I am interested in your comments about the secrecy of the process—and, as you well know, that and the social impacts are aspects of our terms of reference. Can you explain to me exactly how you came to the conclusion that it was secret and clandestine—I think that was the word you used.

Mr Hodgson —I will if I may tell you about the experience my wife and I have had here at Collector.

Senator MOORE —That is the best experience; it is the one you know best.

Mr Hodgson —Exactly. We searched quite carefully for a long while to buy a property in a quiet rural location where we could build, in effect, our retirement and have our children and grandchildren—and grandchild No. 14 is soon to arrive—down here to spend time with us. We bought this property in October 2005. My lawyers did a good job—they did all the relevant research as to title checks and all that sort of stuff—and nowhere did they find any indication of even the potential for there to be a wind farm here. After we had bought the property and built this lovely home which we enjoy, we were invited to a community consultation to tell us about this wonderful development that is going to take place. And then we found out that they had adjacent landholders here signed up for a minimum of five years—and my wife was told by somebody at one of these community meetings that they had actually been signed up and paid money for 10 years. I think it is a wicked state of affairs when you do not know what is going on in your neighbourhood.

Senator MOORE —You now have proof that that is true?

Mr Hodgson —The problem is that you cannot prove it. All of the developers insist that anybody dealing with them sign confidentiality clauses. Even people who have sold properties in other parts of Australia are gagged and not allowed to talk about it—or else the contract gets unwound.

Senator BOYCE —So one of your main concerns, then, is that, when you do the normal searches that you would do when you are buying a property, there is no way of revealing these potential developments?

Mr Hodgson —Correct. From memory, I think I put in the submission that there should be a national register of potential wind farms.

Senator BOYCE —Yes. I am just thinking that, in general, those searches would look at public utilities and the likely effects of those on a property. This would be a new development, wouldn’t it, to look at private property?

Mr Hodgson —Absolutely, because it has a major impact. If I can talk about our situation here, Judy and I could have bought anywhere within 2½ hours of Sydney. If I had had the vaguest idea that there was going to be an industrial wind turbine facility here, we would have gone somewhere else. It is quite clear also that, if we decided to try to sell, whatever this place is worth, say, X, in my view it would probably be worth half X—if you could sell it, because nobody in their right minds would want to live near one of these things.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Mr Hodgson, if you are doing that for one type of development, surely you would want to be doing it for all types of development?

Mr Hodgson —That is obviously a logical extension.

Senator MOORE —That is exactly what I wanted to go to in terms of your knowledge—and we will follow up on planning, because one of the core aspects of our inquiry is planning—of whether the situation you describe in your own community is one that would apply to any development. You would have read the submissions—I know there is great interest—that the wind industry should not be subject to special conditions. If we are looking at development, we should look at development across the board. Are you aware, just from your own research, of any similar developmental process or any that could be similar?

Mr Hodgson —No, I am not.

Senator MOORE —We will follow up on that. Looking at the valuation aspect, I think you made it very clear in your submission and now in your evidence you have concerns about the valuation of properties should wind projects be proposed or actually happening.

Mr Hodgson —Yes. As I said, though, one of the problems when there are people having to sell out to these developers is that they are not allowed to tell you the numbers. They are just not allowed to tell you.

Senator MOORE —As part of a commercial process—because my understanding is that that is quite standard in commercial-in-confidence terms. But your argument is that there should be more knowledge? That is what you are claiming?

Mr Hodgson —Yes, absolutely.

CHAIR —When you say you have no idea of numbers, do you mean what they were paid et cetera?

Mr Hodgson —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Adams.

Senator ADAMS —I would like to follow on from that and ask you: when did you first become aware of the proposal for a wind farm and how did you find out?

Mr Hodgson —I think it was roughly in October last year, 2010. One of the neighbours here rang me and said, ‘Have you got one of these?’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘We just got a coloured flyer from Transfield saying that there would be community consultations down in the Collector hall in three weeks,’ to talk about this wonderful development! That was it. Nobody in the district, other than the people who had already signed up to be host landholders, had any idea.

Senator ADAMS —Right. How many turbines are proposed for Collector?

Mr Hodgson —Sixty-nine. Transfield have not told us this, I might tell you. One of our members—we are now up to 81 members, I should say—checked with the Department of Planning and Infrastructure in New South Wales, and they are proposing that we have 69 turbines of five megawatts each. Now, that is 350 megs. These things are monstrous. They are going to be higher than the Harbour Bridge from the waterline.

Senator ADAMS —Do you know the actual height in metres?

Mr Hodgson —I am told, and I will try to check this out as to these five-megawatt things because this only came up on Monday, 28 March, that for the normal ones we can expect them to be 150 metres.

Senator MOORE —That is in their submission.

Mr Hodgson —That is from the tip of the turbine. It is as high as from the flag on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the waterline. It has now been suggested to me that, to accommodate the five-megawatt turbines, they will have to be 183 metres tall. That is about an 80-storey building.

Senator ADAMS —Do you know if any of the aviators in that particular area have been consulted about this?

Mr Hodgson —Not to my knowledge.

Senator ADAMS —Were they at the meeting?

Mr Hodgson —We did not have any there. Dick Smith was coming but he got held up. I have been over to Boorowa, where they have had some meetings, and the aviators over there are appalled. There are potential problems with firefighting. This is why we need an inquiry. There are so many aspects of this that are a great unknown. Senator Fielding said on the one hand there is one side of the argument and on the other there is another. That is clear, but we need to have an inquiry to get to the bottom of it.

Senator ADAMS —I think this is probably the start. We have been able to uncover quite a number of issues with this. We have had some submitters who have argued that wind farms are being imposed on rural areas against the wishes of local residents for the benefit of those in metropolitan areas. Do you believe this to be the case? If you do, do you have any specific recommendations about how this could be addressed?

Mr Hodgson —The large majority of people in the metropolitan areas, I would imagine, think wind farms are lovely looking things over on the hills and it is free energy, so that must be good. Clearly, they do not understand what there needs to be. One of the things that we have suggested—and it is being discussed—is whether or not there should be, on the electricity bills that people get, an explanation of the cost of the supply of the electricity from the various sources: coal fired, gas fired, solar and wind. It would highlight what these things are costing.

Senator ADAMS —As far as the carbon footprint goes, something that seems to be missed out is this: it is fine when they are up but there is the actual production right from the start of these particular towers. Have you heard or seen any evidence of what amount of carbon emissions comes from that?

Mr Hodgson —No, I have not seen any evidence as to that. But when you think of it these things—all the turbines and what have you—are all made overseas and then they are carted over here on ships and then they are put on trucks and dragged down here. I was told that when the 15 turbines were put in on the Cullerin Range, which is 10 kilometres from here, there were 2,300 concrete truck movements from Goulburn to the site at Cullerin Range. The carbon impact of this, now that you have raised it, must be horrendous. In fact, it is horrendous.

CHAIR —We have had evidence that it is two per cent.

Mr Hodgson —There you go.

CHAIR —In other words, it is offsetting far more carbon than it is producing. Do you contend that there is any form of energy that would be totally carbon free in its manufacture?

Mr Hodgson —Not that I am aware of.

CHAIR —Have you seen any evidence that looks at the balance between wind, solar, gas or coal?

Mr Hodgson —Personally I am not of a scientific background but, as I understand it, in three or four years—on the evidence that I have been able to dig out—solar is going to be at least price comparable with wind and it is going to be a long while before any of those will get close to either coal fired or gas powered generation.

CHAIR —In terms of, you mean, energy generation?

Mr Hodgson —Yes.

CHAIR —In terms of capacity?

Mr Hodgson —Yes.

Senator BOYCE —I would like to go back to the balance between transparency and commercial in confidence. You have made the point that, in your view, wind farms are industrial developments—

Mr Hodgson —Quite clearly they are.

Senator BOYCE —and that the contracts are generally commercial in confidence, even when they are simply options. How do we balance that? We cannot have a special case just for wind industry developments; it has to be something that can be used across the board legally. How do we go about doing that in a way that maintains the right of industry to have private contracts with people yet gives property buyers the confidence of knowing whether or not there will be a development near them?

Mr Hodgson —That is a very good question. I will go one step back to the industrial wind turbine industry. As I understand that, there are organisations that have gone around Australia and mapped the appropriate places to put these wind turbines in relation to the wind.

Senator BOYCE —So basically what they have done is map high-wind areas?

Mr Hodgson —Yes, right around Australia. I cannot see any problem with that information being made publicly available. These people have mapped these areas and that information should be made available the public. The public has a right to know. Coming back to your question—

CHAIR —Have you tried to get that map and been told it is commercial in confidence?

Mr Hodgson —Yes, we have tried to get it.

CHAIR —Where did you ask for that?

Mr Hodgson —My lawyer is endeavouring to track it down with a company called Windlab but we have not had any success.

CHAIR —Okay. We will ask the industry if that is confidential and, if so, why.

Mr Hodgson —Please do. Returning to Senator Boyce’s question: I have spoken about the specifics in relation to wind but on the general issue I think you would probably need a battery of lawyers to work that out.

Senator BOYCE —That was my concern!

Mr Hodgson —It will not be easy. I have been in commercial industry for a long while. It will not be easy.

Senator BOYCE —That is why I was hoping you might have a better solution that we on this committee already have.

Mr Hodgson —Sorry, I cannot advance it!

Senator MOORE —You explained that you moved to this area because you wanted to retire to a beautiful part of Australia. You said you had been in industry. Can you tell us a little about your own background in terms of the kinds of skills you bring to this community organisation.

Mr Hodgson —Ian Ferrier and I started Ferrier Hodgson, the corporate recovery and insolvency firm, back in 1976, so we have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. He and I have since left that and we are doing other things. I was chairman of the Melbourne Ports Corporation for five years and I was on the board of the Coles group when we ultimately sold it to Wesfarmers. I was deputy chairman of Tabcorp Holdings for 15 years. I was on the board of the HSBC Bank in Australia. I am on the advisory council of JP Morgan and I am on the advisory board of the Pact Group, which came out of Visy Industries.

Senator MOORE —The reason I ask is it is clear that you understand systems and the way government and industry operate.

Mr Hodgson —Yes, I like to think I do.

Senator MOORE —Senator Siewert and other senators have been looking at the aspects of independence and knowledge. It is important when we have community organisation such as yours coming forward to see that people do have a wide range of knowledge and backgrounds. I was very keen to have that on the record.

Mr Hodgson —Thank you. If it had not been for me and another chap called Rod Pahl, Transfield pretty well would have had their way. They would have steamrolled through this small, beautiful, rural, unpretentious, undeveloped community. It is quite close to Canberra—it is 45 minutes to Canberra. A lot of people live here and work in Canberra. They would have just got steamrolled.

Senator ADAMS —I would like to talk about the setback. In your notes you said that you feel that it should be perhaps a 10-kilometre setback with respect to noise and any other adverse impacts. Could you flesh out that setback restriction.

Mr Hodgson —The simple answer is I do not know. It seems logical to me when I read all this information—and I have learnt more about wind farms and wind turbines in the last six months than I ever contemplated—

CHAIR —As have we.

Mr Hodgson —It has been a rapid learning curve. The simple answer is that I do not think anybody knows. All the anecdotal information I have received indicates that two kilometres, for instance, which has been adopted in Victoria, is not adequate. Whether is two kilometres, five kilometres or 10 kilometres, I do not know. It will take a far more scientific mind than mine to work it out.

Health is the huge issue here. For goodness sake, we do not want another asbestos catastrophe or a tobacco catastrophe. Let us stop this thing now. Let us put a temporary halt on it while we do the investigation. It might be that it is 20 kilometres. I do not know, I have not got a clue, but let us find out. Why take the risk with people’s health? We have a daughter who has read a lot of this information. She is due to have her second child in August after much IVF. She will not come down here because the Cullerin Range is 10 kilometres away. She is not prepared to take the risk. Nobody knows. That is the problem.

Senator ADAMS —When is the proposed development supposed to start?

Mr Hodgson —I hope it never starts.

Senator ADAMS —I realise that, but what have you been told as far as time lines go?

Mr Hodgson —They have got their environmental assessment in with the New South Wales Department of Planning. It has not been put out for public exhibition. There is another problem. The Director-General says they have met his requirements so put it on public exhibition. Our small unsophisticated community gets 30 days to put in their response to Transfield’s environmental assessment. Transfield gets to respond, as I understand it, and that is it. We do not get a second bite of the cherry, but the developer does. That cannot be fair.

Senator FIELDING —We heard earlier in the week from proponents of wind farms and wind energy that basically it is the negative nellies, who are anti wind energy and anti renewable energy, that are using the adverse health effects from wind turbines as just another way of trying to stop development of wind energy. What is your view of that? They are claiming that it is only the sceptics who are against the wind farms and they will use anything, even adverse health effects.

—I have heard all that stuff too. I am not against renewable energy in the right places. I can tell you that this place, Boorowa and all these rural places are not the right places. Go and put them out the back of Broken Hill or somewhere where the wind does blow—it does blow here, of course—but not where it is going to have a huge impact on people’s health. They rely on this NHMRC submission. As I said earlier, they have put in a second submission amplifying their reservations. To me that is shooting down the developers. Let us get an inquiry done; let us get it going.

Health is the most important thing that all of us have got. I am 71. I am at the end of the innings. But we have got our kids coming down here; we have got our grandkids. I want them to be able to enjoy this place and this beautiful part of Australia in peace and harmony and in good health.

Senator FIELDING —You mentioned again the NHMRC. Are you saying that their submission, which they have just got around to putting in, creates more questions?

Mr Hodgson —Yes. The developers just say, ‘There cannot be any health problems, because the NHMRC put out this preliminary review of the document’—they did not go and talk to anybody—’so we will rely on that.’ Full stop. That is the end of it and they will not discuss it any further. In the submission that you have received within the last few days, I think, which I read last night, they are expressing increased reservations about their initial report, which they said was very preliminary. As I mentioned, in my view it completely undermines the position of developers.

CHAIR —Sorry, Mr Hodgson. We have gone a bit over time.

Mr Hodgson —I have enjoyed myself.

CHAIR —Thank you for your evidence. You do have some homework. You are going to send some more information about the Japanese study.

Mr Hodgson —Yes. I will get onto that.

Senator ADAMS —You mentioned the projects in Denmark. Would you be able to send information about that as well?

Mr Hodgson —Yes, absolutely.

CHAIR —Thank you. That is much appreciated.

Proceedings suspended from 10.17 am to 10.30 am