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Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —Welcome. We have your submission, which has been numbered 657. I know that you have been given information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses, but if you have any questions we are here with the secretariat to help you. Would you like to make opening comments? We will then go into questions.

Mr Park —Before I do, I would like to put in the apologies of Mr Alan Hill. He has had a prior appointment. His mother is in the process of going into a home. He got the appointment from the health department and made the judgment that if he let that one go it would be another three months before he got another one.

CHAIR —Of all the committees of the Senate, this one would understand that more than most, so we totally understand. We have the evidence on Hansard anyway, so it means your organisation has contributed.

Mr Park —I also put in a personal submission as well. It is only a one-pager from DH and Jane Park from Badgingarra.

CHAIR —We will cross-reference those. If you want to give evidence to that one, you can in the same space, but identify that that is part of your personal submission as opposed to the one from the Western Australian Farmers Federation.

Mr Park —Trying to differentiate one from the other will be almost impossible.

CHAIR —We will just take it as you talk with us.

Mr Park —I will say that, from a farmer’s point of view, we welcome the opportunity to have other income sources. As you are probably all aware, farmers for the last 150 years and certainly the last 50 have been battling the cost-price squeeze, and our terms of trade have definitely been going the wrong way, so we are always looking for opportunities to offset the decrease in returns form agriculture. Basically, we are supportive of wind farms and alternative energy in general.

Senator FIELDING —One of the key terms of reference for this inquiry was looking at the adverse health effect of people living in close proximity to wind farms. You may or may not be aware of what has been the concern about adverse health impacts. Is that something that the Western Australian farmers are aware of or had concerns about?

Mr Park —No. Pinning down what those adverse health effects are has been difficult. I listened to the last person giving evidence, and one of the things that I noted in his evidence is that he kept talking about the negative health effects. He never specified what they were. On listening to his evidence I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about as far as adverse health effects.

Senator BOYCE —His submission does set out the specifics.

Mr Park —The closest wind tower to me is 500 metres from my boundary. I am wondering whether I should be worried about where I am living. The experience I have with wind farms is that a wind farm that has 48 turbines on it over an area of around 2½ thousand hectares generates about 50 megawatts of power. That is the potential. When you look up you can see them on the skyline, but we have planted a lot of trees on our property, and most of the time when we get really strong winds our trees are much noisier than the turbines. We cannot hear them. So, yes, I would like to see some specifics on what the actual health problems are. The wind farm next to us has only been there for about five years. There is another big one that has gone in at Collgar, just south of Merredin. It is only just happening, so we have no experience of that as far as farmers are concerned. We will watch with interest.

We had one person in our district who was against the original wind farm, but lately they have been talking about extensions. Again, listening to the last speaker, my neighbour and I have signed contracts with potential wind farm people. I know of at least one other. Certainly they were looking to extend the present one. The one person in the district who was against it has come to the conclusion that all her fears were probably not so well founded.

Senator FIELDING —I was not going to enter this path, but I must as well. How far is your bedroom from the nearest wind farm? I am not going to ask how high you are or that sort of thing.

Mr Park —Our farm is about four kilometres by four kilometres. The farm that the wind farm is on is directly north of us, so from our bedroom it probably is around four kilometres to the nearest turbine.

Senator FIELDING —A lot of the people that we have been hearing from earlier in the week have health concerns. We have heard from some people with some serious health issues that they firmly believe are coming from living nearby to wind turbines in the two-kilometre range from them. It is a syndrome that they have labelled ‘wind turbine syndrome’. Probably after this inquiry you will do a bit of research on it yourself to see their perspective. Have you had any farmers come to you with issues to do with wind turbines?

Mr Park —No, we have not. We are quite early days. The one at Badgingarra is five years old. Walkaway is since then. So we have not had a lot of opportunities for farmers to be involved. From what Mr Hodgson was saying I take it that his area is a lot more populated than ours is. Even if you were to take a four-kilometre circle from the wind farm next to us, there would be probably four or five families.

Senator FIELDING —And the nearest home and bedroom to the wind turbine would be pretty small?

Mr Park —The nearest home would be the manager on Emu Downs. They moved one house further. He would probably be about 500 to 700 metres from the nearest turbine. We are very sparse. Originally all the blocks were around 1,600 hectares, and we have had population loss since then. We are certainly not a high-density population.

Senator FIELDING —Okay. I think my colleagues will cover some of the other terms of reference. Thank you.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you for you opening statement and your submission. I have read your other one. Some farms in Western Australia have been going a little bit longer. We have been doing a series of interviews as part of our inquiries in the Eastern States. Some submitters have argued that wind farms are being imposed on rural areas against the wishes of local residents—you heard a good example of that from the speaker before—and for the benefit of those in metropolitan areas. Do you believe this is the case, and would you like to comment on that?

Mr Park —I think that is probably a question about renewable energy and the generation of, in general. As I said before, the declining terms of trade for agriculture mean that farmers are usually pretty much welcoming to new sources of income. My vision of power generation into the future is a lot of smaller generators on the fringes of the network now. Things like bio-energy and those sorts of things that farmers could be involved in. In general we welcome the idea of being able to be part of energy generation. As to whether it is imposed on people, there are all sorts of different pressures that you could say are imposed—financial. Maybe if farmers were making lots of money from agriculture they would not be interested in doing it, but that is not the reality. I remember being asked by one of the Canberra radio announcers four or five years ago when the wind turbines went in on the neighbouring property what I thought about it. I said that the worst thing about those wind turbines was that they were not on my place. We might be forced into those things. In general farmers welcome the chance to participate in alternative energy.

Senator ADAMS —You have just said that you are looking to be a host in the next expansion. Have all the neighbours in your area been approached? Are they all fully aware of what is going on?

Mr Park —Probably not fully aware of ours, but there are other extensions—the extension of the present Emu Farm wind farm was touted 18 months ago. We have had meetings about that. In our case, our neighbours are national park on one side, unallocated crown land on another, the person who will be involved in our wind farm on another, and the Emu Downs wind farm on the other side. So there will not be too many people involved.

Senator ADAMS —Where this has arisen in the Eastern States, the witness before explained about going into a property, buying it, thinking there is not going to be any development and then suddenly being confronted with something like that. We have had a lot of this—that developers, because of commercial in confidence, are not telling neighbours what is going on until it is too late.

Mr Park —That is a difficult one. One of my wife’s concerns about our contract with the developers is that they are not actually going to go ahead. You do not know when you sign these things whether it is going to go ahead. I do not think I should check with the developers that we are dealing with whether they are happy that people know. I do not think they would have a problem with anybody knowing.

Senator ADAMS —Your particular developer has not told you to keep it confidential.

Mr Park —Not at all.

Mr ADAMS —That is quite unusual, from the evidence we have been getting.

Mr Park —Maybe because we have got wind farms and chances of wind farms all around us—as you are aware, Badgingarra is a pretty windy sort of place.

Senator MOORE —You say you have not been told to keep it confidential. I just want to clarify that because there are different understandings of what people have been required to keep confidential. We have had discussion around not being able to make disparaging comments, issues around health, and then there are issues around the commercial side of things.

Mr Park —My understanding of the commercial in confidence is that they are trying to make sure that other people do not get in. We have signed an agreement with our company. Basically what that is doing is just saying that they have first dibs on our property to have wind farms on. I am trying to think back; it is five years since I signed it, and we are about to negotiate an extension on that. I do not remember any comment about having to keep it confidential or anything like that. In fact, when we go to the next stage some of our problems will be trying to work out what sorts of payments we are going to be made. We will have to try to find out what other people are paid so we know what the market rate is. That is a problem from our point of view. Certainly the people we have been dealing with have been quite open about what they pay other people—although we cannot check that.

Senator ADAMS —What about the siting of the turbines? When you read the evidence about this it might be something you need to talk to them about.

Mr Park —One of the things that Emu Downs did was actually move one of the houses on the property.

Senator ADAMS —What was their reason for that?

Mr Park —They thought the turbines were going to be too close. In this particular case there were going to be three turbines within 100 to 200 metres. That was a noise problem. When you stand underneath them there is a noise—you can hear a ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.’ I have stood under quite a few of them. So they moved the house.

CHAIR —That would have been in shadow flicker range anyway.

Senator ADAMS —I want to ask about the lights and aviation. What is the story with the ones that are already up there?

Mr Park —Those ones that are already there are underneath the limit for having lights on. So there are no lights or anything on them. We get a lot more light from the mine that is next door. Thankfully, our house sits underneath the hill so we do not see that light. Certainly when you drive around our property at night it is the light from the mine that really hits you. But with bigger turbines—those lights are probably not going to be terribly offensive either. I grew up at Bulls Brook, which is next door to the Pearce Airbase. We have two beacons on our property there. We were never really worried by that.

Senator ADAMS —The federal government at the moment is doing national guidelines but the planning is being done by the state. What would you expect from your organisation when farms develop? WA is probably in its early stages of getting into areas where residents are. A lot of the wind farms are situated along the coast and they do not have the problem of upsetting people. Have you thought about how the planning should go? There are probably a lot of problems with the planning. In Ballarat the state has given the planning back to the shires, and of course the shires have not got the finances or the expertise to do the work that they really need to do. So have you thought anything about that? These national guidelines are fairly loose at the moment but because of constitutional arrangements it is a state responsibility.

Mr Park —We have not thought about planning in particular reference to wind farms. We have a few problems with planning in general. The rural senators would be aware of some of the legislation in the US that was called the ‘right to farm’ legislation. We have had real problems with the right to farm legislation. What tends to happen is that you get dictated to on what you can do on your farm. It becomes not ‘right to farm’ legislation but ‘recipe to farm’. It is usually not voluntary. You are then told exactly what you are going to do, and because you cannot predict new developments in agriculture, the right to farm legislation almost locked you into a time warp where you could not do new things, and you were dictated to on how you were going to farm and what you were going to farm. Therefore, we have some problems with planning per se on that. When planning is done, we would like to see areas like agriculture get a preference for agriculture.

One of the things we see, certainly in the outer parts of metropolitan areas, is the urban sprawl spreads and that affects agriculture. People move in thinking they want to be in an agricultural, country setting until they actually find out what happens in an agricultural, country setting, and then they say, ‘Oh, no, this is not what we signed up for.’ We would like to see that agriculture has precedence over that so we can say, ‘No, you actually moved in here; we are still practising agriculture and that is how we do it.’ That is not how it has happened in this state. Often the people who have moved in have been able to force agriculture to change its practice. The classic example is the people growing apples and houses were built right next to the sorting shed. The people who moved in said, ‘Oh, we don’t like them starting work at 6 o’clock in the morning,’ and that sort of thing. No, we haven’t thought about planning as far as wind farms are concerned. So far, we have not really been affected.

Senator ADAMS —There is also the aviation and spraying. With the wind farm there is turbulence from the turbines and the aviators have to have a buffer zone. The aerial people came and gave evidence to us; there are quite a lot of technical things. Those sorts of things need some consideration.

Mr Park —I understand you cannot do much aerial spraying between the turbines.

Senator ADAMS —No, it is not that. If you have turbines on one neighbour’s boundary and the other neighbour needs to spray canola they might not be able to get in that far to be able to spray their crops. So they are not able to grow whatever needs spraying because of the proximity of the neighbour’s turbines. These are the sorts of issues that have come up, and the turbulence from the towers creates a problem for the aircraft, so they have to go further away as well. Therefore it is limiting a neighbour from putting that paddock into crop because of what is next door.

Mr Park —You would all be aware of the problems we have had with GM canola at Kojonup. We really need a situation where farmers can farm the way they want to on their particular properties. So farmers next door have to keep in mind what effect they have on how their neighbours farm. This is just one of those examples. Certainly in our area we are very much animal production. Crop dusting has not affected us a great deal.

CHAIR —Is WAFF aware of examples where aerial aviators have been restricted because of wind farms in WA?

Mr Park —No, we are not, and it is something I had not even thought of until Senator Adams mentioned that. The one in Collgar is going to be interesting because that is right in the middle of a wheat growing area. We will certainly be keeping an ear out for that.

Senator MOORE —WAFF have not had any kind of discussion or complaint process on this issue. Is that right?

Mr Park —That does not usually stop farmers ringing up.

Senator MOORE —Your evidence indicated that amongst all the other issues that the farming community have, and you alluded to some of them, at this stage it has not been raised as an issue for the West Australian Fish Foundation?

Mr Park —No.

Senator MOORE —Are you aware whether the issue has come up nationally?

Mr Park —No, not at all. It will probably not get to NFF so much; it will be the other member organisations—VFF and NSW Farmers.

Senator MOORE —We will follow up on that. We have not had submissions from them. I am not aware of any of the other agricultural organisations raising it.

Mr Park —Certainly, I will be asking them whether the issue has been raised. Obviously, we are blissfully unaware of all this. Just listening today has given me some ideas.

Senator MOORE —We have explored the issue around secrecy because one of the areas that has come up in a number of submissions is division of social fabric at the local level. One of the core aspects is valuation. You gave us some preliminary discussion from your personal point of view and also from the industry’s point of view about the tough times for agriculture and people seeking alternatives. Of the places you know in Western Australia that have gone into wind farms, have there been any valuation concerns—valuation of property pre wind farm and post wind farm?

Mr Park —I do not know whether you are aware, the Emu Downs wind farm was put up by Griffin Coal basically—Griffin Coal’s owners owned the land. You are probably also aware that he got himself into a bit of financial strife and had to put most of his properties on the market. The Emu Downs wind farm properties have all been sold in the last 12 months. Given the climate in agriculture at the moment, it is very difficult to know what effect that is having. I daresay, if you had a big enough cheque book, you could buy half the farms in Western Australia at the moment.

Senator MOORE —Is that drought related?

Mr Park —A bit is drought related; a lot of it is related to the age of farmers. I am about average age for a farmer. And most of our kids are not coming home to the farm. If the alternative was to have kids come home and farmers could go to being semi-retired, that would not be a problem. So there are farmers looking around for alternatives. But the other part of it is drought. And another part is the cost-price squeeze. So there are three things coming in to affect us all in one hit.

Getting back to Emu Downs; I am a little surprised that they have sold them as easily as they have. The wind farm is on only two of the blocks of the five that Griffin own in that small area there. The stipulation was that they wanted three of the blocks kept together. Although they say there are three blocks with towers, in actual fact one block is very close but has not actually got any towers on it. I think there was certainly some resistance from people looking and saying, ‘I am not sure I want to buy a farm with wind towers on it.’ The way I valued it was to try to pin down exactly what the income was from those wind towers, and that was not all that easy. I kept hearing different numbers from different people. The mid number that I heard, multiplied by about 10 times, was the evaluation I put on the wind towers. Regarding the land near it, I think they got about that value. I do not think there was a diminution of it—there could be a diminution in value of the property next door. That I do not know. But some of these blocks were next door and from the prices I heard they got for them I do not think that holds either.

Senator MOORE —It is always a difficult thing to find out, balancing privacy. It is an ongoing issue that we have heard about. My last question is about planning and the concern that we have had from a number of people that wind farms and the wind industry should not have a special planning process; it should be a general planning process that looks at any kind of change on land. You mentioned mining, and I am sure that is a significant issue over here—trying to ensure that the planning process effectively takes into account all the issues no matter what the development is. From your perspective, as an individual farmer as well as a representative of the farmers association, can you tell us about your understanding of planning processes in WA? Do they handle all these things the same way? Or are there different rules for different things?

Mr Park —At the risk of being wrong, that is my understanding. The development is put up. They have to jump through the EPA hoops like any other development has to. My understanding is that they were treated like any other development.

Senator MOORE —So it would not matter what you were trying to do in a community, you will still have to go through the same process.

Mr Park —You would still have to have the community consultation. I am thinking back to Emu Downs wind farm. There were two lots of community consultations. I think back again to when we had the prospect of a coal fired power station at Lezure. They virtually had to go through the same sort of processes. We actually got them on water in the end. That is another story altogether.

Senator MOORE —The health aspects of the proposed coal fired industry was part of the discussion in planning, the same way as you would expect?

Mr Park —Yes. It was very similar.

Senator MOORE —It is just people being open and transparent; that is the important thing. Thank you.

Senator ADAMS —There are a number of proposed wind farms—I have been quite surprised.

Mr Park —They are everywhere.

Senator ADAMS —Not at the moment; but they are going to be. We had evidence from five of the developers in Melbourne. They all listed their proposed wind farms, and where they were going. So WA is going to get quite a number of wind farms. Most of these are going to rural areas and WAFF would definitely have members in those areas. I notice in your submission you say that in preparing the submission you consulted widely with your members and that you received significant levels of feedback from members living in communities with wind farms. As this moves forward, what guidelines would you propose—because you are going to be pretty involved with wind farms—that the state government implements to oversee future workforce developments? As these wind farms multiply it is probably going to start to encroach on more urban-rural areas rather than being out on the fringes. You said it was four kilometres from your house. I guess that is okay; but what about when they get in closer?

Mr Park —It is something we are probably not going to get much of a handle on until it starts looking like it is happening. With both the Emu Downs and Collgar wind farms the populations are going to get fewer and fewer, if anything, and we are not going to get big numbers of people affected. My real worry is more to do with how it affects their neighbours and their ability to farm. That would be more of a concern for WA farmers. We certainly do not want to have any situation where actions of one farmer affect the way another farmer has to do agriculture. That is certainly something we would have to look at.

My experience with the consultation that went on with both the coal fired power station and the Emu Downs wind farm was that there was plenty of opportunity for the local community to talk about it and get involved. As I said, before Griffin got into strife, there was a proposal that they were going to virtually double the size of the Emu Downs Wind Farm. Again, they have done that community consultation already.

CHAIR —My question related to Senator Adams’s question—that is, lifestyle. We had Mr Hodgson this morning and, while I am not saying that he did not have other issues, he was particularly concerned because he had moved down there as a lifestyle decision. A number of the submissions we have heard were about what they perceive as a lifestyle issue. You have not had much experience with that so far I would say from your evidence.

Mr Park —We do not have a lot lifestylers in Badgingarra.

CHAIR —I was not going to go there quite so clearly!

Mr Park —That gets back to what I said about planning before. From a planning point of view, that is where the WA Farmers Federation sees most of the problem. If you take it back to principles and say farmers should be allowed to farm the way they want on their properties, lifestylers come into that as well. If you move into an agricultural area, you have to be prepared to be agricultural.

CHAIR —Bearing in mind the comments that you made about impacts on neighbours, suggestions have been put to us that there should compensation, for want of a better word, to neighbours so that not just those people with wind farms on their properties benefit. It is not just the community fund because they are using those a bit differently as I understand it. Wind farm developers are establishing community funds that are spent on the community good. Basically what people are saying is that the benefits from the wind farms should be spread not just to those with turbines but to those with surrounding properties. Have you given any thought to that and, if you have not, what do you think about the concept?

Mr Park —I have some sympathy for that because, as I said, there were actually two people who were anti the wind farm when it was first proposed and one of them is probably living closer to the actual turbines than most. Probably what was getting up her nose a little bit was that she was closer than most. She has since found, unless of course we have some other evidence on the health front, that all her fears about living next to turbines were not going to be there. She was putting up with them and yet she was not getting any financial gain. I have some sympathy and I can understand how that might be. My understanding of Collgar, and it is nowhere near as intimate as is the Badgingarra one, is that some of the people who were going to have turbines on their property until for some reason they cut the numbers down are still being compensated. Maybe a little bit of that is starting to happen already.

CHAIR —You may not know anything about this, but I remember very clearly the debate around the Albany wind farm. A lot of that was about lifestyle. There are some farming properties around there.

Mr Park —There are. I am just trying to remember because it has been four or five years since I was there.

CHAIR —The reason I am asking is that there were some issues around community consultation. At the moment it seems to me, and I spend a bit of time down there, there does not seem to be any angst about it anymore. In fact, people see it as a benefit. That is how it seems to me when I go out there and look at it and things like that. I am wondering whether you have had any feedback through WAFF around ongoing issues, either the lifestyle issues that we have been talking about, because there are a lot of sea changers down there, or from the farming communities that are there.

Mr Park —As I said, there has been very little feedback and to be honest we usually only hear the negative. If someone has got a problem, that is when they ring us and tell us about it. We have had very little feedback about that. The experience around Badgingarra is that, since the wind farm has been operating, the level of acceptance has increased. People are nowhere near as worried about what might be since they have had to deal with it. I heard it before in Mr Hodgson’s voice, too. There is a lot more concern about what might be rather than when you have to deal with the actual. Certainly there is a lot less worry about the extension of Emu Downs wind farm than there was about actually putting it there in the first place. So, once you actually have to deal with it, people are reasonably happy with what they have to deal with. We have not had much negative stuff at all. Albany is a bit hard for us because most of our membership is north of Albany rather than right in around where those wind farms are.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, thank you very much.

Mr Park —Thank you for the opportunity.

[11.14 am]