Wind farms: guilty until proven otherwise?

Recent reports show that coal-fired power stations are finding it difficult to operate in the new market environment with falling electricity demand, a carbon price and the renewable energy target. Meanwhile, as noted by the Productivity Commission last week, wind generation is an "increasingly important source of power" in the National Electricity Market, highlighted by news of the first turbines turning at Australia’s largest wind farm to date, the 420 MW Macarthur wind farm.

As reported on Climate Spectator last month, wind power has allowed South Australia to transform itself from almost entirely being an importer of power from Victoria to being an exporter during high wind periods, whilst significantly reducing the state's carbon emissions. 

On the other hand, sitting before the Senate is the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012, introduced on June 28 by Senators John Madigan and Nick Xenophon to (in Senator Madigan's words) "ensure we do not see any expansion in the number of wind farm refugees."

According to Senator Madigan, the bill is designed to give powers to the Clean Energy Regulator (an independent federal statutory body responsible for administering key pieces of Australia’s climate change legislation) to ensure that accredited wind farms do not create excessive noise. 

The RET scheme, established by the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000, is designed to ensure that "the equivalent of at least 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity supply comes from renewable resources by 2020". This is done by requiring wholesale purchasers of electricity (mainly electricity retailers) to meet a share of the RET in proportion to their share of the national wholesale electricity market – ie. requiring electricity retailers to surrender a certain number of renewable energy certificates to the Clean Energy Regulator each year. 

These RECs are created by generators of renewable energy (such as wind farms) and eligible small-scale renewable technology systems (such as solar rooftops). The RECs can be traded on the market, providing a market-based assistance to renewable power generators and small-scale renewable technology systems.

However, if passed, the bill will amend the REE Act to make wind farms that generate "excessive noise" ineligible for receiving government assistance by way of RECs. Such wind farms will be those that generate the background noise of 10 decibels or more when measured within 30 metres of any premises where people reside, work or congregate.

Senators Madigan and Xenophon said the bill came about "as a result of the disappointing response of the federal government to the Community Affairs Committee’s report into the Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms". This so-called "disappointing" response by the government is set out in the Department of Health and Aging website

While the government noted there is no strong evidence either way as to the impact of wind farms on the health of Australians, it largely accepted the recommendations of the Committee's report (except the matters which it considered were the responsibilities of the state and territory governments). 

Importantly however, the Community Affairs Committee’s report did not recommend the government should immediately withdraw assistance by way of RECs to wind farms that generate the background noise of 10 dB(A) or more when measured within 30 metres, and the government accordingly did not commit to do this. Yet, this is what Senators Madigan and Xenophon wish to do by their bill. 

In July 2010, the National Health and Medical Research Council found that there is no published scientific evidence to support adverse effects of wind turbines on health. This finding is currently under review by the Council, with the results of the review to be published in March next year.

Senators Madigan and Xenophon however, raised concerns that in conducting this review, the personal testimonies from affected residents will not be included in the review unless it is submitted in an "organised" fashion with accompanying analysis. The senators were concerned that analysis by affected residents could be labelled as "amateur" or "non-scientific" due to their lack of qualifications.

Despite this, in January 2012, an Independent Expert Panel in the US consisting of medical, engineering and environmental health experts from various backgrounds released a Wind Turbine Health Impact Study Report for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Health. According to this report, most epidemiologic literature on human response to wind turbines relates to self-reported “annoyance". 

While the expert panel report notes the "possibility" that noise from some wind turbines can cause sleep disruption, it found there is insufficient evidence that the noise from wind turbines is directly causing health problems or disease. According to the report, there is no evidence for a set of health effects from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterised as a ‘wind turbine syndrome.’ 

Therefore, on the currently available evidence, it seems more likely than not that noise from wind farms does not cause health problems or disease to nearby residents. And while the latest National Health and Medical Research Council report is still being developed, there is no justification for withdrawing assistance now to wind farms that generate the background noise of 10 dB(A). 

Given their currently significant, and potentially enormous, contribution to reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, wind farms should not be held guilty until proven otherwise. 

Albert Yu is a Law Graduate at Allens.

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