Planning restrictions and false health fears have stalled Victoria’s wind industry. But this may be changing.
GWENDA Allgood is a no-nonsense local councillor, five times a mayor, from Ararat. In mid-November she travelled east to Seymour to speak about wind farms at forum on energy held in the bowls club hall.
“We did not have one objection,” she told the audience, explaining the benefits of the Challicum Hills wind farm, built in 2003. “I can only speak as I find: there is no noise [from the turbines]. I don’t know why, but there isn’t. And they’re our best ratepayer – they pay well, they really do.”
There were about 50 people in the hall; almost all were renewable energy supporters. The event was hosted by a local environment group, with speakers on the topics of home retrofitting, community solar power and the campaign against coal seam gas.
But there was one key reason for the afternoon’s proceedings: the Cherry Tree wind farm, 16 turbines planned for a nearby ridgeline above the Trawool Valley.
The wind farm, proposed by Infigen Energy, was before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The project had become controversial in late 2012, following a meeting held by the anti–wind farm activist group, the Landscape Guardians.
After receiving 117 objections, the local council delayed and finally denied the permit, against the advice of its planning officers. The company appealed; the matter had already been before the tribunal for ten months.
When Allgood finished speaking at the meeting, a man named Gary Morris put his hand up. Sounding slightly nervous, he read from his notes about a survey criticising another wind farm. “I’m just concerned about the noise aspect,” he said.
“Instead of getting on the internet,” Allgood replied, “you need to go out and visit them. I invite you to Ararat, and I will personally show you around.”
Afterwards, Morris explained that his home was within 3 kilometres of the proposed turbines, but Infigen had never met with him. “My concerns aren’t just about noise. It’s about health, and it’s about this company,” he said.
Like the rest of the world, Australia urgently needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to avoid runaway climate change. A recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance says new wind turbines are already cheaper than new coal- or gas-fired power stations, even without carbon pricing. And yet, the forecast for wind power is remarkably mixed.
In 2009, the South Australian government set a target for renewables to cover one-third of its energy production by 2020. It has nearly met the mark already. Wind power alone now accounts for 27 per cent.
But in Victoria, the industry has stalled. In August 2011 the state government stiffened its planning rules, giving people who live within two kilometres of wind farms the right to veto, and prohibiting turbines in several regions.
A new report from Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, says wind power comprises less than 3 per cent of the state’s electricity generation.
The report strongly criticises the planning restrictions, arguing they discourage a shift to low-carbon energy, make it more difficult and costly to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and damage the local economy.
“Many proposals for new wind farms in Victoria have been withdrawn. Lost investment has been estimated at $4 billion and 3,000 jobs,” the report says, quoting figures from the Clean Energy Council.
The Labor party has promised to repeal the restrictions if it wins government in next years’ state election. In the meantime, the new federal government appears unlikely to encourage the industry.
A spokesperson for Industry minister Ian Macfarlane says the government will commission a study into “the potential health effects of wind farms”, and confirms that it will go ahead with a scheduled review of the federal renewable energy target, due next year. It has already tabled legislation to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which would otherwise invest $5 billion in renewable energy over the next 5 years.
Two weeks after the forum in Seymour, VCAT finally approved the permit for Cherry Tree. It is now only the second wind farm to win planning permission in Victoria since August 2011.
The tribunal said the Victorian and NSW heath departments had expressly stated “there is no scientific evidence to link wind turbines with adverse health effects”, and that view was backed by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
It rejected the survey evidence of health concerns tended by anti-wind groups, the Waubra Foundation and the Landscape Guardians.
“To be of any real value such surveys need to be carried out by qualified professionals on respondents selected by accepted random selection methods, and subjected to an analysis that yields statistically valid results,” it said.
The tribunal had earlier ruled that the visual and noise impacts of the project were acceptable, and that the turbines would not cause problems with bushfire, salinity, erosion, aviation or loss of wildlife habitat.
It was a comprehensive victory, both for the company and the wind industry at large.
On the same day, the South Australian Environment Protection Authority released the results of its study of noise from the Waterloo wind farm. Nearby residents who had previously complained were asked to keep noise diaries; in them, they noted “rumbling effects” even at times when the turbines had been shut down. The authority’s recordings showed the turbines meet local and international standards for both audible and low frequency sound.
Ketan Joshi, from Infigen, says his company understands that this evidence, and the VCAT decision, won’t change everyone’s minds. “We’re aware that a lot of these concerns don’t magically vanish as soon as you get approval.
“The industry really depends on good community engagement. People need to be deeply involved in the development, otherwise you’re likely to face opposition.”
Joshi confirms that Infigen hasn’t met individually with Gary Morris. “It’s hard to talk to everybody one-on-one, because there are a large number of people around our projects,” he says.
For Cherry Tree, the company had held two public meetings, as well as stalls at a local festival and a tour of the Hepburn wind farm. But for future projects, it is considering ways to give locals “a much bigger stake in the shape a wind farm takes”, Joshi says.
The anti–wind farm push in Seymour began with a public meeting coordinated by the Landscape Guardians. One of the speakers was Max Rheese, executive director of climate change denial groups the Australian Environment Foundation and the Australian Climate Science Coalition.
At a council meeting held in October 2012, just two days before the local elections, nearly 40 people spoke against the wind farm. Among them was Peter Mitchell, the chairman of the Waubra Foundation. Subsequently, the foundation, which has tax-deductible charity status, sought donations to fund its case against Cherry Tree before VCAT.
In response, BEAM, the local environment group, distributed a “myth-busting” flyer supporting the turbines, together with Friends of the Earth.
“They’d managed to scare the pants off a lot of people,” says Leigh Ewbank, from Friends of the Earth. “There’s no way developers can compete with a political campaign of that nature. And it isn’t dying down, despite all the evidence showing that wind energy is clean and safe.”
The “contemporary health panic” about turbines has drawn the attention of public health academic Professor Simon Chapman, from University of Sydney. Chapman, who is renowned for his work on tobacco control, has traced the health and noise complaints made about Australia’s wind farms.
In a paper published in October, he revealed that only 129 people have complained – a tiny proportion of the population who live near turbines – and almost all of them did so after 2009, when critics began publicising the alleged health worries.
There have been no health complaints in Western Australia, which has 13 wind farms.
“A majority of wind farms, even big ones, have no history of complaints at all,” he says. “The complaints line up with half a dozen wind farms that have been targeted by the anti–wind farm groups. That’s the ‘nocebo’ hypothesis: if you spread anxiety you’re going to get anxiety.”
“If you tell people that something is going to happen to them and you demonstrate people who are worried, then it becomes a communicated disease.”
The final speaker at the Seymour forum was Doug Hobson, a farmer from Waubra with a thick goatee beard. He has eight turbines on his property. “The wind turbines have helped underlay what we’re doing as a farming community,” he said. “It takes the lows out of farming.”
He explained that almost all the people of Waubra do not want their town’s name to be associated with the anti–wind farm group, the Waubra Foundation. In November they mailed a petition with 316 signatures asking it to change its name.
“Niney-five per cent of the people in Waubra are in favour of the wind farm,” he said. “Country people don’t like change, but it does just become part of the furniture.”
The only other wind farm approved in Victoria in more than two years is at Coonooer Bridge, a small farming community north-west of Bendigo. Its story is very different.
The project is being developed by Windlab, a spin-off company from CSIRO founded in 2003. It has since built turbines in Australia, Canada, USA and South Africa. Soon after it began, Windlab identified that the hills near Coonooer Bridge were particularly windy: in fact, their steady, strong winds offer a renewable resource among the best in the world.
But in 2012, when Windlab began to consider building turbines there, Luke Osborne, the project’s director, knew that wind energy was becoming controversial in rural areas. He knew from personal experience, because he has turbines on his family farm near Canberra.
“It had become clear that we needed to work on gaining a ‘social licence to operate’,” he explains. “It wasn’t good enough just to get it approved. It needed to have a much better level of local acceptance.”
His team began a series of town hall–style meetings with everyone who owned land nearby, as well as one-on-one conversations, in which they devised the ownership model for the project. “We said, ‘We not only want people living nearby to share in the financial benefits, we also want you to help guide how we do this’,” Osborne recalls.
In less than a year, the five-turbine project had been approved by the local council. It will produce enough electricity to power 11,000 households.
Thirty landholders are shareholders. The farmers with turbines on their properties agreed to take lower rent, and the company, slightly lower profits; those returns are shared among the neighbours. As with many other wind farms, it will donate money to the community – in this case $25,000 each year. Everyone within 5 kilometres of the turbines will get a vote on how it’s spent.
“We haven’t had any outsiders come in opposing the project,” Osborne says. “I hope that’s because we haven’t given anybody a reason to invite them in.”
Osborne modelled his approach on the research of Dr Nina Hall, from CSIRO, who is studying the idea of “social licence to operate” for wind farms.
In interviews with rural residents, her team has found “strong community support for the development of wind farms”, including from those who don’t speak out through the media or political forums.
Hall concluded that people’s attitudes to the local impacts are shaped by the way a project is run.
She noticed that people opposed to wind farms would initially talk about technological worries. “When we dug a little deeper, we often found their opposition was based more on concerns about process,” she explains. “Things like how they found out about the development, and whether they felt they had influence over the design, location and the final decision about whether it would go ahead.”
Ian Olive is one of those people. He has been farming near Coonooer Bridge all his life, continuing the work of his parents and grandparents. Now the 69-year-old tends his crops and merino sheep with the help of his two sons, whose young families live on the property too.
Although he supports renewable energy, Olive is not pleased by the prospect of turbines near his farm. His family would prefer “to keep the status quo”, he says. He expects the turbines, standing on the low mountain range on the south-western horizon, will be “a stark monstrosity against the natural beauty” of his skyline.
But equally, Olive says, Windlabs couldn’t have conducted its consultation any better: the scheme has created no resentment between neighbours. He says “the company has done a good job in helping the community” through its annual fund and the shareholdings for surrounding landowners, including his family.
For Osborne, gaining the trust of families like the Olives represents the project’s biggest triumph. “We’ve tried our best to make sure the benefits for the local area are real and well understood,” he says. “It’s not a silver bullet – not everyone wants to live near turbines – but for the majority it has made a difference.
“I’m a big believer in the fairness of this model. I hope what we’ve done here will help the industry.”