Urgent research should be undertaken into the potentially damaging health effects of wind farms on nearby residents, says a landmark Senate report released yesterday.
In a dramatic win for residents’ groups who have raised widespread concerns about the impact of wind farms on rural communities, the committee recommended that noise measurements be expanded to include low-frequency noise, or infrasound.
Campaigners welcomed the report and said there should be an immediate halt to wind farm developments until the potential health impacts were better understood.
According to the Clean Energy Council, there are 53 wind farms operating in Australia, with 1089 operating turbines that can reach the height of a 45-storey building and have blades up to 50m long.
Wind turbine capacity has increased by 30 per cent a year over the past decade and wind now supplies about 2 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs.
There are more than 9000 megawatts of large-scale wind farm energy projects proposed around the country, propelled partly by the federal government’s Renewable Energy Target scheme, which subsidises power from renewable sources.
The majority Senate report yesterday called for tougher rules on noise, new rules to govern how close wind farms can be built to houses, and an independent arbitrator to hear complaints.
It said arbitrary setbacks – the distance that a wind farm must be built from a residence – may not be adequate and each situation may need to be considered on its merits.
But the most dramatic findings were in the area of potential harm from low-frequency noise.
The committee said the commonwealth government should initiate as a matter of priority “thorough, adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health”.
“This research must engage across industry and community, and include an advisory process representing the range of interests and concerns,” the committee said.
It said a National Health and Medical Research Council review of research should continue, with regular publication.
The committee recommended that the National Acoustics Laboratories conduct a study and assessment of noise impacts of wind farms, including the impacts of infrasound.
It said the draft National Wind Farm Development Guidelines should be redrafted to include discussion of any adverse health effects.
The Senate inquiry was initiated by Family First senator Steve Fielding and attracted more then 1000 submissions both for and against wind farm developments. The inquiry was chaired by Greens senator Rachel Siewert and included Labor senators Claire Moore and Carol Brown and Liberal senators Judith Adams, Sue Boyce and Helen Coonan.
Sarah Laurie, medical director of the Waubra Foundation, a national organisation set up to raise awareness of the health effects of wind farms, said an immediate moratorium should be called for wind farm developments. “Given the Senate recommendations and strength of evidence to the inquiry, the precautionary principle should be adopted,” Dr Laurie said.
She said the report’s recommendations were exactly what concerned health professionals had called for. “Investigation of low-frequency noise, or infrasound, had not been properly conducted anywhere else in the world,” Dr Laurie said.
The Senate committee was told that Denmark had flagged regulation of infrasound at wind farms and that Japan last year started a four-year study into the effects of infrasound from wind farms.
Sheep farmer Dean West and his partner Geri McHugh live in the shadow of the Starfish Hill Wind Farm at Delamere, 100km south of Adelaide, and often hear the turbines on a windy day.
Mr West, whose sheep wander the paddocks under the 100m-high turbines, is in the paddocks daily, but has no concerns for his health.
“I can’t see that more studies would do any harm, though,” Mr West said.
The couple moved to the farm 10 years ago, at the same time as the 23 turbines were being built on the grazing land. The closest tower is 500m away. Although they do not think they suffer because of the turbines, Ms McHugh has tinnitus and is sensitive to the turbine noise.
“It’s just a woof, woof, woof sound, you just can’t tune out,” Ms McHugh said.
Clean Energy Council policy director Russell Marsh said the renewable energy industry believed the Senate inquiry report was a balanced review of issues.
“It acknowledges the important contribution that wind energy makes to employment and economic development,” Mr Marsh said. “There is no reason to slow the development of new wind farms based on this report.”
Additional reporting: Verity Edwards