November 19, 2010

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind

Alexandra Weaver, The Standard, 20 November 2010

At first it seemed clear: power stations run on brown coal were no good – their smokestacks signalled a nation that valued industry far more than the environment, one that would greedily consume fossil fuels until nothing was left.

The answer was clean, renewable energy, produced by harnessing the resources we had in abundance.

And so wind farms arrived, impressing with their rhythmic blades and modern application of ancient technology.

Turbines began to dot the south-west coastline, dwarfing houses in places like Codrington and Cape Bridgewater.

They made sense. They were a sign of progress.

Much has changed in the nine years since we first saw these streamlined windmills in action.

New projects are still welcomed for the jobs and cash injection they offer local communities, though there is growing debate over their long-term impacts.

Moyne Shire councillor Ken Gale received unanimous support from colleagues last month after raising concerns that the proposed Tarrone gas-fired power plant and growing number of local wind farms would industrialise the rural landscape.

“We need to be very, very careful that we do not over-populate any particular area with these type of wind farm developments or gas-fired power stations,” he said this week. “There’s certainly an upside to them: most of us prefer cleaner energy rather than brown coal, but we just need to be very careful how we plan it and that we don’t inundate a particular community with too much.”

Any wind farm due to produce more than 30 megawatts of electricity bypasses local government and is assessed directly by the Victorian planning minister, with Moyne Shire facing hundreds of new turbines if projects at Penshurst and Willatook are approved.

Cr Gale said the council hoped to speak with the state government about its concerns after the election was held.

“I wouldn’t want any more (wind farms). I think we’re going to have enough with those already planned,” he said.

“I can’t see the logic behind it all – if the bottom line is that brown coal power production is bad for the environment, then why do we actually sell it on to China so that they can do exactly the same thing?”

John Herbertson, the Labor Party’s South West Coast candidate, worked as production manager at Portland’s Vestas blade factory before its closure in 2007.

“I think there’s only a certain amount (of wind farms) that you can put up, and we will reach that limit,” he said.

“We’ve got to phase out of the Hazelwood power stations – one of the things here is about planning and I think planning is an issue.

“Having a wind tower in your paddock is a lot better than having an Alcoa power line in your paddock.”

The relationship between wind farms and health complaints is another issue, one that has been dispelled in numerous industry-funded investigations.

In July the National Health and Medical Research Council announced it had found no conclusive proof that turbines made those living near them sick.

“While a range of effects such as annoyance, anxiety, hearing loss and interference with sleep, speech and learning have been reported anecdotally, there is no published scientific evidence to support adverse effects of wind turbines on health,” a council statement said.

The Clean Energy Council – a Melbourne-based body supported by 400 companies with renewable energy interests – has just released a study completed by acoustic consultancy Sonus.

It found no evidence that wind farms’ noise levels as allowed under present planning guidelines would have an adverse impact on health.

“All noise from any source including wind farms, which is audible, will result in complaints from some people,” consultants wrote.

“Recent research indicates the potential for complaints, annoyance and its associated stress and health impacts may be exacerbated by rhetoric, fears and negative publicity.”

Such statements don’t convince Sarah Laurie, a doctor based near the small South Australian town of Crystal Brook.

She has recently been named medical director of the not-for-profit Waubra Foundation, which is conducting independent research into the health effects of wind farms on rural communities.

“People are extremely concerned, and I think they’ve got every reason to be,” Dr Laurie said.

“There’s not (a peer-reviewed study) published in the medical literature and we’re working on that as hard as we can.

“We’re not going to be stopped from this – we will get it done. There’s enormous goodwill, there’s enormous interest from affected people across Australia.”

One of the criticisms often levelled at those who live near wind farms and complain of health problems is that they are either jealous of the income neighbours with turbines receive or are making themselves sick with worry.

The Sonus report cited the “nocebo” effect, which is a worsening of mental or physical health based on fear or belief in adverse effects.

“In my experience, talking with people at Cape Bridgewater and Waubra and Toora, all those people welcomed the turbines into the environment,” Dr Laurie said.

“Not one person objected or demonstrated … all the people I’ve spoken to have got symptoms of all sorts of illnesses, some of which are psychiatric but not all.”

Australian Environment Foundation executive director Max Rheese argues that geothermal power and natural gas are preferable to wind energy.

The electricity turbines produce costs between $100 and $125 per megawatt hour, compared with about $40 per MWh for coal.

Mr Rheese said wind farms needed to be backed up by open cycle gas turbines and received multiple subsidies, without which they could not operate.

“You get direct subsidies from the Victorian taxpayer through the government for communities to set up uneconomic, unviable wind farms,” he said.

“You’re also getting mandated power, which is effectively a subsidy, in that we don’t have market forces operating, we have the government coming in and saying (residents) will buy this expensive power.

“It’s then subsidised at the end of the line by the electricity consumer – that’s where the biggest subsidy is.”

Steve Garner, general manager at Portland’s Keppel Prince Engineering, has heard plenty of negative talk about wind energy.

To him, though, its benefits are obvious.

Just last week he welcomed Premier John Brumby to town for the announcement of a $27 million Macarthur wind farm tower construction contract, with the number of his workers specialising in such project set to move from 120 to 300 by the end of next year.

“There’s an opportunity for a lot of people to earn a lot of money in an 18-month period,” he said.

“That comes from all facets – it’s transportation, logistics, people at the port – and then there’s the ongoing, where when this project is finished … I would have thought there would be something like 25 to 30 permanent maintenance jobs.

“I have strong faith that there’s huge potential in this industry and we need some common sense to prevail.”

Clean Energy Council members like Keppel Prince will be keeping a close eye on next week’s state election, with fears a Coalition government would introduce laws restricting new wind farms.

South West Coast MP Denis Napthine said the policy, which would ban turbines closer than two kilometres to homes unless a contract between a developer and resident was signed, struck the right balance.

“I believe there is a role for wind farms and they could end up making up 10 to 15 per cent of our electricity generation mix,” he said.

“There are opportunities to find locations where wind farms do have strong community support; I think there are ways to design them to increase the community support where there are concerns.”

Independent South West Coast candidate James Purcell wants to see renewable energy companies give one per cent of the power generated through their projects to surrounding residents.

“Definitely the positives (of wind farms) outweigh the negatives,” he said.

“There are some areas in densely populated parts of the region where wind farms shouldn’t be, but there are also many parts of the region where they should.”

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