It’s strange days indeed when environmentalists, who usually oppose development, actively support building huge power generating edifices across the countryside. While those conservatively minded country folk instead of applauding regional development are dead against them. Max Rheese discusses the opposition to wind farms.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Michael, there are some who say all this talk about the wonders of wind power is a lot of hot air. So what’s going on?
Michael Duffy: Wind farms have created enormous conflict in communities around Australia. Some say they are an expensive and subsidised and unreliable way to produce electricity, raising the question of whether they are worth the unhappiness they often cause. In these matters and others have just been considered by the Senate Community Affairs Committee whose report is yet to be made public. Today we talk to Max Rheese, executive director of the Australian Environment Foundation, that’s an evidence-based group of environmentalists. Our subject is the AEF submission to the senate enquiry. Max, welcome to the show.
Max Rheese: Thank you Michael.
Michael Duffy: How expensive is it, relatively, to produce electricity from wind?
Max Rheese: Well, if we take Grant King, the CEO of Origin Energy’s word, and I have no reason to doubt it, he is on the public record as saying that every megawatt of wind power costs between $120 and $130 to produce. If we compare that to the likes of natural gas, and again, he states $54 per megawatt hour, or coal which is around about $38…
Michael Duffy: Do you have any idea why wind is so expensive? Wind, after all, is free.
Max Rheese: Yes, and that’s a good point, and that is one of the parts of the populist narrative that people have succumbed to, that of course wind is free, we all know that. But it’s the turning of the energy that is garnered from the wind into electricity that is not so free. The reason for that is because of the expense of wind turbines, we are talking about…an industry benchmark of around $2.5 to $3 million per megawatt to construct a turbine. But it’s also the erratic nature of wind that only produces power for a small portion of the time therefore there is not a good use of the capital that is being sunk into all these wind farms. And then there is the renewable energy certificate which is granted for every megawatt hour that is put into the grid by the energy company, and currently they are around $40, $45. They are supported by the taxpayer. So the taxpayer pays for every one of those certificates, and that’s a component of the cost of every megawatt of power that is produced by wind.
Michael Duffy: So is that in effect a subsidy.
Max Rheese: Oh, my word.
Michael Duffy: And a subsidy that makes wind feasible or at least more feasible than it would otherwise be.
Max Rheese: What it is doing, it’s turning something that standing on its own is uneconomic and unviable, and it is therefore subsidised by the taxpayer to make it somewhat economic and viable to compare to fossil fuel.
Michael Duffy: Max, do you know if there is any prospect in terms of the technology getting cheaper in the foreseeable future? We know that there has been considerable improvements in nuclear reactors over the last decade or two, we are told that solar power technology is improving fairly quickly. Do you know what the situation is with wind?
Max Rheese: Most commentators regard wind power as a mature technology. There will be some small gains in the design of the actual turbine blades and things like that, but it’s a fairly mature technology, it’s been around for several decades, and the incremental improvements are small. So one would not expect that there’s going to be a major change in the efficiency of turbines.
Michael Duffy: On the bright side maybe, is it at least fair to say that wind-produced electricity does at least cut down some carbon emissions?
Max Rheese: Again that’s part of the populist narrative, and the facts show otherwise, and depending on who you talk to you get an answer of there is zero contribution to greenhouse gas emission reductions, or fairly small, and I tend to be in the camp of fairly small reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Michael Duffy: How can that be, given that this electricity is produced by wind?
Max Rheese: Any wind farm in Australia is rated at around about 30% of capacity. So whatever the nameplate capacity of that turbine is, 2 MW, 2.5 MW, the expected capacity will be 30% of that just because of the erratic nature of wind. So a large portion of the time, turbines are operating but not producing any electricity. During this time they are drawing on the grid because they have air conditioning, they need to keep the machinery cool, other machinery…these are vast engineering feats, these enormous turbines, and they have a lot of machinery that needs to be kept cool and kept operating. Whenever the turbine is not producing electricity, it is drawing on the grid.
Michael Duffy: So you’re saying that even if the blades are not going around, they are not producing their own electricity, the electricity has to be provided to these things.
Max Rheese: Yes, and they are actually drawing that from the grid, but that is probably the minor part. What happens, because wind electricity or wind energy is so erratic, they need to be backed up in the grid by open cycle gas turbines which are running in spinning mode while wind electricity is being generated. As soon as the wind drops away and the grid operator needs to keep the supply of electricity up, those natural gas generators which are in spinning mode are brought on line. But when they are operating in spinning mode, which is a significant amount of time, they are burning natural gas but not producing any electricity. This is one of the things that offsets any value that wind turbines might make in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Michael Duffy: What you’ve told us is interesting. Another question, not quite in the same area, but if a carbon tax or a carbon price is introduced by the government, will that improve the feasibility of wind power?
Max Rheese: It will probably draw it closer to the fossil fuel because the intention of course of a carbon dioxide tax is to make fossil fuels dearer, which I am sure that will happen, which is why everybody is concerned about electricity prices going up. Electricity that is generated by coal-fired generators and to a lesser extent natural gas-fired electricity, will become dearer. So that will draw it closer to the price of wind power. But what we need to remember is that currently wind power is around three times the cost of coal-fired electricity. So if anybody who was keen for a tax on carbon dioxide said ‘here is the proposition, we’re going to make coal-fired electricity comparable with wind power’, well, watch out.
Michael Duffy: Turning to another part of the subject entirely, tell us about some of the major effects that wind farms have on people nearby.
Max Rheese: A rather distressing series of effects, and what we need to keep in mind is that not everybody suffers from these, which is one of the things that makes it so hard to pin down. But what we generally see in communities where wind farms start to operate is that a proportion of the population become affected by low frequency sounds and infra-sounds, and this affects them in numerous ways that mainly relate to headache, loss of balance, racing heart, high blood pressure, waking in fright in the middle of the night, waking up with nosebleeds, these sorts of things which generally make life very unpleasant for people who are living in the vicinity because they cannot escape it.
Michael Duffy: How close to you have to be to suffer those effects?
Max Rheese: Well, that’s the subject of study. And we have seen people with anything up to five kilometres away. Other people have claimed even further. But it is fa
irly well recorded that anything up to five kilometres away from wind turbines, people can be affected.
Michael Duffy: The AEF calls itself an evidence-based group, we’ve had a lot of evidence over the years for various forms of new technology causing health issues, mobile phone towers come to mind, for example. How sure are you that someone who lives five kilometres away from a wind farm would suffer those sorts of effects?
Max Rheese: Well, I’m sure that people are because we have spoken to these people, I’ve talked to them face to face, and we have many documented cases from around the world. What we are saying is that this is a very strong prima facie case that calls out for further investigation and scientific study undertaken by government. That is where we’re at. Prove us wrong. If this is not the case, if all these ailments from hundreds of people from all these different countries around the world, different states in Australia, is imagined, and it’s nothing to do with wind turbines, have the government who are so keen to expand the wind industry undertake scientific research that will prove us wrong.
Michael Duffy: Is there any research claiming that there are no ill health effects?
Max Rheese: No, and that’s a very interesting thing, that currently there is not a single credible research paper in the peer-reviewed literature stating that chronic wind turbine noise is harmless to health. So while people say there is no peer-reviewed evidence to say that wind turbines cause harm, to which we agree with that statement, there is no peer reviewed evidence because there have been no proper studies undertaken, and…
Michael Duffy: It’s time someone did it.
Max Rheese: Yes, there is not a single government around the world that has yet had completed scientific research to look at this problem.
Michael Duffy: You said earlier that not everyone who lives within five kilometres, or whatever the distance might be, is affected. Do you have any idea what proportion of people tend to suffer some effects?
Max Rheese: We do, yes, Doctor Daniel Shepherd from New Zealand has done studies, as have other people around the world, and they have identified that it’s around about 10% to 15% of the population. And this is one of the things that I came across while researching this issue, that in fact this has been identified, and that’s a rather large number when you think about it, 10% to 15% of any population anywhere in the world is more sensitive to noise than the general population.
Michael Duffy: Yes, I guess one option might be that the people who set up these wind farms just simply buy all the properties around, which brings me to my next question; given the current state of affairs, what effect does a wind farm have on adjacent property values?
Max Rheese: This again is argued highly by wind industry supporters, that there is no evidence to show that values are affected. We would contest that and say there is evidence from around the world, and most of it, because of the recent nature…and this is, again, the same with the health issue, this is a very recent phenomena, particularly in Australia, we are only now becoming aware of it, but there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to show that wind farms will have an effect on real estate values. When you talk to real estate agents or look at some of the literature on this, the real estate industry states that the values are set largely by perception in the marketplace, on anything, not just wind farms, on anything. The perception of the market is what tends to set the value. And if there is a perception, particularly a negative one, such as wind farms or a piggery or a feedlot in the area, that is going to have an effect on the value of any adjacent properties.
Michael Duffy: That would seem to make sense, wouldn’t it, for two reasons. One is that they look ugly. I know a lot of people in the city find them deeply attractive, but I’ve spoken to very few people who actually live near them who feel the same. And then the other thing is these suspected health effects. It would make sense if property values dropped.
Max Rheese: Yes, and you’ve just touched on a point there…many of the supporters of wind farms don’t live anywhere near them, and so they drive past them on a weekend out and they view them from a distance of a few hundred metres and think wonderful, graceful turbines slowly turning in the rural landscape and they look wonderful.
Michael Duffy: Yes, I’ve often wondered why they don’t put a string of them down the coast of Sydney, there is certainly lots of wind there.
Max Rheese: Yes, well, the effect is more alarming when you live nearby, and that is one of the things that became apparent in the submissions to the enquiry, that many of the supporters had very little to do with turbines or with wind farms.
Michael Duffy: Let me just finish by asking you about those. I understand there were a large number of written submissions, I think they might have been even approaching 1,000, which is quite a lot for this sort of enquiry. I know you could look at a lot of them. Was there a general trend? What did you pick up from that?
Max Rheese: Yes, I started to read a few of them, just went through them one by one, and I became intrigued that there appeared to be in this two sets of opinions; those supporting wind farms tended to based their submission on beliefs, they had no evidence or facts to support what they were saying in the broad sense based their submission or beliefs, they had no evidence or facts to support what they were saying. In the broad sense of most, there were a couple there that had some facts and evidence, but mainly they expounded their beliefs and what they believed should happen with wind power and renewable energy. And they had no experience of wind farms, whereas many of those who were arguing against wind farms and wind turbines had first-hand experience, were alarmed at the prospect of wind farms in their district, and supported their arguments with facts and evidence. And this was a very stark difference between the two lots of submissions.
Michael Duffy: Max Rheese, executive director of the Australian Environment Foundation. Submissions to the senate enquiry into wind farms have now closed, but if you want to have your say you can comment on this story at our website. And the senate report should be public on the 1st June, 2011.
[Click here to download the audio as a 17-MB mp3 file.]
[Also see “Wind Policy Failures” by Max Rheese]
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