December 24, 2011

People power to veto wind farms

BY BEN CUBBY AND KELSEY MUNRO, The Canberra Times, 24 December 2011

New NSW state Government guidelines would give residents living within 2km of a planned wind farm the right to veto them or delay their development.

The proposal would give local residents greater control over wind farms than they have over other power stations, or over coal mines or coal seam gas developments.

The NSW Government said it supported the rapidly growing wind industry, and remained committed to the target of generating one fifth of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade.

Planning Minister Brad Hazzard said aspects of the guidelines were ”some of the toughest in the country, possibly the world”, but said they would not stifle up to $10billion in investment expected to flow into the sector by 2020.

The plan would force NSW wind farms to be some of the quietest developed at under 35 decibels, compared with 40 decibels in Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand and Europe, and 50 decibels in the United States.

The NSW Opposition said the guidelines would ”decimate” the industry, and the Greens believe slowing wind turbine development will mean more coal seam gas projects.

But several major wind industry players said they could live with the rules, although they were still digesting the detail of the plan yesterday.

NSW has a central role in the national energy target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 and, with wind power currently the cheapest form of renewable energy, reaching the target would be more expensive if less wind turbines are approved.

The draft guidelines, which are open for public comment until March 14, are expected to affect about 13 of the 17 wind farm developments being considered by the state Government.

The key change from the current system is the power granted to community complaints. Without written consent from every resident within 2km of a proposed wind turbine, a ”gateway process” is triggered.

Under this process, the wind farm operator must lodge an application addressing concerns about noise, visual impact, any impact on land values, as well as some other issues, which would then be considered.

Mr Hazzard said the aim was to strike a balance between local people and wind power companies, and he expected neither to be satisfied.

”No one can win completely on this,” he said.

The 2km setback from homes was meant to encourage wind farm developers to actively consult with the community, he said.

Mr Hazzard denied the Government had given undue weight to the views of people who believed the low-level noise and vibrations from wind farms had health impacts and said the Government was applying ”the precautionary principle”.

”The jury is still out on health issues, very much so,” he said.

”But we listened to everybody.”

A series of peer-reviewed studies has found no evidence that low-level sound from wind farms makes people sick. Some campaigners against wind farms believe evidence of stress and illness attributable to wind farms will be uncovered in the next few years.

Opposition to wind farm proposals is led by local residents, but their campaigns have been supported by climate change sceptic groups, which believe wind turbines are an unnecessary alternative to coal-fired electricity.

A wind industry body, the Clean Energy Council, said it would comb through the detail of the new proposal, but it was confident most wind farm operators could work within the new guidelines.

The group’s director, Kane Thornton said, ”The wind industry in Australia already faces some of the strictest development guidelines of anywhere in the world.

”How well it can adapt to these rules will depend on how they are applied in practice, and that remains to be seen.”

The Opposition environment spokesman, Luke Foley, said the draft law would see NSW miss out on billions of dollars in investment and regional jobs.

”Victoria has already seen the industry pack up and leave the state after their restrictive policy was implemented and we will risk the same loss of jobs and investment here in NSW,” he said.

The Greens said quashing wind power investment would mean the promotion of coal seam gas.

Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge said, ”NSW is abandoning the most cost-effective option for reducing its carbon footprint, which in effect means it is giving the green light for coal seam gas projects across the state.”

Wind turbines across the state generate about 190 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 80,000 average households.

But the industry is poised for massive growth, with enough turbines to power more than half a million homes planned for construction in the next five years.

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