They’re a symbol of Manawatu, but not all of the region’s residents are happy about living in the shadow of wind turbines. MATHEW GROCOTT finds that if you make enough noise, eventually somebody will listen.
“Whining mechanical noise.”
“Grinding and swishing.”
“A roaring train that never arrives.”
They’ve used a range of terms to describe the noise from Te Rere Hau wind farm, but neighbours of the facility agree on one thing – it’s annoying.
So annoying that residents have laid hundreds of noise complaints since stage two of the wind farm started running in 2006.
In one 12-month period, Palmerston North City Council was receiving, on average, more than one complaint per day.
Such was the volume of residents’ frustration that the council asked the Environment Court to look into the matter.
Was the wind farm breaching its resource consent?
The court came back last week and said, yes.
“I wouldn’t view it as a victory,” Ridgeview Rd resident Sam Ellingham says.
“It’s a step in the right direction, it’s just a question of what happens next. The council’s gone into bat for the residents and the residents’ concerns were validated.”
The nearest turbines to the house Ellingham shares with his wife, Sue, are 1.5 kilometres away.
Noise from the wind farm was noticeable as soon as the first five turbines were installed.
“I rang New Zealand Windfarms and said `these things are a bit rowdy’. I was told the next lot would be quieter.”
Ellingham says this is not the case and when the wind is blowing in certain directions, the noise is inescapable.
“It’s like living at the end of a runway,” he says.
Te Rere Hau wind farm, owned by NZ Windfarms Ltd, received resource consent in February 2005.
First five turbines, then 28 more, then another 65, were built across the Tararua Range from Aokautere towards Pahiatua.
The turbines are the smaller, two-bladed turbines visible to the south-east of Palmerston North – 65 are built within Palmerston North City Council’s boundaries, the rest are in the Tararua District.
With the completion of stage two of the farm’s construction in May 2009, when 28 new turbines joined the existing five, residents started to complain to the city council.
Between then and when the Environment Court heard the council’s case in December 2011, more than 800 complaints had been laid.
That’s not to say 800 residents made noise complaints. The calls have come from about 20 households that have each rung the council multiple times.
“What we were hit with in terms of noise was quite different to what the [resource consent] application said it would be,” Pahiatua Track resident Bob Stewart said after the court’s decision was released.
“It’s vindicated the residents’ concerns. It’s some comfort to know we’re not just a bunch of complainers with no grounds [to complain on].”
Stewart says it is clear those applying for resource consents have to ensure their predictions of their effects on the environment are accurate.
“Hopefully it will be a wake-up call to other applicants that they need to get it correct.”
Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford says the decision has the potential to set a precedent. It was the council that started the Environment Court proceedings.
“The case and ruling came about because members of the affected community and council staff worked together on this issue,” Clifford said in a statement last week.
After being inundated with noise complaints, the council asked the court to decide whether the wind farm was being operated in accordance with its resource consent.
In a 43-page decision, the court ruled that the wind farm was in breach.
The court found that the predictions of noise included in NZ Windfarms’ resource consent application were inaccurate.
These predictions formed the basis of the noise controls in the wind farm’s resource consent. But the predictions were wrong.
The court’s findings have been welcomed by Professor Philip Dickinson.
“It’s not surprising, it’s exactly what I expected.”
During the December 2004 application for the wind farm, Dickinson, a then Massey University lecturer, told the commissioners the noise predictions were wrong.
“They didn’t listen,” he says.
One problem lies in the noise levels set for wind farms, he says.
“It’s a fault in the standards, the standards are wrong.”
The Environment Court hearing was not the first time the council had questioned the noise levels coming from Te Rere Hau.
A review written for the council by Acousafe Consulting & Engineering in April 2010 found there was “reasonable doubt” that the wind farm was complying with its resource consent. In response, NZ Windfarms commissioned a report from Malcolm Hunt Associates, which had prepared reports for the company’s original resource consent application.
This indicated Te Rere Hau did comply with its resource consent.
Now that the Environment Court has found there was a breach, the question is what happens next.
The city council is considering its options and the court has ruled the council can review the wind farm’s allowed noise levels.
NZ Windfarms is also deciding what to do next. Chief executive Chris Sadler last week said the next step would be for the parties involved to get together and talk.
NZ Wind Energy Association chief executive Eric Pyle says it is important for the council and NZ Windfarms to work together on a solution.
There have been other wind farms where noise has been a problem but the issue was resolved, he says.
“What is causing the problem? When is it occurring? Until those facts are clearly identified it can be hard to move forward.”
Pyle says noise can be measured, and once an understanding of noise issues from the wind farm is gained a solution can be worked out.
The Environment Court decision says “it is clear that even with the higher sound power levels of the turbines Te Rere Hau could be operated in a manner which compensated for this increase and this would result in lower noise levels at residences”.
This involves how the turbines are operated when wind levels are low, and when wind is coming from certain directions.
“However, the wind farm has not been operated in a manner designed to compensate for the increased sound power level of the turbines,” the finding says.
Ellingham says he supports the idea of wind farms, and is happy for Te Rere Hau to stay.
He just wants the wind farm operated in a way that doesn’t impact on those who live nearby.
Noise from the turbines is only an issue under certain wind conditions, he says.
“They know when we’ll complain in this area – wind them down in those conditions.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding