The landscape is changing.
Across our state, we have seen the emergence of gigantic and imposing turbines across our open plains. The towers can stand anywhere from 80 metres to 175 metres tall – the height of a 50-storey building – and the 40-metre flexible, fibreglass blades make a continuous whirring sound and at times similar to the noise of a small jet engine.
Whether you consider the growth of the wind farms to be a positive or devastating development, it is expected that more are on the way. According to figures from the Clean Energy Council in Victoria alone, there are nine wind farms operating, with another 33 proposed.
According to a 2010 report from Geoscience Australia and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics wind farms are the fastest growing renewable energy source for electricity generation. The Federal Energy Minister, Martin Ferguson, says new wind farms make up more than 41 per cent of future energy investment, which includes wind, hydro and solar power.
Much of the controversy surrounding wind farms relates to the lack of planning and in particular to the siting of the towers. In addition, electricity is difficult to understand – for a start it is invisible. And everyone wants to be able to switch on their electric light at home, but no-one wants to live next to a coal-fired power station or a nuclear power station.
Ultimately, like any other innovation whether or not wind turbines are a good idea depends on a range of criteria. For example what we, as a nation, intend to do with them and what their power will be used for. How much damage for how much power? What kind of damage? How permanent? How difficult is it going to be for us to change our minds about them if we decide in the future that we want to dismantle them?
We assume wind power has been initiated for its environmental benefits, as no fossil fuels are burnt to generate electricity from wind energy, but is our government really committed to making changes? Do the wind turbines simply create an illusion that we are addressing our future electricity problem?
What is the extra power generated being used for? And how much were we thinking of producing altogether? Have we discussed a cap on total energy use? How many more do we want? Are coal fired stations being phased out? Has our energy consumption per capita increased or decreased? Should we be looking to start another kind of improvement? Or using what we have got better?
At the outset, it seems that the crucial planning issue of ‘public amenity’ was not fully thought out or a decision was ultimately made that the benefits would outweigh any negatives that may follow. The erection of wind turbines does not only affect the owners of the land but if also affects their neighbours. In Victoria, a turbine cannot be placed within two kilometres of a dwelling without consent. But with opinions so divided, rural communities are starting to see relations between neighbours, friends and even families break down over the issue.
Sadly, this has been part of the experience for Mairi-Anne Mackenzie of ‘Hillside’ near Ararat. Part of the wind farm ‘Challicum Hills’ is now operating on the property. Long before wind farms became a commercial reality Mairi-Anne and her family had always thought there must be some way of harnessing the wind, and wondered how to find a company willing to try.
In the 1990’s Mairi-Anne’s partner Frank Fisher approached Pacific Hydro to see if they would be interested in assessing the wind resource on the hills of their property. Pacific Hydro erected an anemometer, which they read remotely in Melbourne, and their feedback within the first week far exceeded their expectations. Things progressed from there.
Early on, Mairi-Anne did not imagine that she would derive much financial gain from the wind farms. In fact, at the outset she thought she and the family thought they were doing it as it was “the right thing to do”. Mairi-Anne’s initial research seemed overwhelmingly environmentally positive.
The amount of energy generated per turbine is staggering. But of course this is only one part of the picture. The process involved in the establishment of the wind farm was all-consuming.
“There was a lot of discussion and many drafts of the contract,” Mairi-Anne said.
Mairi-Anne started out as strong supporter of wind turbines, and in fact helped to initiate the Challicum Hills wind farm on her property – but having seen what happened to the land and the attitude it has embodied – she has changed her mind in some respects. She certainly believes there was technical scope for things to have been done differently.
There is no denying that the imposition of wind turbines has caused enormous angst and community division.
For farmers who have been struggling, the rent from the turbines can often mean they can remain farming and has made their business more viable. In addition, developers quite often contribute to the local community and upgrade infrastructure.
Other farmers say they are not anti-wind activists and support renewable energy in its various forms, but not at the expense of the health of Australian people.
Some people who live or work alongside turbines state they have genuine complaints and the wind farms have brought nothing but adversity. Many are affected by headaches, vertigo, pressure in the ears, hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to noise), tinnitus, chronic sleep deprivation and depression. Some have even resorted to leaving their homes, or sleeping elsewhere while working on their farms during the day.
Symptoms are thought to be linked to the low frequency noise (infrasound) emitted by turbines, especially from the larger turbines and may be detected at distances in excess of ten kilometres.
But to date there is no specific research to conclusively prove that infrasound impacts on human health. Over twelve months ago a Senate inquiry into the social and economic impacts of wind farms recommended such a study be conducted. So far nothing has been undertaken.
Earlier this year, local veterinarian Dr Scott Shrive from Hamilton Vetcare reported a suspected case of a working dog living in close proximity to a local wind farm exhibiting unusual behaviour. The owners described how their normally active and keen-to-work dog had become sullen and reluctant to leave its kennel after a nearby wind farm started operation.
Dr Shrive believes the change in behaviour could be caused by the low frequency noise from the wind turbines.
“Research tends to say that it’s this low frequency noise that we can’t hear and it’s been shown that it can affect the balance mechanism in the ear and dogs may more susceptible to this.
“There is obviously something affecting the dog which is causing that behaviour. It’s anecdotal, but the owners have said it happened when the wind was in a certain direction coming from where the wind turbines are, it is no proof but it is suggestive,” he said.
The Waubra Foundation, which collects information about concerns with wind farming nationally, is trying to facilitate independent scientific research into the health problems identified by those living near turbines. Its medical director, Dr Sarah Laurie says this is a very real problem.
“Clearly not everyone who lives near a turbine is affected or to the same degree, but some are very sensitive to the effects,” she said.
“People who get sick straight away often have a history of motion sickness or migraine, and shadow flicker [from the turbine blades] can set people off. It particularly affects young children and the elderly. Symptoms get worse over time, they don’t get used of it.”
On face value, there would seem to be benefits in decentralising electricity generation (for example security of supply/line losses). But the major problem is the difficulty in getting accurate information. Each ‘camp’ uses their own set of criteria to measure the benefits. The factual information about energy figures are there but are not easily accessible, and it is easy to discount information provided by wind farm proponents or dissenters.
There are other models of wind farm ownership for the government to look to in Europe, and it would seem we have not seen the best examples used in Australia.
If wind turbines are located in less topical areas there is less likely to be argument about it. The people who propose the location of the turbines are based in the city and whilst they are able to look at the demographics, topography, land use, and other details of the area – it would seem the ultimate decision is based on choosing the windiest sites on the map.
There are other sites in the west of Victoria that are eminently more suitable for turbines; unproductive, unpopulated, barren and with little to no chance of redemption other than making use of the wind that roars over them. Presumably, they have been considered but have not been chosen because they are not as profitable.
And at the very heart of this issue is the overriding sense of ‘freedom of choice’. Farmers want the right to run their business as they choose. The introduction of wind farms perhaps has demonstrated a lack of foresight into how it would affect communities, divide friendships and destroy the fundamental rapport between neighbours. Farmers rely on each other – and such a contentious issue has the ability to destroy that.
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