When wind farm developers knocked on David Mortimer’s door offering good money to use part of his marginal South Australian cattle property to host two wind-turbine towers, he was both flattered and eager to accept.
“We were very much in favour of it,” Mortimer tells Inquirer. “In fact we were surprised we were going to get paid because we thought we were doing our thing for green energy and the world.”
Sixteen years later, Mortimer wishes he had never answered big wind’s call and says he would happily give up the money if his new neighbours would pack up their machines and go away.
Mortimer’s dilemma – and the fact he has become Australia’s first wind-turbine host to turn whistleblower on the potential health impacts of living near wind farms – contains a serious warning for Australia as it prepares to recommit to a target of more than 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
Research group RepuTex estimates more than 11,000 megawatts of renewable capacity will be required in the next seven years to meet the renewable energy target, and more than 80 per cent of it will come from wind.
Australia’s renewables push comes despite growing concern worldwide about high-cost subsidies and rising electricity prices.
Germany is pushing ahead with new coal-fired electricity plants to replace nuclear, as political and public concern over the cost of electricity escalates.
Britain’s once-green Conservative-led government is in open revolt over wind. New British Energy Minister John Hayes this week ordered a new analysis of the case for onshore wind power as costs rise and opposition grows. Declaring “enough is enough”, he said the great wind rollout had been based on “a bourgeois-Left article of faith based on some academic perspective”.
As in Australia, despite industry claims of widespread community acceptance, questions are being asked about wind energy’s cost, efficiency and aesthetic.
The debate about wind has been polarised by ideology and is characterised by mistrust. And bubbling away in the background, as collateral damage, has been a good deal of rural misery, including claims that low-frequency noise from wind turbines is having a debilitating effect on those who live nearby.
Low-frequency noise is not unique to wind turbines, and the effect it can have on quality of life is well documented by the World Health Organisation, but there has been a deep reluctance by wind companies to release the information that would allow independent assessment of the acoustic impact of the turbines they are operating.
Submissions closed yesterday for a federal Senate committee inquiry into legislation that would make public wind-speed, noise and operational data held by wind-farm operators. Under the legislation, proposed by senators John Madigan and Nick Xenophon, if a wind farm generated excessive noise, it would not receive renewable energy certificates, which is how wind farms make their money. There is no guarantee the Senate inquiry will recommend the legislation.
The wind industry lobby group, the Clean Energy Council, says Australia already has some of the toughest wind-farm guidelines in the world in relation to noise.
A previous Senate inquiry recommendation that urgent, independent studies be done into the possible health effects of living near wind turbines has yet to be acted upon.
Supporters cite reviews, many of them wind-industry sponsored, to dismiss claims of health effects. Others say none of the literature reviewed has been of studies of people living near large operating wind turbines.
Simon Chapman, professor in public health at the University of Sydney, has argued that claims about health effects is a classic case of psychogenic illness, a “communicated” disease spread by anti-wind interest groups.
Chapman, a long-standing anti-smoking campaigner, is an aggressive advocate of wind energy, and equates complaints about wind turbines to early fears about microwave ovens, televisions and computer screens.
In an opinion article published in New Scientist, Chapman ridiculed complaints and said in a 35-year career in public health he had never encountered anything quite so apocalyptic.
Chapman’s comments have infuriated those people pushing for proper research into what is causing people who live near wind turbines to complain.
Just as Chapman accuses anti-wind farm campaigners of exaggerating claims of ill health, others say the denial of a problem by the wind industry and people like Chapman is victimising the complainants and worsening their condition.
Mortimer has an open mind on what is behind the head-pounding and other symptoms that he says started shortly after the turbines arrived, and disappear when he leaves town for respite.
“I am still not saying categorically that it is the wind turbines that are causing my problems,” Mortimer says. “But rather than take it seriously and try to find out, we have got Simon Chapman making absolutely scathing remarks and putting blogs on the internet on all the problems.”
Wind company Infigen, which operates the wind turbines near Mortimer, says he has yet to make a formal complaint.
According to the company’s investor relations manager, Richard Farrell: “The experts have found no credible evidence that directly links wind farms to adverse health. Evidence cited to support such claims is anecdotal.”
Mortimer, who is fighting to stop more turbines being built near the home he relocated to – in part to get way from the initial wind farm development – says he does not blame Infigen for not wanting to believe him.
To support claims about health effects, Waubra Foundation chief executive Sarah Laurie cites peer-reviewed published work of Daniel Shepherd which, she says, provides “incontrovertible evidence of sleep disturbance and adverse impacts on health”.
Chapman declined to discuss Shepherd’s work but said he would write about it on his blog.
Laurie also accuses Chapman of failing to include “the most important literature review detailing the peer-reviewed published research on the then known adverse health impacts of low-frequency noise on human health” when he oversaw the National Health and Medical Research Council’s “rapid review” of wind turbines and health in 2010.
Laurie says Chapman’s co-reviewer in the NHMRC report, Geoff Leventhall, was the lead author of work published in 2003 that linked low-frequency noise and health effects.
Laurie is not alone.
Environmental scientist and acoustics expert Bob Thorne has submitted for peer review and publication the results of a scientific survey of people living near two Australian wind farms. Thorne’s results show wind-farm noise and wind turbine-generated air-pressure variations can cause serious harm to health.
Acoustic engineer Steven Cooper says he is convinced “there has been a significant injustice done to the people of rural Australia”.
“I am not an anti-wind farm advocate, I am an acoustic engineer,” he says. “And if you can operate the wind farms without creating a noise disturbance, or sleep effect, or health impact, there would be no objection.”
Cooper says there are reasons why the siting and monitoring of wind turbines requires close attention in regional areas, because of the low levels of background noise at night. All industrial noise guidelines include the concept of background noise and are based on the understanding that if the noise source exceeds the background level by 5dB(A) (decibels) then the noise will be “noticeable”.
If it exceeds that level by more than 5dB(A) then the noise source will be “annoying” for a significant number of people exposed to it.
The term “annoyance” has a specific meaning in acoustics and includes adverse health effects, both physiological and psychological, including sleep disturbance, sleep deprivation, anxiety and stress.
Cooper says limiting noise levels to 5dB(A) above background levels is a general acoustic principle directed at preventing “annoyance” arising in a number of contexts – industrial noise, aircraft noise and road noise, for example – but he suspects some wind turbines have been able to operate well outside this guideline. This is because the wind-farm noise guidelines used in Australia rely on the assumption that increasing wind speed leads to increasing background noise, which will “mask” noise from wind turbines.
Cooper says his research shows this is not always true, particularly where turbines are located on hills and ridges elevated well above the rural homes below, and developers claiming to be concerned about noise nuisance from their turbines should be ready to support uniform national legislation protecting both parties’ interests.
Clean Energy Council policy director Russell Marsh says it would make no sense to introduce an arbitrary federal requirement that was at odds with state planning systems for wind farms. “It would set a dangerous precedent that could potentially affect all industries that operate under the planning system.”
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