The Coalition will impose new noise monitoring rules on windfarms that the multibillion dollar industry says will inflict crippling costs, provide no useful information and represent another victory for an anti-noise campaign by concerned citizens backed in part by the climate sceptic lobby.
The yet-to-be-released resources policy is set to require all windfarms to provide “real-time” noise monitoring, with the findings immediately publicly available, so nearby residents concerned about the alleged health impact of windfarms can compare the results with strict state government noise controls. The Coalition resources spokesman, Ian Macfarlane, will also try to introduce the measures before the election with a private members bill.
People living close to windfarms have reported symptoms including headaches, sleeplessness and nausea. Several residents experiencing the symptoms have given evidence at inquiries, but a recent study by Prof Simon Chapman of Sydney University found incidence of the sickness was far more prevalent in communities where anti-windfarm lobbyists had been active and suggested it might be a psychological phenomenon caused by the belief that turbines make people sick. “As anti-windfarm interest groups began to stress health problems in their advocacy, and to target new windfarm developments, complaints grew,” said Chapman.
The wind power industry claims the new requirement would impose “very significant costs” and the information would not differentiate windfarm noise from background noise such as traffic – unlike existing monitoring which compares average noise over a period with average noise before the windfarm began operation.
Combined with new tougher state regulations in Victoria and possibly also New South Wales and Queensland – also as a result of the windfarm noise campaign – the wind power industry says it could stymie billions of dollars in new investment.
But, as the anti-windfarm lobby prepares for a “national rally” in Canberra on Tuesday, Macfarlane says the policy is the only way to calm anti-windfarm sentiment.
He says the Coalition strongly supports the wind power industry and the new rules are designed to avoid the same “community divisions” that have virtually stopped new coal seam gas wells in NSW.
“If we have real-time noise monitoring and a resident sees that a windfarm appears to be exceeding its noise levels, the company will have time to do calculations and show whether the noise came from the turbines or other factors,” Macfarlane said.
“If we don’t do this my concern is that the issues around windfarms have the potential to escalate into a community divide similar to coal seam gas.”
Russell Marsh, policy director of the Clean Energy Council, said complying with the rules would be expensive and “it would be very hard to isolate continuous real-time windfarm noise from other noise”.
According to a spokesman for Pacific Hydro, which operates six Australian windfarms, “it would seem that the only way to achieve the stated objective of the legislation would be for operators of windfarms to be required to constantly turn the windfarm on and off to ascertain if indeed the windfarm or other sources are creating the noise. This would not only create a significant operational issue but financially cripple the windfarm.”
The chairman of the Hepburn community windfarm near Daylesford in central Victoria, Simon Holmes a Court, said: “Measuring windfarm noise is complex. The noise level at a moment in time is meaningless. If you register a high noise level, chances are it’s not a wind turbine, but a passing truck, or a pump or chainsaw. Sometimes it’s thunder or even crickets, but most often it’s the wind. Wind is noisy. Turbines, generally, are not.”
The Coalition is under intense pressure from the anti-windfarm lobby and also from many of its own MPs to take much tougher action, either banning new windfarms entirely or abolishing the renewable energy target that provides the industry with an effective federal subsidy. It is promising a review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET).
The rally in Canberra on 18 June, which will be compered by radio broadcaster Alan Jones – he also hosted the rallies against the carbon tax – has the specific aim of pushing an incoming Coalition government towards a windfarm ban and scaling back of the RET.
It is the latest step in a six-year campaign against the alleged health impacts of windfarms, where concerns held by local residents have been strongly backed, organised and publicised by groups connected with the climate-sceptic Australian Environment Foundation (AEF).
In a 24 May emailed update to members, the AEF executive director, Max Rheese, reports that “over the last few months AEF has had a number of meetings with Coalition MPs at parliament with regard to windfarm health issues and the provision of renewable energy certificates to windfarms” and urges members to go to the anti-wind rally.
“AEF are assisting, but not organising the rally, however AEF members are urged to attend to join people from four states who are committed to attend,” the newsletter says, adding that “growing community and industry disquiet over the costs and effect of the mandated Renewable Energy Target is leading to calls for the revision or abolition of the RET now gaining political traction.”
AEF directors include prominent climate sceptic Bob Carter, lawyer Tom Bostock, who is also a director of the climate sceptic lobbying organisation The Lavoisier Foundation and Prof Peter Ridd, who acts as a scientific adviser to the climate sceptic Galileo Movement, has lobbied the Australian chief scientist for public funding for scientists seeking to make the case against anthropogenic global warming and has called warnings about the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef a “swindle”.
The AEF was set up in 2005 by the Institute of Public Affairs, the free-market thinktank, and in turn, has close links with the Waubra Foundation, named after the Victorian town that hosts Australia’s largest windfarm, and which supports local activists, who call themselves “landscape guardians”, and concerned citizen groups in many places where a windfarm is proposed.
The AEF, the Waubra Foundation and the grassroots “guardian” groups have worked together on many anti-windfarm campaigns, effectively applying pressure to the proponents, local members and state governments, while often passing under the radar of the national media.
At a recent Senate inquiry Holmes a Court tabled an email from Rheese to “landscape Guardians and supporters” in which he discusses the logistical details of the joint efforts by the AEF, the landscape guardians and the Waubra Foundation to hold a big demonstration in Victoria in 2010.
It says: “I will bring with me 50 pre-printed corflute signs … for those that do not have signs to bring. The more signs the better. I will also bring a four-metre-long banner … We also need to support each and every community that is threatened by these projects. We either all swim together or we will drown separately.”
The same corflute signs referred to in the email, which say, “Windfarms make me sick,” have appeared at anti-windfarm rallies across Victoria and the ACT.
The groups are particularly worried about the possible health impacts of inaudible low frequency infrasound, citing residents near windfarms who report symptoms of “wind turbine syndrome”.
Chapman’s study found that 63% of Australia’s 49 windfarms had never been the subject of any health complaint from nearby residents. It found 68% of the 120 complaints that had been made came from residents living near windfarms heavily targeted by the anti-windfarm lobby, and that ”the advent of anti-windfarm groups beginning to foment concerns about health (from around 2009) was also strongly correlated with actual complaints being made”.
More recently, local anti-windfarm groups groups have also been linking to a slick new website called stopthesethings.com, which says it is run by “a kitchen table group of citizens concerned about what is happening across rural and regional Australia, by the harm being done by the wind industry, in partnership with governments”.
The website authors attack the “greetard ideology” behind windfarms.“We are dismayed that people have been forced from their homes or have been made unwell by a government-sanctioned, taxpayer-funded industry,” the group claims.
But none of the authors of the website is named and the contributors, who post almost daily, went to some lengths to register their domain name anonymously on Christmas Day 2012 through Arizona-based domainnamesbyproxy.
The long-running and organised anti-windfarm campaign, and the genuine community fears about health problems of some residents near windfarms, have galvanised federal Coalition MPs and have been embraced by others who oppose their own party’s support for the renewable energy target, which effectively provides federal subsidies to windfarms.
Interviewed last November by Alan Jones, West Australian Liberal senator Chris Back accused the wind industry of deliberately withholding information about windfarm noise, and questioned the “economic benefit” of taxpayer subsidies for renewable energy. Wind power companies say they provide information to the appropriate authorities.
Queensland Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly told parliament in June 2012 that – unlike climate change – windfarms had already caused people to flee their homes.
Nationals Senator Ron Boswell has long argued the RET – which underpins windfarm investments – should be abolished because it was increasing electricity prices, and recently told the Sydney Morning Herald: ”The whole of the National party agrees with me, although we haven’t got a formal policy on it yet, and I suspect many Liberals do also.”
Organisers of the Canberra rally say Kelly, Back and Boswell have promised to attend.
The anti-windfarm campaign has already succeeded in a tightening of the state government regulations for which the new federal monitoring would provide data. In 2011 the Victorian government brought in new restrictions, which have effectively stopped new developments. NSW is considering similar restrictions, as is Queensland.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has already undertaken a “rapid review” of any evidence of harmful health impacts from windfarm noise and will soon release an independent review of studies on the subject but the Coalition policy will pledge yet another review, either by the NHMRC or another group of the health impacts of windfarms.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon and Democratic Labor party senator John Madigan, who could hold balance of power votes in the Senate after the 14 September election, recently proposed unsuccessfully that government subsidies be denied to windfarms that exceeded tougher noise regulations.
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