Community groups will be given more power to object to wind farm projects in NSW, a move environmental groups and a renewable energy firm say amounts to halting the industry’s growth in the state.
The O’Farrell government on Wednesday removed the “critical infrastructure” status for wind farms created by the former Labor government, restoring the community’s rights to appeal against decisions made by the independent Planning Assessment Commission.
“We changed Labor’s rotten laws in 2011 ensuring major projects like wind farms would be considered in an open and transparent process,” Planning and Infrastructure Minister Brad Hazzard said.
“The community can have confidence that their voices will be heard on wind farm projects in NSW and that projects will be assessed and decisions made at arm’s length from the government,” he said.
Nine wind farm projects now face potentially lengthy and costly community appeals in the Land and Environment Court although they won’t have to repeat any part of the assessment process already completed.
A senior manager at a wind farm operator unaffected by the decision said the change would create a “lawyers’ picnic”, and signals NSW is ‘‘closed for business” for new wind farms.
“Now that the NSW government has decided to add hundreds of thousands of dollars and at least a year to the wind farm development process, we look forward to [it] restoring the community’s rights around coal seam gas projects and coalmines,” the manager said, preferring not to be named.
Greens MP John Kaye said the government had shown “a complete commitment to making it as hard as possible for wind farms”.
“This is a government that treats wind farms with far lower community impact and no known health impacts in a totally hostile way while providing red-carpet treatment for coal seam gas,” Mr Kaye said.
New clean energy projects are largely on hold nationally as the federal government reviews the renewable energy target. Wind energy firms and other suppliers of renewable energy are worried the review will recommend a weakening of the goal of supplying 41,000 gigawatt-hours of clean energy by 2020, undermining investor confidence and returns.
A spokeswoman for Mr Hazzard said businesses want to know what the rules are and be confident those rules are followed.
“That’s what our changes have achieved. All State Significant Development follows the same rules,” she said.
“Companies have two years once Director-Generals’ Requirements are issued to provide their Environmental Impact Statement, that is the same for all State Significant Development.
“These windfarms were given fair and reasonable time to progress their proposals under the transitional part 3A arrangements and they have failed to do so,” she said.
The Friends of the Earth, though, said the government had caved into concerns from a small number of people worried about the health or other impacts from wind farms.
“The NSW government has sown the seeds of community division by reopening the planning process for these wind farms,” said the group’s renewables spokesman Leigh Ewbank.
“A noisy minority refuse to accept wind energy and continues to make unsubstantiated claims that the technology has health impacts. This decision looks like a capitulation to those elements.”
The Greens, meanwhile, said it had obtained letters sent by Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson to Health Minister Jillian Skinner and Planning Minister Mr Hazzard suggesting she was lobbying against wind farms on health grounds.
In a June 23, 2011 letter to Ms Skinner, Ms Hodgkinson sought advice on comments published by anti-wind farm activist Sarah Laurie and a review then under way by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
“(I) would appreciate your seeking to have this research reviewed as a matter of urgency as if, correct, it will have significant adverse public health impact on large areas of my electorate,” Ms Hodgkinson wrote.
In a letter to Mr Hazzard dated 15 November 2012, Ms Hodginson wrote on behalf of a constituent concerned about the Gullen Range wind farm and “more generally about noise emissions from wind farms”.
She again cited the NHMRC and its 2009 Rapid Review about wind farms and “adverse health impacts”. “(T)here is universal agreement that a definitive answer is needed to the question of whether wind farm-generated noise causes health problems,” Ms Hodgkinson wrote.
The NHMRC in February released a draft information paper on the effects of wind farms on human health, concluding “there is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.
“The real damage to human health is being done by groups that promote myths around wind farms and consequently generate anxiety and stress,” said Greens MP Mr Kaye.
Ms Hodgkinson said she had made many representations on behalf of constituents about “very many issues across all agencies over the years”.
“Whilst the health impacts of inappropriately sited wind turbines is one concern held by my constituents – particularly in relation to noise and blade flicker – visual amenity, efficiency of electricity generation, subsidisation by the taxpayer, non-compliance, and many other issues have also been raised with me by constituents in relation to the turbines,” Ms Hodgkinson said.
“It is important that with such a relatively new technology that all issues are appropriately canvassed particularly by the approving authorities,” she said.
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