There is a real-world example of what can happen when subsidies are cut and greater scrutiny is applied to renewable energy projects, buried in the pages of the much maligned Senate committee report into wind turbines and health.
In January 2012, following the global financial crisis, the cash-strapped Spanish government abolished subsidies for wind farms. In Spain’s least windy region, Extremadura, 100 wind projects that had applied for approval abruptly withdrew.
But despite frantic claims that the entire wind industry would be ruined, 83 per cent of wind farms planned for Spain’s windiest region, Galicia, will still be built. They will be backed up by four reversible hydro-electric plants that can store the energy produced when the wind is blowing but electricity is not needed on the grid.
The first wind farm to develop without subsidy support began operations in Galicia in March.
Under the old system, this wind farm happily would have double-dipped for profit, collecting money for electricity sold and subsidy payments that were a blanket fit for the renewables industry in Spain, where inefficiency and corruption have been exposed on a grand scale.
With subsidies withdrawn, former wastage has been revealed, non-viable projects do not proceed and viable projects go ahead without need for additional financial support.
Faced with the prospect of reduced subsidies, the Australian wind industry has been quick to predict its own demise. And the lack of investment during the past two years because of regulatory uncertainty suggests lenders, at least, need guaranteed support for projects to spin.
But the Spanish experience provides a reality check for governments and electricity users, showing how challenging the status quo can sometimes bring rewards.
Given the deep feelings renewable energy provokes – more so now it has been defined a key partisan battleground, with Labor pledging a 50 per cent target – it can be difficult even to ask the tough questions, as the just concluded federal Senate inquiry has shown.
The Senate committee majority, which was headed by independent John Madigan, and included Family First senator Bob Day, Liberal Chris Back, National Matthew Canavan and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, insists the review was not anti-renewable energy, as it has been portrayed.
Its sins have been to accept first-hand evidence as well as academic reports, and to call for reduced subsidies, greater investigation and uniform national regulation and oversight.
This includes the creation of a special scientific panel to assess and monitor health concerns, an ombudsman to handle complaints, national laws to ensure consistency and protection, and a wind-back of subsidy support for new wind farms.
In addition, it says projects in states that do not accept uniform national standards on noise and health should not receive the millions of dollars on offer in renewable-energy certificates under the renewable energy target.
Despite hearing hours of testimony from people who say their life has been ruined by the nearby presence of wind turbines – including some who are collecting millions of dollars for allowing the turbines in – the Senate committee did not make any formal findings about turbines and health.
Rather, it has urged independent research to be overseen by a panel of experts, similar to the independent scientific panel that now oversees large-scale coal-seam gas and coalmining developments with regard to water.
The wind industry – which has denounced the committee as a frolic by a handful of senators with preconceived ideas – would prefer things to be left as they are.
“It’s hardly a shock that a committee dominated by senators who are opposed to wind power has recommended a range of measures that will make it much harder to build renewable energy,” says Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton.
“The bigger question is why we should take it seriously when it is so out of touch with what the majority of Australians want: more clean energy.”
In a dissenting report, Labor senators on the committee, represented by Tasmania’s Anne Urquhart, defend the status quo on largely ideological grounds. They recommend the government not proceed with the recommendations made in the majority report.
Instead, they want the federal government to publicly acknowledge that wind farms are an important means of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from Australia’s electricity sector.
They say the federal government also should state publicly the health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and generation are acknowledged by the medical and scientific community, and that “there are no causal links between wind turbines and impacts on human health”.
But Leyonhjelm says the final report is vindication of his motion to establish the inquiry and confirmation that regulation of the wind industry needs to change.
“It is abundantly clear from the evidence of regulators, the community, local councils and wind farm operators that the status quo is untenable,” Leyonhjelm said after the report was released. “Only the wind industry and its cheer squad disagree.
“There are glaring planning and compliance deficiencies plus growing evidence, domestic and international, that infrasound and low-frequency sound from wind turbines is having an adverse health impact on some people who live in the vicinity of wind farms. This is not something a responsible government can ignore.”
The committee says it acknowledges the need for Australia’s renewable energy sector to develop and prosper.
It also recognises that a properly regulated wind industry should be an important part of the sector’s future growth.
But given the scale of proposed investment and technology, and continuing government assistance for wind power, the committee says it is concerning that the industry continues to face persistent and widespread complaint and criticism.
“As this inquiry amply demonstrates, there is continuing disquiet about the lack of transparency and consultation in planning processes, and the lack of rigorous, independent research into possible health impacts of turbines,” the Senate report says.
In response, the committee has set out a road map representing a radical overhaul of accreditation, supervision and government support.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has already accepted many of the committee’s recommendations, made in an interim report ahead of the parliamentary vote for a reduced RET.
These include the scientific panel, which will be established by September 1, and an ombudsman to receive complaints on wind developments.
Hunt has said he would consider the final recommendations “in good faith”, but ahead of receiving them said the government had no plans to amend the Renewable Energy Act, which would be necessary to reduce subsidy entitlements.
Many Liberals have expressed concern about the number of complaints being generated by wind farms in rural Australia and hope the scientific committee, which will focus on noise monitoring, may help get to the bottom of things.
The interim report makes it clear the committee believes the science on the possible impact of wind turbines on human health is evolving: “By agreeing to establish an independent expert scientific committee to research wind turbine sounds, it is clear that the Australian government shares this view,” it says.
The report says there are considerable gaps in understanding about the impact of wind turbines on human health, and to date the wind sector has avoided some of the regulations, guidelines and frameworks that apply to other energy producing sectors.
“The recommendations in the interim report reflect the committee’s view that it is time that the wind sector ‘caught up’,” the final report says.
After hours of anecdotal evidence heard by the committee, the majority report says it believes these complainants deserve to be taken seriously: “Those who have labelled ‘wind turbine syndrome’ as a communicated disease or a psychogenic condition have been too quick to judge,” it says.
“In so doing, they have unnecessarily inflamed the debate on the issue … this has understandably caused those who suffer adverse symptoms even greater distress.”
Senators say acousticians provided different perspectives to the committee on the possible effect of infrasound from turbines. For official recognition within the health community, however, a lot appears to rest on whether and when “annoyance” can be considered an impact on health.
Robert McMurtry, a professor emeritus from Western University in Ontario, Canada, told the inquiry the wind industry had denied adverse health effects, preferring to call it “annoyance”.
In its much publicised literature reviews, the National Health and Medical Research Council referenced scientific evidence from studies conducted in Scandinavia that illustrated annoyance and sleep deprivation were reported as issues in residents exposed to wind turbine noise.
At a workshop conducted by the NHMRC in June 2011, acoustical consultant Geoffrey Leventhall, who works extensively for the wind industry, said symptoms of “wind turbine syndrome”, and what he and other acousticians referred to as “noise annoyance”, were the same.
In its statement on wind turbines and health, the NHMRC said there was no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affected physical or mental health. But it said: “There is consistent but poor quality direct evidence that wind farm noise is associated with annoyance.”
The committee was told annoyance was recognised and treated by the World Health Organisation as an adverse health effect that was a risk factor for serious chronic disease, including cardiovascular and cancer.
The Senate committee is particularly scathing of Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, who has been outspoken in his opposition to research into wind farms and health. The committee says, “In both his written and oral submissions, Professor Chapman cited many of his own publications in support for his view that … the phenomenon of people claiming to be adversely affected by exposure to wind turbines is best understood as a communicated disease that exhibits many signs of the classic psychosocial and nocebo phenomenon where negative expectations can translate into symptoms of tension and anxiety.”
But the report says several highly qualified and very experienced professionals have challenged this argument.
“The committee highlights the fact that Professor Chapman is not a qualified, registered nor experienced medical practitioner, psychiatrist, psychologist, acoustician, audiologist, physicist or engineer,” the report says.
• “He has not medically assessed a single person suffering adverse health impacts from wind turbines;
• “His research work has been mainly – and perhaps solely – from an academic perspective without field studies;
• “His views have been heavily criticised by several independent medical and acoustic experts in the international community; and
• “Many of his assertions do not withstand fact check analyses.”
Chapman was defended in Labor’s minority report and, not surprisingly, the Senate committee findings have done little to soothe the rancour that has characterised the issue in general.
But the majority report argues that proper research, independent oversight and a tight rein on public subsidies can be only for the public good.
And given what has happened in Spain, it may not be the end of the renewables world, either.
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