August 29, 2015
Australia, Opinions

Wind Turbines Select Committee report debate: that the Senate take note of the report

Australia Senate Hansard, 13 August and 20 August 2015

Senators Urquhart, Back, Leyonhjelm, and Madigan:

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (18:01): The date 3 August 2015 should go down in history as an important date for global action on climate change, when Barack Obama announced the final release of America’s Clean Power Plan. Sadly, on the same day in Australia the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines was pulling in directly the opposite direction with the release of its final report.

Let us be clear; this was not an inquiry, it was a grudge match. And the rules were stacked from the beginning so the industry never stood a chance. The final report is a reckless, science-denying document that Labor thoroughly rejects. This was not the first inquiry to look at wind farms. In fact, there have been multiple parliamentary inquiries and 25 reviews into the issue, and each and every one found the same thing: there is no credible evidence that wind farms have any impact on human health. And there is no reason that the majority report should have come to a different finding to the ones that preceded it, but that is exactly what happened.

The majority report privileged the opinions of individuals acting outside their area of expertise and those who have been discredited in court proceedings both here and overseas. At the same time, it ignored the Australian Medical Association’s clear position statement that infrasound from wind farms in Australia cannot affect human health. It thumbed its nose at the extensive work of the National Health and Medical Research Council, which also found no evidence that wind farms have human health impacts. It disregarded the comprehensive $2.1 million Health Canada study, which included over 1,200 houses at varying distances from turbines at six different wind farms, 4,000 hours of acoustic data, acoustic and medical expertise, self-reported health questionnaires and objective health measures including hair cortisol, blood pressure and heart rates. This study found that wind turbine noise exposure is unrelated to self-reported sleep problems, illness or perceived stress and quality of life. The majority report asserted that infrasound from wind farms presented a human health risk despite evidence from the Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants that infrasound is likely to be higher in city offices than it is around wind farms. It is also strangely mute on concerns from multiple submitters, including the Climate and Health Alliance—which represents 28 health sector organisations—about focusing on the health impacts of wind farms, of which there is no evidence, while ignoring the well documented and proven health impacts of coal energy.

The report is not only ill-informed, blatantly thumbing its nose at the evidence-based science, but it is reckless— setting out to destroy an industry that promises billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs in regional communities. It proposes an extra layer of expensive bureaucratic measures in areas completely outside a federal government remit and tries to strongarm the states with threats of punishment if they do not submit. Largely these onerous recommendations are based on the unproven assertion that wind farms are causing human health impacts.

When I started on this inquiry I was willing to look at these claims with an open mind, but I first needed to have some questions answered. Firstly, after three decades of wind farm operations globally, has there been any scientific or professional organisation agreeing that there is cause for concern? The answer is no. Not one single acoustical, regulatory or medical body holds the position that wind farms are dangerous to human health. Secondly, what do the reputable medical journals have to say on the matter? Surely, given the maturity of the industry, there would be multiple recorded case studies in the medical literature. Again the answer is no. In fact, there has not been a single example of a medical case study of wind turbine syndrome in any indexed medical journal in the world. Although that is not really surprising, given that individuals have attributed the operation of wind turbines to over 200 conditions including asthma, arthritis, autism, brain tumours, cataracts, diabetes, dolphin beaching, epilepsy, haemorrhoids, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, parasitic skin infections and even bee extinction.

Another factor I was interested in was the international experience, given that wind farms operate in many countries. Do we see the same sorts of concerns in these countries? The evidence presented to the inquiry was that we do not. In fact, the vast majority of concern shows up in English-speaking countries. Interestingly, some of the most compelling evidence in this regard came from former Liberal senator for Tasmania, Peter Rae, AO. Mr Rae’s distinguished post-parliamentary career includes being the vice president of the World Wind Energy Association, proving that not all of the conservative side of politics dwell in the dark ages when it comes to climate change. His opening statement provided the committee with unique insight into the global perspective on wind farm health concerns. He said:

In my experience around the world there are a only few centres where this concern appears to arise and be concentrated. It follows that, as the complaints arise selectively, then considerable caution should be adopted in making any findings on the issue and, in particular, in imposing further restrictions and costs based upon that concern.

Mr Rae’s sentiments were echoed by witness after witness who told the committee of many countries who are looking at Australia’s anti-wind movement in bafflement and disbelief.

Another thing I was looking for is the experience of front-line workers. Surely, if wind farms were making people sick, the workers would be the first to feel the symptoms. Yet again, the committee heard the exact opposite. In fact, two of the world’s biggest turbine manufacturers, Vestas and Senvion, testified to the committee that not one single health complaint had been made from the many thousands of staff working directly at wind turbine sites.

It is not just in other countries that we see no evidence of sick workers and disproportionate representation of complaints. Exactly the same thing is happening right here in Australia. In fact, Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney, Simon Chapman, found that close to two-thirds of wind farms in Australia generated no complaints at all. Not only that, but a whopping 72 per cent of the complaints that were received came from just six wind farms. Coincidentally or not, these wind farms were also the focus of significant organised antiwind activity. The argument that wind farms have health impacts utterly fails any objective, logical assessment of the evidence.

At this point, I want to make it clear that I do not doubt that the people appearing before the committee have legitimate health issues. But the issue is: what is the cause of their suffering? Just as I do not think that I am the appropriate person to diagnose and treat my own health concerns, I believe that in the absence of expert medical advice individuals can be mistaken about the cause of their symptoms, particularly if they are exposed to messages that are telling them that wind farms are a health risk. That is exactly what the research is telling us. In fact, Fiona Crichton at the University of Auckland has found that infrasound is not correlated with people’s health perceptions of wind farms on their health but exposure to anti-wind messages is.

I sincerely hope that the government responds to this report with the scorn it has received in the wider community. But, sadly, the members of this committee have found themselves some kindred spirits in this renewables-hating government, which has already agreed to wasteful measures, including the appointment of a wind commissioner and an independent scientific committee. The states have responsibility for wind farm planning, monitoring and compliance. Without any legislative power, the commissioner can be little more than an expensive paper-pusher, shuffling complaints from individuals back to state governments and taking responses from state governments back to the complainants. It is an absurd situation from a government that has sworn to cut red tape.

Similarly, the suggestion of setting up an independent scientific committee into the impacts of infrasound is breathtakingly wasteful, unjustified and deeply disrespectful to Australia’s legitimate health research body, the National Health and Medical Research Council. While the majority members have been able to force the creation of this committee, if it is independent they certainly will not be able to influence its reporting of the actual science on this issue. In fact, the most likely outcome of the independent scientific committee is that it will provide the same advice that acousticians and medical researchers have been saying for years—that is, that wind farms pose no health risks under Australian guidelines.

I think what should happen is that the majority membership front up to the Australian community and say ‘sorry for inflaming anxiety’ and for feeding fear amongst those living near wind farms, and apologise to the thousands of workers whose jobs have been put in peril in their attempts to sabotage the industry. While they are at it, they should also apologise to the scientists, the health bodies and the acousticians whose professionalism they have impugned with their blind determination to destroy the wind industry—a progressive, renewable energy in this country.

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (18:11): History will record that Senator Urquhart’s words will come back home to haunt her in the future, as indeed will many of those who have so derisively commented adversely on the outcomes of this report. Let me put on the record that I am very much in favour of aspects of renewable energy. I proudly ordered and had constructed the largest number of small-scale solar units, hot water systems —some 240—ever in Western Australia. I also had responsibility for the first wind turbine in Western Australia. It failed; in fact, the first four all failed. That is history.

I also want to place on the record my strong support for hydroelectricity in your state, Senator Urquhart, and in the Snowy Mountains. When you can generate in the high peak periods and when you can use off-peak periods to pump water back up to generate again the next time it is needed surely has to be the ultimate value of renewable energy. I do not think wind turbines are a renewable energy source. I reflected on this driving back from Sydney on Sunday. I happened to be looking at the wind turbines just out of Canberra and thought to myself that I want to look at this in both environmental terms and economic terms. I said to myself, ‘What is the environmental benefit of wind turbines?’ Of course, the benefit would be greenhouse gases forgiven during the generation process. I said, ‘That’s good.’ So that is a positive benefit. What are the negatives? What do you have to take off that greenhouse gas forgiven? Firstly, you have to take off the massive cost of greenhouse gases, the carbon dioxide, used in the construction—the original iron ore, the steel, the transportation and the tens of thousands of tonnes of concrete that go into each of these.

The committee had evidence—and Senator Urquhart did not like it much—from Mr Hamish Cumming, whom I found to be a very credible witness, that about 16 years of the use of a wind turbine would be necessary before you would actually get back to the cost-benefit of the greenhouse gases forgiven as a result of the construction.

Secondly, what do you take off that greenhouse gas benefit?

You take off the cost of the baseload generated electricity, the carbon dioxide, required when you need coal, gas or whatever other form of baseload generation you need in reserve, because when the wind does not blow and the ship does not go you do need another form of baseload power. Then something that will have a profound effect on people who are hosting wind turbines—and local governments around this country—will be the environmental cost of decommissioning these wind turbines at the end. So I suspect there is very little, if any, actual environmental benefit.

I then looked at economic benefits. The benefit from wind turbines would be the value of the power generated, but from that what do you deduct? You have got to deduct the huge costs of the renewable energy certificates that are quaintly absorbed and the burden on consumers. Funnily enough, consumers are also taxpayers—isn’t that amazing? This is not a tax, the renewable energy certificate; it is a ‘cost to the consumer’. Somehow or other I do not think they are different people. Again, in an equation you must take away the dollar value of the baseload power that is sitting there doing nothing in case the wind blows or does not blow. In the future I hope we see effective, valuable battery storage. Whether we do or not, nevertheless it still comes at a cost. If you want to look at the economic benefits of these wind turbines, then it is one of the costs. And again you have the dollar value of the decommissioning process.

I admire that Senator Urquhart and indeed, in Cairns, Deputy President Senator Marshall attended each one of the hearings. That is to their credit. I have got to say that unfortunately the Greens political party—despite the fact that Senator Siewert chaired the inquiry in 2009—chose not to participate at all in this inquiry. I do not think that is to their credit.

Senator Urquhart mentioned the Canadian study, which has been put out there as a very credible study—until you get some advice from other credible Canadian scientists, who told us that when the data was collated, this mass of Canadian data, they just happened to reject, with no reasons given, the majority of the data that was captured and collated. They decided to ignore it—no reasons given. The other interesting thing is that they also decided to eliminate all people under the age of 18 and older than 79 years. No reason was given; they just dropped them off. Under 18 and over 79—they do not count. In the days when I was around as a scientist if without explanation somebody were to produce international results and ask for them to be credited I would expect them to give some explanation as to why they would wipe out a significant proportion of the population and indeed a significant amount of the dataset.

Our dear friend Professor Chapman speaks of the nocebo effect. This is the effect that you think you are going to get sick from wind turbines, or you think you are going to get sick going out in a boat, so you do. Initially Professor Chapman would always say, ‘I’ve never ever heard of a host who, if he or she is making money out of these, got sick.’ The first ones, unfortunately for dear old Professor Chapman, were Mr and Mrs Mortimer. Mr Mortimer is a retired naval officer whose sphere of influence happened to be the movement of waves through solids, liquids and gases, so he knew a little bit about this. Mortimer was the first person to stand up and say, ‘Despite the fact that the income we are getting from these couple of turbines is enormously important to our retirement income, we can’t live on our farm.’ Funnily enough, they could not see the turbines but they knew when they were on. When they went away from their home for a week or so, strangely enough the nocebo effect seemed to disappear. The other interesting case was that of a Mr and Mrs Gare, who appeared before us in Adelaide. Mr and Mrs Gare make $200,000 a year from hosting wind turbines. Mr and Mrs Garesaid to us, ‘If we could have our time over again, if we could get rid of these wind turbines and get rid of the $200,000 so that we could go back to living on our farm and working on our farm, we would do it tomorrow.’ I do not know where the nocebo effect came in there, Professor Chapman.

In the time available left to me, all I will do is ask this question. I ask it of Senator Urquhart and I ask it of others who spoke before us. Why do these people carry on the way they do? The case down at Cape Bridgewater—five generations of the family have lived on their farm, so what is in it for them to walk away from their community? People say that they are not really sick at all, that it is just in their heads. It is in their heads. You are quite right. Nausea, anxiety, annoyance and sleeplessness are sure as hell in your head. The question is: why would that family walk away? Why would their children not be able to go to school? Do they get compensation like in the old RSI days? No, they do not; there is no compensation out there. There is no hope of any reward for carrying on like this. They lose their friends in their communities. We know that in many rural communities it tears communities apart. I have said before in this place that we have circumstances now in my home state of Western Australia where bushfire brigade members do not turn out if there happens to be a fire on the farm of someone they are opposed to on this. CWA members—and they are the two pillars of rural communities: bushfire brigades and CWAs. People are not going. They are not shopping in the towns. Why is that? Is it that they all of a sudden woke up one day and, as Senator Urquhart said, they are not sick at all? The value of their properties—we learnt all over Australia that their properties are effectively worthless. They have not just gone down significantly. People who moved into the Barossa Valley for their change of lifestyle, the tree change, are now in a situation where they have had to walk away. So what is in it for them? Generally there has got to be a motivator if you are going to change your whole lifestyle, if you are going to walk away from your friends—you bet your life. Do not worry about Senator Urquhart going on about English speaking—Germany, Finland. Why did the Prime Minister of the UK go into the election saying he is going to stop subsidising on-land turbines and win the election? There is a long way to go in this story. I assure you it is not finished.

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (18:21): Today I take the opportunity to inform the Senate about the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines, as the previous two speakers have done, and why I moved to establish the inquiry. I wish to highlight three critical inquiry findings. First, there is no dispute that wind turbines emit infrasound; second, since 2009 the federal government has known and reported that inappropriate levels of infrasound cause adverse health impacts, whatever the source; and, third, wind farm guidelines and regulations do not require the measurement or restraint of infrasound levels.

As a distant observer of the debate on wind farms, I came to the inquiry with an open mind. I was opposed to the subsidies, but otherwise had no firm views. What prompted me to establish an inquiry was a meeting in my electorate office with half a dozen people from various rural communities. These were ordinary, down-to-earth people, people you would be pleased to have as neighbours. What became apparent was that something was terribly wrong with the planning and regulatory regime governing wind farms. I listened to their concerns with a growing sense of unease as they documented a litany of failures by government and the wind industry to address, or even acknowledge, what seemed like genuine issues.

I read the reports and the recommendations from the 2011 and 2012 Senate inquiries into wind farms and excessive sound, and noted that these all-party inquiries had recommended health and acoustical studies be undertaken as a priority. At the time of the 2011 inquiry report, the Clean Energy Council welcomed these recommendations for medical research. But these recommendations were never acted upon, either by the Gillard government or the National Health and Medical Research Council, at least not prior to the establishment of the select committee. The NHMRC only undertook backward looking literature reviews. They failed to commission research into the claimed link between wind turbine sound emissions and adverse health impacts. The NHMRC is the primary oversight body for medical research. Planning and health ministers, local councils, local GPs, the media and the wind industry all look for authoritative guidance from the NHMRC when responding to those complaining of being affected. The fact is that the NHMRC has been sitting on this issue for the best part of a decade. This has led to unnecessary anguish for many affected residents.

During the course of the inquiry, the NHMRC announced the first research grants to study wind farm sound emissions. Their grants are for a total of $2.5 million over five years. This is almost certainly entirely inadequate. In evidence, acoustician Dr Bob Thorne noted this amount ‘would barely scratch the surface’. In fact, the NHMRC behaviour could be summarised as follows: ignore the problem as long as you can, equivocate when asked for guidance, and then grudgingly allocate a paltry sum stretched over five years to almost guarantee a non-result. The inquiry report noted that ‘senior public health figures have also recognised that the quality of research of the NHMRC’s systemic review was sub-optimal’. In evidence, prominent New Zealand pyschoacoustician Dr Daniel Shepherd stated how surprised he was at how politicised the conduct of the NHMRC had been, to the point where health and medicine had been sidelined.

The wind industry also relies on the Australian Medical Association, the AMA. The committee found the AMA’s position statement lacked rigour. It described the AMA actions as ‘irresponsible and harmful’, and noted that the AMA ‘received pointed criticism’ for its position. Speaking for myself, I do not understand why the doctors’ union should be taken more seriously than any other union. They are not experts in anything.

One of the stand-out contributions to the inquiry was the evidence by acoustician Steven Cooper about his study of the Cape Bridgewater wind farm, commissioned by developer Pacific Hydro. This was the first time a wind farm operator had cooperated in this type of study by providing wind speed data and allowing the stop and start of wind turbines. Cooper’s study demonstrated a correlation between certain phases of wind turbine operation and impacts felt by residents—some severe. His work was hailed as ground breaking by prominent acousticians from around the world. Cooper’s report provides a platform from which health professionals can launch further research to determine definitively whether there is a causal link between turbine operations and adverse health impacts. This is a game-changer in providing researchers with an informed place to start their research. But it requires other wind turbine operators to cooperate, as Pacific Hydro did, and release their operating data. That indeed was the reason for the recommendations in the interim and final reports.

The inquiry heard many truly distressing stories of people driven from their homes by sound emitted from wind turbines. Residents told how, when they could take no more and left their homes for respite, they would recover, but when they returned, if the turbines were operating, they again suffered adverse impacts. The inquiry heard from turbine hosts who receive $200,000 a year in rent and regret they ever agreed to host turbines. Senator Back has just referred to them. These people were previously enthusiastic supporters of wind power generation, but now would not live within 20 kilometres of a wind farm. It beggars belief that people who were so supportive of wind power and so financially rewarded now oppose the establishment of wind farms too close to residences, unless they suffer real rather than imagined effects on their lives.

Committee senators witnessed firsthand the callous indifference of some wind farm operators and their cheerleaders, who ridiculed and denigrated those who they described as ‘nutty anti-wind activists’. Wind farm operators argued that if they conformed to regulations, shown to be manifestly inadequate in protecting residents, they owed no further duty of care. This is eerily similar to evidence many years ago from tobacco companies, and I suspect the same fate awaits them.

The planning and regulatory governance for wind farms in every state was also shown to be shambolic, incompetent and not fit for purpose. The Victorian government cannot decide who should give approval for wind farms and who should monitor ongoing compliance. In the last few years this has gone from controlling at a state level to devolving it to local councils, and now the state government is taking back the approval stage while leaving compliance with councils. Councillors and council officers gave evidence of incompetent state regulators providing little technical assistance to poorly resourced local councils which were responsible for assessing and approving billion dollar wind projects. Ongoing compliance monitoring costs tens of thousands of dollars, and this needs to be funded by ratepayers in financially strapped rural shires.

This inquiry report—the third in the last five years—is the most comprehensive in its recommendations and addresses the festering issues arising from the abject failure of the states to provide an appropriate planning and governance regime. The states are rightly responsible for these matters, but the federal government, through the Renewable Energy Target and the large subsidies available to turbine operators, has driven the growth of the wind industry. If state governments choose not to have a robust governance regime for the wind industry they must expect to forgo the benefits of those subsidies flowing to their state, as per the recommendations of this inquiry.

I commend the inquiry report to the Senate, and urge the government to bring an end to this long, sorry saga by adopting the report’s recommendations.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (18:20): I rise to speak as the former Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines. It is nearly 30 years since Australia’s first wind farm was built—that was in Esperance in Western Australia. Currently, there are 82 wind farms accredited under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000. They consist of 2,077 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of 4,180 megawatts. Among renewables wind is a major player in Australia. It has benefited significantly from the financial incentives of the Renewable Energy Target. The committee report represents a substantial body of evidence. Undoubtedly it is the most complete inquiry into wind farms in Australian history, receiving nearly 500 submissions, 39 pieces of additional information, 82 responses to questions taken on notice, 46 tabled documents and significant additional correspondence from all over the world. Additionally the committee held hearings in Canberra on three occasions as well as sitting in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Cairns and Portland. We heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses.

As a Ballarat-based senator for Victoria, I have long been aware that many people residing near western Victorian wind farms have reported noise nuisance, ill effects and sleep deprivation due to their proximity to wind farms. In fact, in June 2010, up to 20 residents from the Waubra and Cape Bridgewater areas alone sent the former health minister and current Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews statutory declarations reporting that their health and wellbeing were being seriously compromised by the operation of wind turbines. This small group hoped the Victorian government would not turn its back on them. They did not have much luck. They gave their stat decs to the same premier who has told the wind industry that Victoria is open for business. They then halved the setback distance from two kilometres to one kilometre to prove the point.

In my view, clean energy can be a dirty business. The unimaginable injustice of what I have seen—decent rural people done over by big business in the name of saving the planet—is what inspires me to keep asking one question. Why is the wind industry exempt from appropriate regulatory practices that apply to other industries? In my home state of Victoria, for example, the EPA plays no role in the assessment of wind farm noise. These matters are left to paid consultants—guns for hire, really—who write the report the wind farm operator needs to appear compliant. The wind industry is in fact regulating itself in Victoria and elsewhere, riding roughshod over country people. This is what drives me to keep shining light in dark corners.

So it staggers and it disappoints me that those who profess to stand up for people, for the rights of communities and the wellbeing of this country, waged throughout the committee’s hearings a campaign of denigration, misinformation and lies. Senator Urquhart from the ALP was extended every courtesy during the committee’s operation. We bent over backwards to accommodate her requests. She sat through the same testimony as we all did. Yet her speech on this matter and the ALP’s dissenting report bear all the marks of Orwellian propaganda and group think. I have to ask myself whether they were referring to the same inquiry that I had chaired.

Likewise, various green lobby groups attended committee hearings and, using digital media and press releases, misrepresented and lied about hearings and evidence. And, of course, the Greens political group refused to be part of the committee. Instead they took cheap pot shots from the sidelines, blaming victims, vilifying witnesses and sneering. It staggers me how afraid some people are of the facts. It staggers me how afraid some people are of real debate, discussion and investigation. As George Orwell said, ‘In a time of near universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’

I am particularly proud of the work of the Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines. Our 15 recommendations provide a roadmap for the way forward. As everyone agrees, Australia has a clean energy future—and I support that—but the clean energy imperative, with its ideologues and carpetbaggers, must be tempered by respect for people and their lives. Again I thank Senator Leyonhjelm in calling for this inquiry. I thank Senator Day for his excellent support as deputy chair. I thank my other fellow committee members, Senators Back and Canavan, for their positive input. I thank Senator Xenophon for his valuable input as a participating member as well as Senator Marshall. The committee secretariat did an extraordinary and unenviable job. The committee tabled its final report on 3 August 2015. Already, the body of evidence developed through the inquiry has been heralded internationally as the most significant ever accumulated on wind turbine impacts.

I would encourage everyone to take the time to read the wind turbine inquiry report and its recommendations. I strongly encourage reading the submissions and transcripts of evidence that were obtained at the hearings. These are the stories of the people who are dealing with wind turbines at ground zero, not from an ivory tower in the middle of Sydney. You will read testimony of sleep disturbances, compromised health and reduced amenity. This is all too often the reality for rural Australians who reside beside industrial wind energy facilities, whether they host turbines or not.

For anyone who is genuinely interested, who can think independently and is not blindly obedient to the ideological spin put out by the wind industry and its propagandists, take a look at the report and the committee’s work. What have you got to lose besides your ideological innocence? For anyone who is faithfully beholden to the alarmist politics of the Greens and the Labor Party and who would have us sacrifice rural families for the worship of wind turbines, take a look. All that one needs to be able to support the report’s important recommendations is an open mind and access to the committee’s website.

The inquiry may have wrapped up when the committee tabled its report earlier this month but its legacy remains. This is the inquiry’s gift to rural Australians who have long been nuisanced by industrial wind turbines. Their complaints have been trivialised by wind operators, planning systems and decision makers. Their symptoms have been misunderstood by a compliant media, captive to the messaging of a narcissistic academic, well-practised in ridicule, defamation and bullying. The report, its recommendations and the supporting information gathered, speaks for itself.

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