A part-time bureaucrat in a role created by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott to appease wind farm critics earned $205,000 a year to resolve one complaint a week – most relating to wind farms that have not yet been built.
The revelations into the controversial wind farm commissioner are contained in a review by the Climate Change Authority. It said the commissioner had “exceeded expectations” and should continue for at least three years, with a bigger budget to also address public concerns about solar projects.
The taxpayer-funded commissioner role was established by Mr Abbott in October 2015 to monitor the wind industry and respond to community complaints about turbine noise and health effects. Mr Abbott called wind farms “visually awful” and noisy, and former treasurer Joe Hockey decried them as “utterly offensive”.
Official estimates put the cost of establishing the office and running it for three years at more than $2 million. The commissioner, Andrew Dyer, collects $205,000 a year for his part-time role and has a staff of three to assist him. He was appointed by former environment minister Greg Hunt.
Some people believe the low-frequency sound of wind turbines causes health issues for nearby residents. However the Australian Medical Association and the National Health and Medical Research Council say such claims have not been conclusively proven.
The commissioner received about163 complaints relating to noise, potential health impacts, amenity, lack of community consultation, economic loss and flickering shadows from wind turbine blades.
Most complaints related to proposed wind farms. Some 145 were resolved and closed by the commission – an average of about one per week. Some 52 complaints were closed because the complainant did not pursue it. A further 84 complaints were resolved by the commissioner providing information to the complainant. In some cases, one person made multiple complaints.
In an interview with Fairfax Media in 2016, Mr Dyer said he was carrying “a very big load”, adding: “You’re driving your car. You are looking at maps. You’re with wind farms and residents all day. You’re getting back to your motel, and they’re not salubrious out in the bush.”
The Climate Change Authority is chaired by former National Farmers Federation head Wendy Craik. The former Abbott government unsuccessfully sought to abolish the agency and critics say is now stacked with Coalition-leaning members.
The review concluded that the wind farm commissioner “has exceeded expectations in dealing with community complaints about wind farms” and the role should continue to at least 2021. It said the costs associated with the office were “relatively low”.
Wind energy in Australia has grown quickly under the national renewable energy target, helped along by technology advances. There are 78 wind farms built and another 21 proposed, mostly in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.
The authority noted that many stakeholders from government, the wind industry and the public said their interactions with the commissioner were positive.
However, “not everyone is satisfied with the outcomes of the commissioner’s complaints handling process”, and some believe the office should have the power to overturn development approvals for wind farms. The review said such approvals were a matter for state and local governments.
The review found the commissioner had made recommendations that improved the way the wind industry and governments worked with communities.
It said the role should continue for three years, when it would be reviewed again. The commissioner’s scope should be expanded, with a “modest” increase in funding, to include large-scale solar and storage such as large-scale batteries, “given their potential to cause community concerns”.
The review recommended changes to make the complaints-handling process more transparent and accessible, and to broaden public awareness of the role.
The Clean Energy Council said the commisisoner has played a valuable role and enhanced community confidence in the wind farms. It supported the potential expansion of the role to large solar projects.
The Abbott government established the commission and a scientific advisory panel as part of a deal with anti-wind farm crossbench senators. At the time, critics said the measures were a waste of taxpayers’ money and were a bid to thwart the renewable energy industry.
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