Wind farm planning laws a barrier to meeting renewables targets

Will changes to planning laws put wind farms and renewables targets at risk?
Will changes to planning laws put wind farms and renewables targets at risk?

The Renewable Energy Target commits Australia to reducing its carbon emissions through a 20 per cent increase in energy from renewable sources by 2020. While successful projects, among them the community wind farm near Daylesford, Victoria, operated by Hepburn Wind, have contributed to meeting the target, changes to planning rules have led to the emergence of “no-go zones” across the state. Since then, 10 wind farm proposals have been blocked or abandoned, prompting warnings that renewables targets may not be met.

By BRIDGET FITZGERALD

STANDING at the base of a 35-storey wind turbine, the sweeping propellers make a resonant, detached sound. The wingspan stretches 40 metres in diameter and as they turn, and the engine in the barrel of the turbine whirrs, it sounds like an aircraft travelling overhead. The blades scoop through the air with an intermittent ‘whoosh, whoosh’. The arms are more like aircraft wings than propellers, turning into the wind and using it to drive each rotation.

Out of the shadow of the oversized pylon and away from the foot of the structure, the sound fades quickly. Standing about 200 paces away, by a nearby main road, the blades sound distant, and the sound of a passing car drowns out the turbine noise. But how much sound a wind farm makes, and how comfortable people are living by them is a point of serious contention between wind farm groups, residents, and the Victorian state government.

Two of these striking turbines sit  on top of Leonard’s Hill, 10km south of Daylesford. The site, in the middle of a grazing paddock, is Australia’s first community-owned wind farm. Operated by Hepburn Wind, a cooperative of over 1900 members, the project has generated energy since June 2011.

Rotating in a light breeze, the turbines, affectionately known as Gale and Gusto, produce enough power for 2300 homes. In strong winds, the wings will cut through the air at speeds of up to 200kph. At this capacity, the turbines can power up to 6000 homes. With 1800 homes and a population of just over 2500, the clean energy generated at Leonard’s Hill allows Daylesford to be completely carbon neutral. 

But despite their green virtues, wind energy projects have caused controversy in rural areas due to turbine size and conspicuousness, even noise pollution and health risks have been claimed by some. For this reason, the state government amended its planning laws last year so Victoria now has some of the strictest wind farm planning regulation in the world. The amendments stipulate wind farm developments must have: “economic and environmental benefits to the broader community of renewable energy, while also considering the need to minimise the effects of a proposal on the local community and environment”.

To ensure local community needs are met, the state government requires written approval from every property within a 2km radius of a proposed wind farm site. Therefore, if there is a single objection from any of these neighbours, the development cannot go ahead. The amendment transfers responsibility from the state government to local council, which, as the government asserts, gives local communities a key role in making decisions on wind development.

In laymen’s terms, the space on which wind farms can be erected in Victoria shrank dramatically in the last 18 months. Wind farms were already excluded from national and state parks, coastal parks and wetlands – in Victoria this makes up 32 per cent of all land and 43 per cent of coastline. But the scope for permanent “no-go zones” has now increased to include the Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges, Mt Macedon Ranges, McHarg Ranges, Bellarine Coast, Mornington Peninsula, and all land within 5km of high water mark on Great Ocean Road and Bass Coast.

Since the changes, 10 wind farm projects – both community and commercial – have been blocked or abandoned. Data from Friends of the Earth found the ceasing of those 10 projects meant a loss of 204 wind turbines, 408.3MW of energy capacity, and $887 million in investment.

Minister for Planning Matthew Guy says the amendments do not aim to prevent development, but restore fairness and certainty to the wind farm planning process. He says amendments give greater control to communities and councils to dictate wind farm development.

It is important for wind farms to expand without developments impacting on rural communities, he adds.

Since the state government’s planning law amendments came into affect in 2011, members of Hepburn Wind say the restrictions give too much control to a “loud and vocal anti-wind farm minority” and inhibit the growth of Victoria’s renewable energy industry.

Hepburn Wind executive chairman Simon Holmes à Court is polite and softly spoken, with an easy smile. But his gentle manner hardens when talk turns to negative attitudes towards wind energy. He says the 2km rule wipes out areas that could very easily accommodated wind farms; and limits the expansion of renewable energy. He attributes the planning law amendments with the “misguided” assumption that people are anti-wind farm.

“There’s a perception that the community doesn’t want it, but what we’re showing here is that if the community knows what’s in it for them, or if the community feels a sense of ownership, there’s overwhelming support.”

The idea for a community owned wind farm was sparked by the failure of a similar private venture. In 2004, a company called Wind Power – now a part of Origin energy – held a meeting in the Hepburn Shire town of Dean. A 25-turbine wind farm was proposed, and the local reaction was disastrous. The community flatly rejected the development proposal at the first consultation. Then Hepburn Shire mayor Michael Cheshire attributed the failure to a lack of community consultation: “more community engagement might be the way to go”.

“They thought they could barrel into town and say: ‘we’re saving the world – we’ll put a turbine here and here and here’,” Holmes à Court explains.

Several local Daylesford residents were disappointed with the failure of Clarkes Hill and decided to construct their own wind farm. At the first meetings in 2005, the community wind farm was a grassroots project. But as the project gained traction, 1950 local residents pooled $9.7 million to invest in the farm. There was also funding from Sustainability Victoria, Regional Development Victoria, Bendigo and Adelaide banks, and Embark, but Holmes à Court says their success all came down to the will of the people.

Shareholders should see dividend returns in August 2013, but in the meantime Hepburn Wind is delivering $30,000 each year back to community groups and sporting clubs in funding and grants. Red Energy also jumped on board, buying 100 per cent of Hepburn’s wind power, and giving $12.50 to the community fund with every bill.

Holmes à Court says wind farms can be successful when the community knows what’s in it for them.

“The community fund we started on day one – that’s been a big promise from the beginning.

“Now we’ve supported 19 different projects, and about $35,000 has gone into the community.”

A Clean Energy Council report released in June 2012 found that 77 per cent of Australians support wind power in city and rural areas. Of the 1,200 surveyed, three quarters were from rural communities near wind farms in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and the other quarter were from metropolitan areas.

As a representative of the remaining 33 per cent who don’t support wind development, South Australian based anti-wind farm campaigner Sarah Laurie says the Victorian limits are only a “tiny step towards protecting people”.

“I say to the government – just work out where they’re safe, and only put them where they’re safe. This two kilometres; it doesn’t protect people.”

Dr Laurie is a rural GP and the CEO of the Waubra Foundation, a privately funded organisation that investigates the health implications of people who live near wind farms. The foundation website carries an “explicit cautionary notice” about health issues that Dr Laurie says “relate directly with the operation of wind turbines”.

The notice cites: chronic sleep depravation, “acute hypertensive crises” – high blood pressure, heart attacks, severe depression, “irreversible memory dysfunction” and a “worsening of pre-existing conditions” like diabetes, migraines, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

“People are getting sick, and they’re getting sick in their homes. We can’t just ignore them,” Dr Laurie says.

Dr Laurie, and the foundation, claim these illnesses are caused by “acoustic pollution”, or the sound that the turbines make; both the mechanical whirring, and the wing sounds. But a National Health and Medical Research Council review of current literature on wind turbines and health in 2010 found that: “there are no direct pathological effects from wind farms”.

In fact, the NHMRC review states that the “sound pressure level” produced by a 10-turbine wind farm from 350 metres is between 35 and 45 decibels. This can be compared to roughly the same amount of sound emitted from a quiet bedroom, or the “background noise in a rural area at night”. A car 100 metres away, travelling at 64kph, is 55 decibels, and a jet aircraft at 250 metres is 105.

Another health concern raised by anti-wind farm advocates is the presence of a phenomenon referred to as “infrasound”, or low frequency sound. However, the NHMRC review also found there is “no evidence of health effects arising from infrasound or low frequency noise”.

But these findings are not completely conclusive. When questioned by the ABC’s 7.30 program, NHMRC head of research translation John McCallum added a disclaimer to his group’s report: “There is a lack of evidence. [Our] statement isn’t saying there are no effects, it’s saying we don’t really know.”

But in April 2013 the Victorian Department of Health released a research paper that found “There is no evidence that sound which is at inaudible levels can have a psychological effect on the human body”.

Dr Laurie’s involvement in the Waubra Foundation was spurred by her discovery of a contentious report by Cornish GP Amanda Harry. In 2007 Dr Harry conducted a survey of 42 residents who lived between 300m and 2km from a wind farm in Cornwall. Her research found that 81 per cent those surveyed experienced residual health effects from wind farms, from mild symptoms – mood swings, indigestion and mouth and throat infections – to moderate and severe effects – back pain, fatigue, psychiatric disturbances, joint and muscle pain.

However, Dr Harry’s work is not peer reviewed, and is not supported by any health organisation. A similar report, also cited on the foundation website, was conducted by south Gippsland GP David Iser. Dr Iser surveyed 19 residents who lived “in close proximity to wind farms” in Gippsland, Victoria. His findings show 58 per cent of those surveyed reported no health problems, 26 were mild, and 16 had major problems. Again, the study was not peer reviewed.

But Dr Laurie is adamant the health risks are present. Though she also agrees there should be further research in this field.

“I think there’s a bit of a blind spot to be honest. I think there’s an awful lot of ignorance around doctors about what sound energy can do.”

In an effort to address this research “blind spot”, RMIT research fellow Sean MacDermott is heading up an independent review into the health effects of wind turbines. He says he has been “shocked” by the lack of investigation in the field. But in response to Dr Laurie’s claims, he says there is no evidence to conclude that wind farms have adverse health effects.

“I haven’t come across anything that’s conclusive.  Every forum, every Senate inquiry has recommended either more research or at least concluded that the existing research needs to be supplemented, or that more needs to happen.”

A Senate committee report last year also concluded just that – more research was necessary before any conclusive statements could be made.

It stated: “the committee does not doubt that some people living in close proximity to wind farms are experiencing adverse health effects, but these are not necessarily caused by the noise characteristically produced by wind turbines”.

In her summary of the committee findings, Greens MP and senate committee chair Rachel Siewert added: “We have found there has been adverse health effects found in some people near wind farms. However – and this is a very, very important ‘however’ – we have not found that is necessarily associated with noise or vibrations.”

Dr MacDermott has committed himself to clarifying this uncertainty. He says the motivation to explore this area came from witnessing the development of a wind farm near the RMIT’s Hamilton campus in southwest Victoria.

“For the past couple of years we have observed the [local] response to that. And I think everyone would agree that it’s quite an emotive issue.”

He says it has polarised the community.

“On one hand you’ve got a lot of economic benefits in terms of employment, etc. On the other hand you have a number of people who feel that the wind turbines impeded on the landscape, and also that there may be health deficits associated with them.

“With the best will in the world its impossible for either of those groups to really move from where they are.”

Dr Laurie says wind farms should not continue to be erected before “health risks are known”. She says investment in wind farms is just a panicked response to finding a global warming solution.

“There’s been so much publicity and so much focus on climate change, and so many people have invested so much money in wind turbines, trying to saving us from it.”

But saving Australians from climate change is a very good reason to allow the expansion of wind farms, according to University of Melbourne academic Anne Kallies. She says the Victorian planning laws restrict wind development so severely, they will impact the federal government’s Renewable Energy Target.

The Renewable Energy Target (RET) is a policy that commits the federal government to source 20 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Kallies, a PhD candidate specialising in environmental law, wrote a report with fellow environmental law researcher Lisa Caripis on the impact of wind farm restrictions on investment in renewable energy. ‘“Planning away” Victoria’s renewable energy future’ was published in Environmental Planning Law Journal in September.

In the report, Kallies and Caripis claim the amendments to the Victorian planning law prioritise local concerns over the broader public interest. The report states that the changes “add to existing barriers” to renewable energy, like limited access to the power grid. But most importantly, it asserts that restricting the area in which wind farms can be developed “undermines Victoria’s ability to cut its greenhouse gas emissions”.

Kallies says Australians have a federal commitment to cut emissions and what happens on the ground is really important.

“There is a mismatch now and there is now a need to integrate the laws,” she says.

Kallies is adamant that the federal RET could be enshrined into planning provisions, or into state planning policy, to ensure lowering emissions is a realistic goal for Australia.

“But if the state continues to work against federal interest, there is a little that can be helped.”

Back at Leonard’s Hill, the remnants of the state’s previous wind farm policy can be seen. Through the old gums, at the top of a paddock off the Ballan-Daylesford Road, Gale and Gusto continue to turn. Unperturbed by the fuss surrounding them – amidst the grazing cattle – it’s hard to believe that two such innocuous structures can cause such a stir.

Although, as far as wind turbines go, these two had far more support than opposition. Hepburn Wind community officer Taryn Lane says the key to cooperating with the community is a rigorous consultation and complaints process, and ongoing dialogue.

“We have had a couple of long-term opponents to the project, so when we went to planning in 2007, we had 350 letters of approval and support, and 18 objectors. But that number’s declined slightly now.”

Following the success of Hepburn Wind, Holmes à Court established Embark, a non-profit organisation dedicated to “growing to the community renewable sector”. But he says of the five  groups he had been working with to develop community wind farms over the past few months, four have fallen to the wayside; unable to go ahead because of the planning amendments.

Holmes à Court says the Victorian laws are preventing investment into a renewable energy future. He says we need to start changing the way we live, and we need to change now.

“And renewables have to be a part of that transformation.”

“And these wind projects, particularly community energy concepts, they can allow communities to step forward.”