The wind farm inquiry

Jeff chandler waubra400px

The final report into the Wind Farm Senate Inquiry has just been released and wind engineer Alicia Webb was a keen participant at the hearings.  She shares her experience with ReNew and takes a look at the findings.

One afternoon in March, I sat shaking at a microphone as I told Senator Fielding why I think that wind farms can be progressive, joyous and inclusive for a community. I can’t remember being so nervous in the last few years and I’m not normally a shy public speaker. In that room in Ballarat was a Senate Panel Hearing for the recent inquiry into wind farms, and it was attended by a lot of very emotional people telling the committee that wind farms are making them sick.

The inquiry

The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms Senate Inquiry was launched last year by departing Family First Senator Steve Fielding, in response to claims people were suffering adverse health effects from living too close to wind farms.

“There is an obvious cluster of health issues ranging from sleep disturbance, headaches, and problems with concentration and memory in the Waubra area,” he said when seeking community support for the inquiry last year.

“Once we know what we’re dealing with then development can continue under new guidelines…given the mounting physical evidence from those living near wind farms I think it’s only fair for the Parliament to have a look at what is happening.”

The senate inquiry aimed to examine any adverse health effects for people living close to wind farms, concerns over excessive noise and vibrations emitted by wind farms which are close to people’s homes, the impact of rural wind farms on property values, employment opportunities and farm income, and the interface between Commonwealth, state and local planning laws as they pertain to wind farms.

The issues

Although there are four distinct questions listed above, the most divisive and controversial issue surrounding the Australian wind industry today is the health debate. The vast majority of people who live near wind turbines feel fine, but some people who live near wind turbines feel ill. A lot of the controversy has originated near the Waubra Wind Farm in Central Victoria, where a number of local people have formed a group called the Waubra Foundation and have appointed a medical director, Dr Sarah Laurie.

Many scientists in the international community have written about the audible and low-frequency sounds emitted by turbines and how they do not affect people’s health. However, there is no denying that some people are genuinely ill, and so the senators rightly began asking questions.

What is infrasound?

Audible sounds are vibrations carried through air or other media to your ears. Human ears can generally detect vibrations between the frequencies of 20 Hertz (Hz), the equivalent of 20 vibrations per second, and 20,000 Hz. Infrasound is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz.

Infrasound can be caused naturally by severe weather, surf, earthquakes, volcanoes and waterfalls among other sources. Infrasound can also be generated by machinery such as diesel engines and wind turbines and by large subwoofer loudspeakers.

An independent Australian report was commissioned by Pacific Hydro and written by acoustic consultant Sonus in November 2010. The report concluded that wind turbines do generate infrasound, however, it is well below the levels allowed by established guidelines. These levels were measured both outside and inside at a variety of distances significantly less than separation distances between wind farms and houses. They also noted that infrasound levels measured in both a rural coastal and an urban environment are of the same order as levels measured within 100 metres of a wind turbine.

Submissions

The Senate received over 1017 individually written submissions and 1154 form letters (all of which were positive). Of the individual submissions, 535 were pro-wind power, 468 were anti-wind power and 14 were neutral. Many of them were written by individuals but others were written on behalf of organisations with an interest in either promoting or resisting wind farms. There were even submissions from international anti-wind farm groups such as The Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County (submission 24), a citizens’ advocacy group in Ontario Canada whose stated mission is to “challenge wind energy development” in that province.

One of the most famous international wind farm sceptics is Nina Pierpont (submission 13), an American doctor who self-published the book Wind Turbine Syndrome. Dr Sarah Laurie refers to Pierpont’s work in her submission (390) and says: “There is an urgent need for further independent medical, acoustic and scientific research, looking specifically at the populations affected by the currently constructed and operating wind developments in Australia.”

Mr Noel Dean, a farmer from the Waubra area, writes in his submission (647) that “[o]ur health, emotions, finances, sense of well being and quality of life have suffered enormously because of the operation of the Wind Farm.”

There were also many submissions from supporters of wind energy, including Codrington Wind Farm Tours (597): “Noise is possibly the principal issue discussed in the media, to an extent that it has reached ‘urban myth’ proportions! One consequence however, is that when people actually visit the wind farms and discover the lack of noise, they tend to become cynical of other information from the media and realise that much of the negativity around wind farms may not be accurate,” they wrote.

Dr Peter Seligman, who was a member of the team that developed the Australian Cochlear Implant, also made a submission to the inquiry (353). “It is not doubted that under some conditions wind farms can be heard at a distance. It is unlikely that any vibration can be felt at a distance. As far as infrasound is concerned, the body is naturally exposed to high levels from internally generated sources,” he wrote.

In my own submission (273) I mentioned research by The American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations who established a scientific advisory panel comprising medical doctors, audiologists and acoustic professionals from the US, Canada, Denmark and UK. The panel concluded that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ is not a recognised medical diagnosis but rather reflective of symptoms associated with annoyance. Factors culminating in annoyance include the nocebo effect defined as “an adverse outcome, or worsening of mental or physical health based on fear or belief in adverse affects.”

The Senate Panel Hearings

Having received hundreds of written submissions, the Senate Community Affairs Committee hit the road to meet with people and hear their thoughts first hand. There were four panel hearings held in Canberra, Ballarat, Melbourne and Perth in late March. I was fortunate to attend hearings in both Ballarat and Melbourne, which both had a very different atmosphere. The transcripts of the presentations are available online at the inquiry website.

Before arriving at the hearing I prepared a few dot points for my chance to speak. I started with the standard comment that wind farms are a progressive and clean energy technology that needs community support for Victoria to meet its renewable energy targets. I also touched on my thoughts on the health debate, which are that turbines themselves do not directly cause illness but that unwanted development, combined with inadequate community consultation had created fear and anger that was causing illness.

When I arrived I was genuinely surprised by the amount of emotion in the panel hearing room, and after half an hour of listening to people share their experiences of illness, I completely changed my mind on my own presentation. The people in the room were genuinely distressed.

Rather than speaking about illness from the point of view of a pro-wind city-based observer, I decided to keep my three-minute time slot entirely personal. Instead I spoke specifically about why I work in the wind industry and how I had attended the Hepburn Wind turbine construction picnic only days earlier. I told the senators how I had seen an example of a wind farm being joyous, inclusive and beneficial for the local community—very different from the accounts being heard that day.

The next day in Melbourne the mood was entirely different, and distinctly less emotional. As well as wind farm developers, there were presentations from the Clean Energy Council, Friends of the Earth, the Country Fire Authority and Hepburn Wind.

The health debate continued with further input from Dr Sarah Laurie. “There is absolutely no doubt that these turbines, particularly at some developments, are making nearby residents very sick, and that their symptoms worsen over time. This is resulting in people abandoning their homes and farms, if they can afford to.”

Professor Simon Chapman, (submission 605) from the University of Sydney’s Public Health Department, spoke as a representative of the Climate and Health Alliance. “There is always a relationship between energy supply and health, but these impacts are different depending on the type of energy supply. For example, there are obvious health effects from nuclear, that we are seeing played out in Japan at the moment; we are not going to spend time talking about them today. Coal, which contributes a lot of the current energy supply, makes a definite contribution to death and disease. Then we can look at renewables, like wind, which have the least impact of those three and a very small health impact compared to the others,” he said.

Professor Chapman also criticised Nina Pierpont’s wind turbine syndrome research on the basis that it lacked scientific rigour. He said that Dr Pierpont “has not done any research which has been published in peer-reviewed journals”, and that “she has produced case reports on just 10 families…my understanding is that there are something like 100,000 turbines worldwide. So the first observation I would make is that interviewing 10 families is a sample of such low representativeness…it is incredibly small.”

The Senate’s report

The Senate Committee’s final report into the Social and Economic Impacts of Wind Farms was released last week, after two extensions due to the large volume of material submitted. The report states seven recommendations, which cover noise, health and complaints processes.

On the topic of noise, the report recommends that National Acoustics Laboratories conduct studies into the noise and infrasound impacts of wind farms, and noise standards for planning should include calculations of low frequency noise and vibrations indoors at impacted dwellings.

Regarding complaints processes, they suggest that responsible authorities should ensure that complaints are dealt with expeditiously and processes should involve an independent arbitrator.

Regarding health, the report recommends that the National Health and Medical Research Council should continue to review the research into wind farm health effects. They say the Commonwealth Government should undertake studies into the effects of wind farms on human health, and the National Wind Farm Guidelines should be redrafted to include any adverse health impacts found. They also recommend that further consideration be given to the development of policy on separation criteria between residences and wind farms.

The wind industry and environment organisations have generally received the report positively. Further studies are encouraged as it is anticipated that they will arrive at the same conclusions as the international studies; that is that wind farms do not affect human health.

Clean Energy Council Policy Director Russell Marsh said the report raised some issues to consider, but it was critical the industry got on with the job of building clean energy in Australia. “The Senate inquiry process was a way for the silent majority of wind farm supporters to have their voices heard,” he said.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Cam Walker pointed out the many positive aspects of the report: “The committee should be commended for their careful and balanced approach to this issue. They have considered the complaints put forward by a small number of people living near wind farms, but balanced this against the weight of scientific evidence that wind farms have no proven adverse health impacts on people living nearby.”

The Herald Sun even ran an article Wind farms’ noise found to be safe which stated “A senate committee has been unable to establish a direct link between ill health and the noise generated by wind farms.”

The setback issue is of particular interest in Victoria where Planning Minister Matthew Guy has stated an intention to give residents within 2kms of any wind farm development a right to veto. The Senate committee comment on page 20 of the report that “A difficulty with a prescribed setback distance is that, in term of noise and shadow flicker, the distance may either be too great or too little. If the setback is too great then this could limit the industry and possibly affect the amount of renewable power generation in Australia. If the distance were too little, residents affected adversely would not have any redress’.

“We’re pleased that the committee did not support a mandatory setback distance around wind farms, calling them arbitrary and saying it’s preferable to decide setback distances using scientific measurements of sound effects,” says Cam Walker. The Victorian Government should listen to this advice, and drop its proposed mandatory 2km exclusion zone around wind farm developments.”

My thoughts
While there is widespread international and Australian scientific evidence that wind turbines do not directly affect human health, there is no denying that there are a small number of health problems in rural Australia.

As I understand the issues, it appears that a lack of understanding of the nature of noise, vibrations and health is creating fear among some members of the community. It also appears that there are problems that need to be addressed in the way that community consultation is undertaken. It’s my hope that the outcomes of this inquiry will result in reassuring communities of their safety while also addressing the development processes that have arguably contributed to distress among a few community members.

Alicia Webb works in the wind industry however she attended the Senate Panel Hearings independently and these opinions are her own.

More information
The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms website
Pacific Hydro Wind Farm Infrasound Report
Canadian Wind Energy Association Report on Wind Turbine Sound and Health Effects

This article was first published in ReNew 116


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