1.1 The Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines was established in December 2014. To date, it has received 464 submissions from a wide range of stakeholders. It has conducted public hearings in Portland in south-west Victoria on 30 March, in Cairns on 18 May, in Canberra on 19 May, in Melbourne on 9 June and in Adelaide on 10 June 2015. Further public hearings are planned in Canberra on 19 June and 23 June and in Sydney on 29 June 2015.
1.2 This represents a considerable volume of evidence relating directly to the committee’s terms of reference. The committee has received written and verbal evidence from State Governments, local councils, various federal government agencies, wind farm operators and manufacturers, country fire authorities, acousticians, medical experts and representatives from various associations and institutes. In addition, many private citizens have had the opportunity to voice their concerns with the planning, consultation, approval, development and operation of wind farms in Australia.
1.3 Access to all public submissions and public hearing transcripts can be found on the committee’s website.
The committee’s headline recommendations
1.4 This report presents seven headline recommendations. The committee believes that these recommendations are important and urgent given that legislation on the renewable energy target is due to be debated in the Senate shortly. The final report in August this year will provide supporting evidence and supporting recommendations. It will also address other terms of reference, including the merit of subsidies for wind farm operators and the effect of wind power on household power prices.
1.5 The committee recommends the Commonwealth Government create anIndependent Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound responsible for providing research and advice to the Minister for the Environment on the impact on human health of audible noise (including low frequency) and infrasound from wind turbines. The IESC should be established under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000.
1.6 The committee recommends that the National Environment Protection Council establish a National Environment Protection (Wind Turbine Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise) Measure (NEPM). This NEPM must be developed through the findings of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound. The Commonwealth Government should insist that the ongoing accreditation of wind turbine facilities under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 in a State or Territory is dependent on the NEPM becoming valid law in that State or Territory.
1.7 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government introduceNational Wind Farm Guidelines which each Australian State and Territory Government should reflect in their relevant planning and environmental statutes. The committee proposes these guidelines be finalized within 12 months and that the Commonwealth Government periodically assess the Guidelines with a view to codifying at least some of them.
1.8 The committee recommends that eligibility to receive Renewable Energy Certificates should be made subject to general compliance with the National Wind Farm Guidelines and specific compliance with the NEPM. This should apply immediately to new developments, while existing and approved wind farms should be given a period of no more than five years in which to comply.
1.9 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government establish aNational Wind Farm Ombudsman to handle complaints from concerned community residents about the operations of wind turbine facilities accredited to receive renewable energy certificates. The Ombudsman will be a one-stop-shop to refer complaints to relevant state authorities and help ensure that complaints are satisfactorily addressed.
1.10 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government impose a levy on wind turbine operators accredited to receive renewable energy certificates to fund the costs of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines—including the funding of additional research—and the costs of a National Wind Farm Ombudsman.
1.11 The committee recommends that the data collected by wind turbine operators relating to wind speed, basic operation statistics including operating hours and noise monitoring should be made freely and publicly available on a regular basis. The proposed Independent Expert Scientific Committee should consult with scientific researchers and the wind industry to establish what data can be reasonably made freely and publicly available from all wind turbine operations accredited to receive renewable energy certificates.
Wind farms and human health
1.12 Why are there so many people who live in close proximity to wind turbines complaining of similar physiological and psychological symptoms? As with previous Senate inquiries, this committee has gathered evidence from many submitters attributing symptoms of dizziness, nausea, migraines, high blood pressure, tinnitus, chronic sleep deprivation and depression to the operation of nearby wind turbines. The committee invites the public to read and consider the evidence of people who have experienced these symptoms and who attribute their anxiety and ill health to the operation of turbines.
1.13 These health affects should not be trivialised or ignored. The committee was particularly distressed by renewable energy advocates, wind farm developers and operators, public officials and academics who publicly derided and sometimes lampooned local residents who were genuinely attempting to make known the adverse health effects they were suffering.
1.14 The committee is aware of people complaining of these impacts who have since left their family home. Some now live a nomadic and uncertain existence. In one case, the now deserted home had been in the family for five generations—since the 1840s. These are not decisions taken lightly. Having left the turbine vicinity, several witnesses noted that the symptoms had faded if not disappeared.
1.15 Some submitters attribute these illnesses to a ‘nocebo effect’—a result of expectations of harm rather than exposure to turbine activity. This claim has been made by Professor Simon Chapman, a sociologist by training and a professor of Public Health at Sydney University. He has labelled wind turbine syndrome ‘a communicated disease’, claiming that it ‘spreads by…being talked about and is therefore a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition’.
1.16 However, most people recognise that noise including low frequency noise could cause these impacts and emphasise that noise standards, properly enforced, are crucial to ensuring public safety. This view acknowledges that the noise from wind turbines creates annoyances which can manifest in sleep disruption. The clear remedy is to set noise standards (such as the New Zealand Standard) and enforce these standards. This is essentially the public position of the relevant authorities in Australia.
The need to investigate infrasound and low frequency noise from turbines and its effect on human health
1.17 The committee highlights the need for more research into the impact of low frequency noise and infrasound (0–20 hertz) from wind turbines on human health. A 2014 pilot study conducted by acoustician Mr Steven Cooper found a correlation between infrasound emitting from turbines at Cape Bridgewater in Victoria and ‘sensations’ felt, and diarised, by six residents of three nearby homes. By identifying a unique infrasound ‘wind turbine signature’, recording it as present in the homes, and linking it to ‘sensations’ felt by the residents, Mr Cooper’s research has received international attention.
1.18 It is clear that the extent and nature of wind turbines’ impact on human health is a contested issue. The nocebo effect, the existing standards for measuring audible noise and the NHMRC’s 2011 literature review have all been criticised by submitters and witnesses to this inquiry. The criticisms relate both to flaws in methodology and to inaccurate and incomplete findings.
1.19 Fundamentally, the lack of detailed, reliable data does not allow for a proper scientific conclusion to be drawn. The committee is struck by the considerable gaps in understanding about the impact of wind turbines on human health. These gaps have widely acknowledged key issues, both explicitly and implicitly:
- the NHMRC found in February 2014 that ‘there is currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans’. While maintaining this stance, in February 2015, the NHMRC recognised that the body of direct evidence on wind farms and human health is ‘small and of poor quality’. It concluded that ‘high quality research into possible health effects of windfarms, particularly within 1,500 metres, is warranted’;
- In June 2015, the German Medical Assembly forwarded a motion to the board of the German Medical Association for further research into the possible side effects of wind turbines. The committee has received advice from the German Medical Association that this motion proposes that the German Government provide the necessary funding to research potential adverse effects to health. The motion also argues that wind turbines should not be erected in the vicinity of residential areas until this research has yielded results. The Board of the German Medical Association has advised the committee that it will revisit the motion in July 2015;
- the position of several well-informed submitters that more research is needed, including;
- criticism of the composition of the NHMRC Reference Group, and in particular the lack of acoustical expertise. One witness, who was a formal observer of the Reference Group process, noted that only one member of the panel was an acoustician, adding: ‘No-one else on the panel had any idea of acoustics. They could not tell when they were being misled or information was being withheld’;
- criticism of the 2010 and 2015 NHMRC reviews which ignored studies in situ of people reporting serious adverse effects and the nature of the exposures to which they are subject. A submitter noted: ‘The NHMRC did examine some of these types of study but it was done as a secondary activity rather than the main focus and allowed it to base its conclusions predominantly on research settings that inevitably have weak power to detect material effects’;
- the importance of research that has a rigorous methodology, a level of independence and the outcomes of which are peer reviewed;
- the claim of one eminent acoustician that wind farm entities have stifled some genuine research into the possible effects of wind farms. A prominent international organisation well equipped to evaluate infrasound data and analysis declined his invitation to examine his own research into wind farm infrasound; and
- a submitter’s proposal for a thorough noise audit of all existing wind farms, using the methodology of Mr Steven Cooper, and incorporating the objective measurement of health effects (sleep quality, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, etc) on neighbours, out to 10 kilometres from turbines.
1.20 Independent scientific research is needed into acoustic matters—such as whether each wind turbine has unique ‘signature’ and the effect of that signature on neighbouring turbines—and into health matters.