Wind turbines have got Canberra in a spin this week, with hearings underway from the senate inquiry into wind turbines and their possible health impacts. The committee yesterday released an interim report from chair John Madigan with seven recommendations to increase regulation around the wind industry.
A dissenting report from Labor senator Anne Urquhart questioned the political timing of the report.
Meanwhile, a leaked email from environment minister Greg Hunt has offered crossbench senators a “wind farm commissioner” in return for support for the passage of renewable energy legislation.
But behind the politics, how do the report’s recommendations stack up?
The interim report’s recommendations include:
a scientific committee to look into industrial sound
the drafting of national infrasound and noise measures
the development of National Wind Farm Guidelines for planning
making wind’s accreditation under the Renewable Energy Target (RET) dependent on adherance to guidelines and measures (old projects would have five years to comply)
a national ombudsman to handle complaints
a levy on wind farms to fund the scientific committee and ombudsman
data to be made freely and publicly available.
If implemented, these rigorous and extensive recommendations will create wide-ranging monitoring, compliance and review obligations. They are likely to produce a strong national health review framework for the sector. They will, however, also alter the operational dynamics of the industry. This has the potential to affect market progression.
Wind energy accounts for almost a quarter of Australia’s clean energy generation. Investment in wind has the capacity to return fuel savings that significantly outweigh the initial investment cost over the lifetime of the purchase.
This, combined with technological innovations and market subsidies such as the RET, has given the sector a reasonable degree of market force. Fostering wind energy has been crucial for the creation of a greater energy mix in response to growing climate change imperatives.
Health impacts compared
The Senate committee noted that it was “concerned” that the health consequences of wind turbines, in particular, dizziness, nausea, migraine, high blood pressure, tinnitus, chronic sleep deprivation and depression, had been ignored or derided. But how do these compare to other energy industries?
The health consequences of the fossil fuel industry have been ignored for many years. On any comparison, it is unfair to focus exclusively on the health implications of wind turbines and, at the same time, ignore the health implications of other forms of energy production.
Global energy demand is increasing with world energy consumption expected to increase 56% by 2040. Mitigating climate change demands a shift to renewable energy. Subjecting wind energy to a forensic degree of health regulation and ignoring the health risks of other (renewable and non-renewable) forms of energy production is disproportionate. It is unfair.
In Victoria, the Hazelwood Coal Fire Inquiry has been reopened, given the enormity of the health consequences associated with the coal fire last year.
Some of these very serious health issues: respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, long-term chronic health affects from pollutants including carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, and the longer term chronic health effects if the coal undergoes significant distillation and produces measurable amounts of toxic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
The likelihood of escalating chronic health conditions and an increase in mortality rates occurring as a consequence of the coal fire is significant. Whilst the coal fire is a catastrophic event rather than an ordinary consequence of the generation of coal-fired electricity, it nevertheless represents an example of the risks associated with the generation of fossil fuel energy.
Compared to the recommendations by the senate committee on wind turbines, the recommendations from the Hazelwood Coal Fire Inquiry were relatively tame. The Victorian government made A$25.4 million available to fund a range of initiatives that include:
a long-term health study in the Latrobe Valley
new air quality equipment to be used by the Environmental Protection Agency, which can be deployed across the state
a boost to the mine regulator’s capacity to assess and monitor mine planning for fire prevention, mitigation and suppression
development of the state smoke framework.
There was no recommendation to appoint a coal ombudsman or to create an Independent Expert Scientific Review of the Health Impacts of the Coal Industry which would be funded by the imposition of a coal levy.
Things are a little different in the gas sector. There has been significant review and regulatory development for coal seam gas extraction at both the state and the federal level.
However, the recommendations proposed have largely centred around the management of resource conflict, environmental assessment and risk allocation. The actual health impacts of coal seam gas extraction upon residents have not been the subject of review in either Queensland or New South Wales.
Indeed, the 2014 Chief Scientists report on coal seam gas (CSG) in New South Wales expressly omitted an examination of the health implications of CSG extraction.
This is despite the fact that toxins in CSG produced water include such volatile organic compounds as benzene, methane, heavy metals and radioactive materials and exposure can potentially have an enormous impact upon the respiratory, endocrine, nervous and cardiovascular systems, can affect foetal development in pregnant woman and may cause cancer.
The health risks of the wind industry need to be reviewed in balance with other social, environmental and economic factors. This is exactly what has occurred in the context of the numerous reviews and reports prepared for CSG across the country. The extraction and production of many forms of energy have health impacts.
A spotlight focus on the health implications of one sector in the absence of context and sector comparability, lacks balance and perspective.
The Australian wind industry is one of the most rapidly growing renewable energy markets given improved technology, relatively low operating costs and minimal environmental impacts. The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) has predicted that onshore wind and solar will eventually have the lowest cost of electricity of all the renewable options in Australia leading up to 2030.
Despite this, the wind industry remains highly susceptible to cognitive barriers; the recommendations and proposals of the Senate Committee are likely to exacerbate this.
Australia, like much of the rest of the world, is in the midst of an energy transition. With falling electricity demand and the uptake of household solar panels in just under 1.4 million homes, the most important question is not whether this transition is happening, but how we manage it to maximise the benefit to all Australians.
Community energy is one of the answers. Community energy projects are those in which a community comes together to develop, deliver and benefit from sustainable energy. They can involve energy supply projects such as renewable energy installations and storage, and energy reduction projects such as energy efficiency and demand management. Community energy can even include community-based approaches to selling or distributing energy.
Community energy projects allow individuals to be involved in clean energy beyond the bounds of their own homes or businesses and in so doing bring a range of benefits and opportunities for their household and for the wider community.
Community energy has and continues to underpin the energy transition in countries like Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom and even the United States. The first modern wind turbine – Tvindkraft – was literally built by a community in Denmark in 1978.
In Germany, 47% of the installed capacity is owned by citizens and communities while in Scotland there are now 249 community energy projects.
Here in Australia, while the community energy sector is still new, a recent baseline assessment found that there are now 19 operating community energy projects, which have as of the end of 2014 generated 50,000 megawatt-hours of clean energy – enough to power more than 9,000 homes. The community energy sector has already contributed more than A$23 million in funding for sustainable energy infrastructure.
Some prominent examples of community energy in Australia include:
the international award-winning Hepburn Wind in Victoria – Australia’s first community wind farm;
Denmark Community Wind in Western Australia – Australia’s second community wind farm;
Repower Shoalhaven – a community-owned 100-kilowatt solar array on the Shoalhaven Heads bowling club on the New South Wales south coast;
Darebin Solar Savers in Melbourne – a project that saw the Moreland Energy Foundation put solar on the roofs of 300 pensioners, who use the savings to pay back the cost of the system through their council rates;
several donation-funded community solar projects on community buildings across Victoria, NSW and South Australia.
Starting with solar
There are more than 60 groups across every state and territory in Australia developing community energy projects. The most popular are community solar projects.
While it’s clear that Australians love solar, there are more structural reasons why communities are starting with community solar projects.
Firstly, solar’s “scalability” means it can be easily tailored to a community’s energy needs. Groups can start with small projects and build their capacity and know-how.
Secondly, Australia has high retail electricity prices and low wholesale electricity prices. This means that business models such as community solar tend to stack up much better if they can reduce energy consumed at the meter, rather than competing with large coal-fired power generators in the wholesale market.
Indeed, the Coalition for Community Energy has recently released a guide to “behind the meter” models of community solar.
However, while many communities are starting with solar, many have more lofty ambitions, including the Zero Net Energy Town project in Uralla, NSW, the 100% Renewable Yackandandah initiative in Victoria, community bioenergy projects in Cowra and northern NSW, and many more.
This ambition and the potential of community energy in Australia led the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to fund the development of a National Community Energy Strategy, led by the Institute of Sustainable Futures at University of Technology, Sydney. This outlines a range of initiatives that are needed to grow the community energy sector in Australia and maximise the potential benefit of the energy transition to all communities.
Community energy projects are disruptive business models with financial and social value. The motivations for community energy are many and varied including wanting to act on climate change, wanting to reduce the amount of money that goes out of a community in power bills, and increasing social capital and community resilience.
We are starting to see the rise of community entrepreneurs innovating and developing new models, and in doing so reshaping the future of energy in their communities. With the support mechanisms outlined in the National Strategy, there is no reason that Australia can’t follow in the footsteps of other countries, to allow all communities across Australia to benefit socially and financially from the energy transition.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week issued a “proposed finding” that greenhouses gases from aviation pose a danger to the health and welfare of current and future generations. It could pave the way for regulations to limit domestic US aircraft emissions – but there are plenty of hurdles still to jump before that happens.
The EPA already regulates aircraft pollution such as engine smoke, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide – and has done so for more than 30 years. So on the face of it, its new finding that greenhouse gases “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare” makes it sound like it will be a straightforward matter to add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the list.
Using the EPA to rule on emissions-reduction issues is a tactic that the Obama administration has used several times recently. The new finding on aviation follows similar reports on emissions from road haulage
and power plants.
Aviation is the most emissions-intensive form of transport, and also the fastest-growing source of emissions in the transport sector. What’s more, those emissions are essentially unregulated. This means that emissions from aviation are increasing against a background of decreasing emissions (or at least, against a background of emissions regulation) from many other industry sectors.
Based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculations, aviation accounts for about 3% of global greenhouse emissions, although the figure could be as low as 2% or as high as 8%. If the aviation industry was a country, its carbon dioxide emissions would be ranked about 7th, between Germany and South Korea.
Air travel continues to grow at 4-5% per year, and although emissions from domestic flights are regulated under many countries’ existing greenhouse gas targets, international aviation emissions are not covered by any agreement.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, emissions from international flights are the responsibility of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Aviation is excluded from international climate policy; the problem is left to the industry to resolve, and none of the more than 3,500 bilateral air service agreements in place across the world addresses the question of emissions.
A UK study found that even if the expanding industry were to implement the “maximum feasible reductions” in emissions through changes to technology and operating procedures, total emissions from the sector may still roughly double by 2050, depending on growth.
Learning from Europe’s aviation debacle
The new US regulations will not attempt to include overseas airlines in its regulatory reach – something the European Union tried and failed when it attempted to incorporate overseas airlines into its Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012.
To head off that action, the US Congress in 2011 passed legislation, which President Obama signed, prohibiting US aircraft operators from participating in the EU scheme, essentially making it illegal for US airlines to comply with EU law.
The result was that the EU backed down, and announced that it would freeze the inclusion of international aviation in its ETS, offering instead to “stop the clock” and allow the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to address the problem of regulation.
This time around, the US regulations would apply to private and scheduled flights on domestic routes, as well as international flights by US carriers, but not to non-US airlines flying routes into the United States.
This may sound like progress, particularly for a country with such a large domestic aviation market. But there is yet another reason why this is only progress on paper, for now.
I’ll do it if you do it
The US EPA has stated that its proposed regulations will only be implemented if international standards for emissions are agreed by ICAO. That’s a problem, because since 1997 the ICAO has failed to agree on any kind of solid approach to the issue.
In 2013, the ICAO Assembly reached a consensus agreement to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision on a global market-based mechanism at the next assembly in 2016, for implementation in 2020. It is the kind of “agreement to agree” that the world is growing rather used to on matters of climate policy.
EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality director Christopher Grundler said that the United States wants to wait until there are international standards, because this “will achieve the most reductions [in emissions]”. And Airlines for America’s Nancy Young has described it as “critical” for the industry that agreement should be international.
On one view, then, this is simply the illusion of progress. It suggests that the US regulations are a long way from coming into force, given that the rest of the world – through the ICAO – is making no real or immediate progress.
The reality is that implementation of rules to hold the aviation industry to account for its emissions is still years away.