With the cost of energy generated from wind and solar now less than coal, the share of Australia’s electricity coming from renewables has reached 23%. The federal government projects the share will reach 50% by 2030.
It is at this point that integrating renewables into the energy system becomes more costly.
We can add wind and solar farms at little extra cost when their share is low and other sources – such as coal and gas generators now – can compensate for their variability. At a certain point, however, there comes a need to invest in supporting infrastructure to ensure supply from mostly renewable generation can meet demand.
But by 2030, even with these extra costs, adding new variable renewable generation (solar and wind) to as high as a 90% share of the grid will still be cheaper than non-renewable options, according to new estimates from the CSIRO and Australian Energy Market Operator.
Calculating energy costs
International research, including from the International Renewable Energy Agency, suggests solar and wind power are now the cheapest new sources of electricity in most parts of the world.
Our estimates, made for the third annual “GenCost” report (short for generation cost), confirm this is also now the case in Australia.
We compare the cost of new-build coal, gas, solar photovoltaics (both small and large scale), solar-thermal, wind and a number of speculative options (such as nuclear).
What we’ve been able to more accurately estimate in the new report is the cost of integrating more and more renewable energy into the energy system, as coal and gas generators are retired.
The two key extra integration costs are energy storage and more transmission lines.
For any system dominated by renewables, storing energy is essential.
Storage means renewable energy can be saved when it is overproducing relative to demand – for example, in the middle of the day for solar, or during extended windy conditions. Stored energy can then be used when renewables cannot meet demand – such as overcast days or at night for solar.
Among options being considered for large-scale investment in Australia are batteries and pumped hydro energy storage (using excess renewable power to pump water back up to dams to again drive hydroelectric turbines).
Pumped hydro sites can provide storage for hours or days. There are three schemes in Australia: Talbingo and Shoalhaven in New South Wales, and Wivenhoe near Brisbane.
Battery costs have been falling steadily and tend to be most competitive for storage electricity for less than eight hours. South Australia’s big battery (officially known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve) is the most obvious example.
The other key cost to integrate more renewable energy generation into the electricity grid is building more transmission lines. Right now those lines mostly run from coal and gas power stations near coal mines.
But this not where new large-scale renewable generation will be. Solar farms are best placed inland, where there is less cloud cover, and in the mid to northern regions of Australia. Wind farms are generally better located in elevated areas and in the southern regions. We’ll need to build new transmission links to these “renewable energy zones”.
Transmission links between the states in the National Electricity Market (Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia) will need to be improved so they can better support each other if one or more are experiencing low renewable energy output.
Total integration costs
So how much extra will it cost for Australia to have a higher share (up to 90%) of electricity from wind and solar (variable renewable energy)? The following graph summarises our findings based on 2030 cost projections.
The cost of generating energy from wind and solar (shown in light blue) is about A$40 per megawatt-hour (MWh). This is is slightly below current average market prices.
A higher share of renewable energy adds storage costs (in black) and transmission costs (grey and dark blue). These integration costs increase from A$4/MWh to A$20/MWh as the variable renewable energy share increases from 50% to 90%.
At 90% renewable energy, the total cost is A$63/MWh. But that’s still cheaper than the cost of new coal and gas-fired electricity generation, which is in the range of A$70 to A$90/MWh (under ideal assumptions of low fuel pricing and no climate policy risk).
The 2020-21 GenCost report is now in the formal consultation period with stakeholders including industry, government, regulators and academia. The final report is due to be published in March 2021.
Tom Morton, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, University of Technology Sydney
With up to 226 wind turbines in state-owned pine plantations, the 1,200 megawatt Forest Wind project could power one in four Queensland homes and help the state meet its target of 50% renewable-generated electricity by 2030.
The turbines will be a minimum of three kilometres from the nearest town. Because they’re sited in an exotic pine plantation, impacts on native flora, fauna, and habitats will be minimised. At first sight, Forest Wind looks like a model project. But look a little closer, and Forest Wind embodies many of the contradictions at the heart of Australia’s renewable energy revolution.
The current pace of Australia’s energy transition is breathtaking. But big projects like Forest Wind need to take local communities with them, and build a social licence for the energy transition from the ground up.
A community ‘kept in the dark’
As our research in the German state of Brandenburg shows, building towers 160 metres high – that’s higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge – anywhere near settlements tends to lead to community opposition and lengthy delays.
Affected communities are much more likely to accept a massive wind farm on their doorstep if they feel they’ve been listened to by project developers, and can see clear benefits.
The three-kilometre “exclusion zone” for Forest Wind is twice the 1,500 metre minimum distance from settlements required under Queensland law. And project developers argue its location amid dense pine trees will provide “a natural buffer between Forest Wind and local residences”.
But local residents told a parliamentary committee in June they’d been kept in the dark about the project, claiming “it was kept secret from 2016 until the public announcement in December 2019”. They also expressed concern about its visual impact and proximity to bird migration corridors.
The developers and the state government seem to have followed the well-known and widely criticised “DAD” approach: Decide, Announce, Defend.
“DAD” may be common in current planning processes, but the people of the nearby Wide Bay community may feel that, so far, there’s not enough in it for them.
The Conversation contacted Forest Wind Holdings for a response to this article. A spokesperson said the project will provide the local community a long and ongoing opportunity to continually provide input.
Forest Wind is pleased to have received feedback from hundreds of people so far including at information days, online forums, letters and over the phone. […] Since the project’s announcement, COVID-19 has certainly impacted community consultation activities, as local halls have been closed and a planned wind farm tour has had to be cancelled.
Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, Forest Wind is establishing a Community Reference Group […] Forest Wind intends to work closely through the Community Reference Group to continue to understand the needs and interests of the local community and work in a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach to address community concerns and develop initiatives that leverage the Project and deliver community benefits.
Few community benefits
The Forest Wind website lists no concrete community benefits, no benefit sharing programs, concrete training or education initiatives, and hardly any community engagement besides standard consultation meetings and newsletters.
Elsewhere it’s becoming common for government-led renewable energy auctions to stipulate socio-economic objectives other than just capacity or price. In Victoria, one preference was to use labour and components from the state. In the ACT, one outcome was wider benefit sharing in the form of community co-investment.
The Queensland government has fast-tracked Forest Wind through its Exclusive Transactions Framework, which gives preferential treatment to large-scale infrastructure projects. In other words, it’s picked a winner.
Forest Wind Holdings did not have to go through a competitive tender or auction process. Given the sheer size of the project, the state government had plenty of scope to negotiate better-than-average benefits for Wide Bay and the state.
Then there’s a further issue: jobs. According to the project website, 50% of the jobs in the construction phase (around 200) and 90% during operations (about 50) can be filled by people in the Wide Bay region.
A Forest Wind spokesperson said there are “vast benefits” for the local people in Wide Bay, including job opportunities in the concrete and construction sector.
These are all real jobs, for which on-the-job training and on-the-job management and mentoring can benefit workers to skill-up in working on Forest Wind, on future wind farms, and increase the opportunity to apply skills and qualifications in other areas of the economy.
Forest Wind was originated by local Queenslanders and the development team are based in this local area of Queensland. Already there are real local jobs, with more local jobs to come as the project develops – this is a positive.
But local communities need to see more lasting job creation from big renewable projects, not just “the circus coming to town”.
Consulting with native title holders
One clearly innovative aspect of Forest Wind is the requirement for an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which provides negotiation rights for titleholders and compensation. Under legislation passed this week, the developer must negotiate a land use agreement where native title exists, and “the project cannot proceed without the free and informed consent of these individuals and communities”.
Part of Forest Wind is located on native title lands held by the Butchulla People, whose native title is well-established. Another part is on the land of the Kabi Kabi people, whose native title claim is pending. Forest Wind states it is consulting with native title holders and looks forward to partnerships with them.
In contrast, last year the Queensland government extinguished native title over land in the Galilee Basin to make way for the Adani coal mine.
So let’s be clear: we should applaud Queensland’s decision to throw its weight behind the energy transition.
A recent report estimates that, with the right stimulus measures now, by 2030 there could be 13,000 Queenslanders working long-term in the renewable sector, and tens of thousands more short term jobs in construction.
Some 75% of those jobs would be in regional Queensland. The challenge is to ensure enough of them go to regions like Wide Bay.
And at a national level, Australia should look to Germany as a model.
Community energy projects
Germany built its energy transition over 30 years. The German experience shows how fostering citizen involvement and ownership will strengthen long-term social acceptance for renewable energy.
This means encouraging community energy, energy cooperatives, community owned retailers or community-based Virtual Power Plants. Community energy projects are estimated to have higher employment impacts and can better prioritise local contractors than corporate-led projects.
A greater focus on energy democracy would build a stronger foundation for the energy transition Australia has to have.
Tom Morton, Associate Professor, Journalism, Stream Leader, Climate Justice Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, Professor in Political Sociology, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney
The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is suing four of the wind farms involved in the 2016 South Australian blackout – run by AGL Energy, Neoen Australia, Pacific Hydro, and Tilt Renewables – alleging they breached generator performance standards and the national electricity rules.
These proceedings appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2018 report which said while the AER had found some “administrative non-compliance”, it did not intend to take formal action given the “unprecedented circumstances”.
However the AER has since said this report focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the blackout, not the event itself. The case hinges on whether the wind farms failed to provide crucial information during the blackout which hindered recovery.
In particular, the AER is arguing the software protecting the wind farms should have been able to cope with voltage disturbances and provide continuous energy supply. On the face of it, however, this will be extremely difficult to prove.
Rehashing the 2016 blackout
The 2016 South Australian blackout was triggered by a severe storm that hit the state on September 28. Tornadoes with wind speeds up to 260 km/h raced through SA, and a single-circuit 275-kilovolt transmission line was struck down.
After this, 170km away, a double-circuit 275kV transmission line was lost. This transmission damage caused the lines to trip and a series of subsequent faults resulted in six voltage dips on the South Australian grid at 4.16pm.
As the faults escalated, eight wind farms in SA had their protection settings activated. This allowed them to withstand the voltage dip by automatically reducing power. Over a period of 7 seconds, 456 megawatts of power was removed. This reduction caused an increase in power to flow through the Heywood interconnector. This in turn triggered a protection mechanism for the interconnecter that tripped it offline.
Once this happened, SA became separated from the rest of the National Energy Market (NEM), leaving far too little power to meet demand and blacking out 850,000 homes and businesses. A 2017 report found once SA was separated from the NEM, the blackout was “inevitable”.
What went wrong at the wind farms?
The question then becomes, is there any action the wind farms could reasonably have taken to stay online, thus preventing the overloading of the Heywood interconnector?
The regulator is arguing the operators should have let the market operator know they could not handle the disruption caused by the storms, so the operator could make the best decisions to keep the grid functioning.
Wind farms, like all energy generators in Australia, have a legal requirement to meet specific performance standards. If they fall short in a way that can materially harm energy security, they have a further duty to inform the operator immediately, with a plan to remedy the problem.
To determine whether a generator has complied with these risk management standards, a range of factors are considered. These include:
- the technology of the plant,
- whether its performance is likely to drift or degrade over a particular time frame,
- experience with the particular generation technology,
- the connection point arrangement that is in place. A generator will have an arrangement with a transmission network service provider (TNSP) that operates the networks that carry electricity between generators and distribution networks. TNSP’s advise the NEM of the capacity of their transmission assets so that they can be operated without being overloaded.
- the risk and costs of different testing methods given the relative size of the plant.
Plenty of blame to go around
The series of events leading up to the 2016 blackout was extremely difficult to anticipate. There were many factors, and arguably all participants were involved in different ways.
The Heywood interconnector was running at full capacity at the time, so any overload may have triggered its protective mechanism.
The transmission lines were damaged by an unprecedented 263 lightning strikes in five minutes.
The market operator itself did not adopt precautionary measures such as reducing the load on the interconnector, or providing a clearer warning to electricity generators.
Bearing this in mind, the federal court will be asked to determine whether the wind farms complied with their generator performance standards and if not, whether this breach had a “material adverse effect” on power security.
This will be difficult to prove, because even if the generator standards require the wind farms to evaluate the point at which their protective triggers activated, it is unlikely the number of faults, the severity of the voltage dip, and the impact of the increased power flow on the Heywood interconnector could have been anticipated.
The idea AEMO could have prevented the blackout if the wind farms had alerted it to the disruptive potential of their protective triggers is probably a little remote.
None of the participants could have foreseen the series of interconnected events leading to the blackout. Whilst lessons can be learned, laying blame is more complex. And while compliance with standards and rules is important, in this instance, it is unlikely that it would have changed the outcome.
Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown made headlines this week after he objected to a proposed wind farm on Tasmania’s Robbins Island. The development would see 200 towers built, each standing 270 metres from base to the tip of their blades.
Leaving aside the question of the Robbins Island development, these will be extraordinarily tall towers. However, they fit right in with the current trend for wind turbines.
Wind turbines come in many designs, but the most common is the so-called “horizontal axis” kind, which look like giant fans on poles. This type of turbine is highly efficient at turning the energy in the wind into electrical energy.
Keen observers will have noticed that these turbines have been gaining in size over the years. In the 1990s, wind turbines typically had hub heights and rotor diameters of the order of 30m. Today, hub heights and rotor diameters are pushing well past 100m.
Bigger is better
When it comes to wind turbines, bigger is definitely better. The bigger the radius of the rotor blades (or diameter of the “rotor disc”), the more wind the blades can use to turn into torque that drives the electrical generators in the hub. More torque means more power. Increasing the diameter means that not only more power can be extracted, but it can be done so more efficiently.
Larger and longer turbine blades mean greater aerodynamic efficiency. Creating more power in one turbine means less energy is lost as it is moved into the transmission system, and from there into the electrical generator. The economies of scale provide an overwhelming push for wind energy companies to develop larger rotor blades.
Wind turbines are also growing taller because of the way wind travels around the world. Because air is viscous (like very thin honey) and “sticks” to the ground, the wind velocity at higher altitudes can be many times higher than at ground level.
Hence it is advantageous to put the turbine high in the sky where there is more energy to extract. Hilly terrain (like a mountain ridge) may also distort the wind, requiring engineers to design the wind turbines to be even taller to catch the wind. Wind turbines used offshore are generally larger and taller because of the higher levels of wind energy available at sea.
Typically, onshore turbines (most common in Australia) have blades between 40m and 90m long. Tower heights are usually in the range of 150m. Offshore turbines (those situated at sea and common in Europe) are much larger.
One of the largest wind turbine designs in the world, General Electric’s offshore 12-megawatt Haliade-X, has 107m blades and a total height of 260m. As a comparison, Sydney’s Centrepoint tower is 309m tall.
If the Robbins Island turbines are indeed built to 270m, as reported in the media, they would eclipse General Electric’s behemoths. I cannot speak to the likelihood of this, but I would assume engineers will have to select the best turbine for the prevailing wind conditions and existing infrastructure.
The quest for bigger and taller turbines comes with its fair share of engineering challenges.
Longer blades are more flexible than shorter ones, which can create vibration. If not controlled, this vibration affects performance and reduces the life of the blades and anything they are attached to, such as the gearbox or generator.
Materials and manufacturing techniques are constantly being refined to create longer, and longer-lasting, turbine blades.
Taller turbines generate more power, which puts greater loads on the gearbox and transmission system, requiring mechanical engineers to develop new ways of converting the ever-increasing torque into electrical power. Taller wind turbines also need stronger support towers and foundations. The list of challenges is long.
As turbines grow, so too does the noise they make. The dominant source of noise occurs at the outer edge of the blades. Here, turbulence caused by the blade itself creates a “hissing” sound as it passes over the trailing edge. More noise is created when the blade chops through atmospheric turbulence in the wind as it blows into the tower.
Noise isn’t just a matter of size. If one turbine is placed in the wake of another, the sound of its blades passing through the highly turbulent air created by the upstream turbine will be very loud.
Keeping noise under control requires inventive solutions, such as borrowing ideas from nature: the silent-flying owl uses serrated feathers to control noise and these are now being used to make noisy turbines quieter.
Of course, engineering challenges are not the only considerations for creating wind farms. Environmental effects, noise, visual impacts and other community concerns all need to be considered, as with any large infrastructure project. But wind turbines are one of the most cost-effective and technologically sophisticated forms of renewable energy, and as the developed world comes to grips with climate change we will only see more of them.
The link below is to an article reporting on the approval of Australia’s largest wind farm in Queensland.
People who oppose wind farms often claim wind turbine blades kill large numbers of birds, often referring to them as “bird choppers”. And claims of dangers to iconic or rare birds, especially raptors, have attracted a lot of attention.
Wind turbine blades do indeed kill birds and bats, but their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low, as these three studies show.
A 2009 study using US and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind, fossil fuel and nuclear power systems.
wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fuelled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh.
That’s nearly 15 times more. From this, the author estimated:
wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fuelled power plants 14.5 million.
In other words, for every one bird killed by a wind turbine, nuclear and fossil fuel powered plants killed 2,118 birds.
A Spanish study involved daily inspections of the ground around 20 wind farms with 252 turbines from 2005 to 2008. It found 596 dead birds.
The turbines in the sample had been working for different times during the study period (between 11 and 34 months), with the average annual number of fatalities per turbine being just 1.33. The authors noted this was one of the highest collision rates reported in the world research literature.
Raptor collisions accounted for 36% of total bird deaths (214 deaths), most of which were griffon vultures (138 birds, 23% of total mortality). The study area was in the southernmost area of Spain near Gibraltar, which is a migratory zone for birds from Morocco into Spain.
Perhaps the most comprehensive report was published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology in 2013 by scientists from Canada’s Environment Canada, Wildlife Research Division.
Their report looked at causes of human-related bird deaths for all of Canada, drawing together data from many diverse sources.
The table below shows selected causes of bird death out of an annual total of 186,429,553 estimated deaths caused by human activity.
Mark Duchamp, the president of Save the Eagles International is probably the most prominent person to speak out about bird deaths at wind farms. He says:
The average per turbine comes down to 333 to 1,000 deaths annually which is a far cry from the 2-4 birds claimed by the American wind industry or the 400,000 birds a year estimated by the American Bird Conservancy for the whole of the United States, which has about twice as many turbines as Spain.
Such claims from wind farm critics generally allude to massive national conspiracies to cover up the true size of the deaths.
And in Australia?
In Australia in 2006 a proposal for a 52-turbine wind farm plan on Victoria’s south-east coast at Bald Hills (now completed) was overruled by the then federal environment minister Ian Campbell.
He cited concerns about the future of the endangered orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), a migratory bird said to be at risk of extinction within 50 years. The Tarwin Valley Coastal Guardians, an anti wind farm group that had been opposing the proposed development.
Interest groups have regularly cited this endangered bird when trying to halt a range of developments.
These include a chemical storage facility and a boating marina. The proposed Westernport marina in Victoria happened to also be near an important wetland. But a professor in biodiversity and sustainability wrote:
the parrot copped the blame, even though it had not been seen there for 25 years.
Victoria’s planning minister at the time, Rob Hulls, described the Bald Hills decision as blatantly political, arguing the federal conservative government had been lobbied by fossil fuel interests to curtail renewable energy developments. Hulls said there had been:
some historical sightings, and also some potential foraging sites between 10 and 35 kilometres from the Bald Hills wind farm site that may or may not have been used by the orange-bellied parrot.
Perhaps the final word on this topic should go to the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It built a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire headquarters to reduce its carbon emissions (and in doing so, aims to minimise species loss due to climate change). It recognised that wind power is far more beneficial to birds than it is harmful.
Simon Chapman and Fiona Crichton’s book, Wind Turbine Syndrome: a communicated disease, will be published by Sydney University Press later this year.
Studying the catastrophe that has been Australian climate and energy policy these past 30 years is a thoroughly depressing business. When you read great work by Guy Pearse, Clive Hamilton, Maria Taylor and Phillip Chubb, among others, you find yourself asking “why”?
Why were we so stupid, so unrelentingly shortsighted? Why did the revelation in 2004 that John Howard had called a meeting of big business to help him slow the growth of renewables elicit no more than a shrug? Why did policy-makers attack renewable energy so unrelentingly?
About now, readers will be rolling their eyes and saying either “follow the money, stupid!” or “they are blinded by their marketophilia”. Fair enough, and they have a point.
My recently published paper, titled “Wind beneath their contempt: why Australian policymakers oppose solar and wind energy”
outlines the hostility to renewables from people like former treasurer Joe Hockey, who found the wind turbines around Canberra’s Lake George “utterly offensive”, and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who funded studies into the “potential health impacts” of wind farms.
It also deals with the policy-go-round that led to a drop in investment in renewables.
In a search for explanations for this, my paper looks at what we academics call “material factors”, such as party donations, post-career jobs, blame avoidance, diminished government capacity to act, and active disinformation by incumbents.
I then turn to ideological factors such as neoliberalism, the “growth at all costs” mindset, and of course climate denial.
Where it gets fun – and possibly controversial – is when I turn to psychological explanations such as what the sociologist Karl Mannheim called “the problem of generations”. This is best explained by a Douglas Adams quote:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Over the past 50 years, white heterosexual middle-class males with engineering backgrounds have felt this pattern particularly keenly, as their world has shifted and changed around them. To quote my own research paper:
This loss of the promise of control over nature occurred – by coincidence – at the same time that the British empire disintegrated, and the US empire met its match in the jungles of Vietnam, and while feminism, civil rights and gay rights all sprang up. What scholars of the Anthropocene have come to call the “Great Acceleration” from the 1950s, was followed by the great (and still incomplete) democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s.
The rising popularity of solar panels represents a similar pattern of democratisation, and associated loss of control for those with a vested interest in conventional power generation, which would presumably be particularly threatening to those attracted to status, power and hierarchy.
Consider the cringe
Here are a couple more ideas and explanations that didn’t make the cut when I wrote the research paper. First up is the “biological cringe” – analogous to the “cultural cringe”, the self-loathing Australian assumption that all things British were better.
In Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, the historian Tom Griffiths notes that:
Acclimatization societies systematically imported species that were regarded as useful, aesthetic or respectably wild to fill the perceived gaps in primitive Australian nature. This “biological cringe” was remarkably persistent and even informed twentieth-century preservation movements, when people came to feel that the remnants of the relic fauna, flora and peoples, genetically unable to fend for themselves, should be “saved”.
Second, and related, is the contempt and hatred that settler colonialists can feel towards wilderness, which in turn morphs into the ideology that there should be no limits on expansion and growth.
This means that people who speak of limits are inevitably attacked. One good example is Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), an Australian scientist who fell foul of the boosters who believed the country could and should support up to 500 million people.
Having seen his textbook banned in Western Australia for using the words “arid” and “desert”, Taylor set sail for the United States. At his farewell banquet at University of Sydney, he reinterpreted its motto Sidere mens eadem mutate (“The same spirit under a different sky”), as “Though the heavens fall I am of the same mind as my great-great-grandfather!”
I am anticipating that at least four groups will object to my speculations:
(vulgar) Marxists, for whom everything is about profits; positivists and Popperians, who will mutter about a lack of disprovability; deniers of climate science, who often don’t like being described as such; and finally, those who argue that renewables cannot possibly provide the energy return on investment required to run a modern industrial economy (who may or may not be right – we are about to find out).
Reader, of whatever category, what do you think?
National Wind Farm Commissioner, Andrew Dyer, has just released his much anticipated first annual report.
In its first year of operation until the end of 2016, the National Wind Farm Commissioner says his office received:
46 complaints relating to nine operating wind farms (there were 76 operational wind farms in Australian in 2015)
42 complaints relating to 19 proposed wind farms
two complaints that did not specify a wind farm.
The commissioner’s office closed 67 or these 90 complaints, with the remaining 23 complaints still in process.
Of the 67 now-closed complaints, the office closed 31 because the complainant did not progress their complaint. This suggests these complaints were minor.
The office closed the file on another 32 after it sent complainants more information about their complaints.
This leaves only four, which the report describes two as being settled after negotiations between the parties, and two given the ambiguous category of “other”.
These figures are frankly astonishing.
The complaint investigating mechanism was set up after a Senate enquiry report that cost undisclosed millions to deal with a “massive” problem with wind turbines.
But the hordes of people who apparently needed a way to help them resolve matters have now gone shy.
Chair of the Senate Committee on Wind Turbines was ex-Senator John Madigan, a public critic of wind farms.
Other members who signed off on the senate inquiry report included Senator Nick Xenophon, another long-time critic.
Complaints vs complainants
The National Wind Farm Commissioner’s first annual report avoids two key issues.
First, it doesn’t mention how many complainants made the 90 complaints. The anti-wind farm “movement” in Australia is often busy plaguing politicians and the few supportive media outlets that give it time.
One woman from Victoria often sends out emails to well over 100 politicians and journalists. Others join her to try to demonise wind turbines. Those in this small group appear again and again as submission authors to what have now been three senate enquires and two state government enquiries.
This phenomenon is well known in government circles. In the last three months of 2016, just 10 people submitted half of Heathrow Airport’s 25,000 noise complaints.
The second omission from the annual report is any mention of its budget or expenditure. The Office of the National Wind Farm Commissioner is independent and has its own website. But unless I missed it, there are no budget or expenditure figures in either the annual report nor the website. Is this a first for an annual report?
We know that commissioner Andrew Dyer gets A$205,000 a year for his part-time role, on a three year contract. With the numbers we now have about the low number of complaints, this sounds like a tough gig. But what about the staff and office costs, which are nowhere to be found.
No complaints in Western Australia and Tasmania
As I reported in my 2013 peer reviewed report into wind farm complaints, there were no records of complaints for Western Australia and Tasmania.
Of the total complaints about operational or planned wind farms, 40 came from Victoria, and 23 from each of South Australia and New South Wales. Just two complaints were received from Queensland about planned farms.
Our study found records of only 129 people who had ever complained about wind farms since the first one was built in Western Australia in the 1980s.
Three years later, after the door is left open for complaints, a mere 90 are received from an unknown number of individuals.
Wind turbines and sickness?
This is all very awkward for those who argue wind turbines cause illness. How is it that if wind farms are a direct cause of illness, that 67 wind farms around the country (88%) saw not one complaint, about health or anything else across a whole year?
The stock answer given here by wind farm opponents is that wind farm illness is like sea sickness: only a few get it. So in the whole of two states, and across 88% of wind farms, there’s apparently no-one with susceptibility to wind farm illness.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who described wind farms as “ugly”, “noisy” and “visually awful”, threw the senate committee a giant political bone.
The committee, and the Office of the Wind Farm Commissioner, put up their “we’re open” shingle and invited the alleged throngs of suffering rural residents to air their problems.
This annual report shows very few did, and the great majority of “complaints” dissolved by being sent information.
This sorry episode in appeasing the wind farm obsessions of a tiny number of cross-bench senators needs to have its time called, fast.
Last week, Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones lambasted those concerned about climate change and what he called “renewable energy rubbish”.
Jones has been loose with the facts in the past, having been Factchecked in 2015 after confusing kilowatts with megawatts and quoting a cost for wind power he later confessed “where the 1502 [dollars per megawatt hour that he stated] comes from, I have absolutely no idea”.
Jones, who chaired the much hyped but poorly attended 2013 national rally against wind farms in June 2014 (see photo) told his listeners last week wind farms are “buggering up people’s health”.
He also said “harrowing evidence” had been given by sufferers to the 2014-15 Senate Select Committee on Wind Farms chaired by (now ex-) Senator John Madigan. He along with Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Chris Back and Nick Xenophon have been vocal opponents of wind farms.
Jones then went on to interview Dr Mariana Alves-Periera, from the private Lusophona University in Portugal (world university ranking 1,805, and impact ranking 2,848) whom he described as a distinguished international figure.
She was “recognized internationally” and had published “over 50” scientific papers over 30 years, something of a modest output. Jones, who may or may not have read any of these publications, told listeners her findings were “indisputable”, there was “no opposing scientific evidence” and again in emphasis, “none of [her papers] have been disputed” to which Alves-Periera agreed instantly “no they haven’t”.
This is an interesting interpretation of the scientific reception that has greeted the work of the Lisbon group on the unrecognized diagnosis of “vibroacoustic disease” (or VAD), a term they have made their own.
I first encountered Alves-Periera when she spoke via videoconference to a NHMRC meeting on wind farms and health in 2011. She spoke to a powerpoint presentation which highlighted the case of a schoolboy who lived near wind turbines. Her claim was the boy’s problems at school were due to his exposure to the turbines, as were cases of “boxy foot” in several horses kept on the same property.
Intrigued by this n=1 case report, I set out with a colleague to explore the scientific reception that “vibroacoustic disease” had met. We published our findings in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2013.
We found only 35 research papers on VAD. None reported any association between VAD and wind turbines. Of the 35 papers, 34 had a first author from the Lusophona University-based research group. Remarkably, 74% of citations to these papers were self-citations by members of the group.
In other words, just shy of three quarters of all references to VAD were from the group who were promoting the “disease”. In science, median self-citation rates are around 7%. We found two unpublished case reports from the group presented at conferences which asserted that VAD was “irrefutably demonstrated” to be caused by wind turbines. We listed eight reasons why the scientific quality of these claims were abject.
In 2014 Alves-Periera and a colleague defended their work in a letter to the journal and I replied. They described themselves as the “lead researchers in vibroacoustic disease”. But as we had shown, they are almost the only researchers who were ever active on this topic, with self-citation rates seldom seen in research.
Other experts have taken a different view of the group’s work. One of the world’s leading acousticians Geoff Leventhall who also spoke at the NHMRC’s 2011 meeting, wrote in a 2009 submission to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin about the Lisbon group’s VAD work.
The evidence which has been offered [by them] is so weak that a prudent researcher would not have made it public.
Another expert said:
vibroacoustic disease remains an unproven theory belonging to a small group of authors and has not found acceptance in the medical literature
And most recently, the UK’s Health Protection Agency said the:
disease itself has not gained clinical recognition.
Leventhall concluded his review by saying:
One is left with a very uncomfortable feeling that the work of the VAD group, as related to the effects of low levels of infrasound and low frequency noise exposure, is on an extremely shaky basis and not yet ready for dissemination. The work has been severely criticised when it has been presented at conferences. It is not backed by peer reviewed publications and is available only as conference papers which have not been independently evaluated prior to presentation.
Jones told his listeners the reason wind turbines are not installed on Bondi Beach, down Sydney’s Macquarie Street or Melbourne’s Collins Street was because governments “know they are harmful to health”. His beguiling logic here might perhaps also be the same reason we don’t see these iconic locations given over to mining or daily rock concerts. Most people would understand there are other factors that explain the absence of both wind turbines, mines or daily rock concerts in such locations.
Around the Macarthur wind farm, residents suffer from infrasound emitted by the turbines, even when they’re not operating.
At a time when we are seeing unparalleled increases in renewable energy and reductions in fossil fuels all over the world, one wonders why this is still public discussion in Australia.