Victorians reluctant to embrace wind farms

WIND power is cheaper and less polluting than new coal or gas-fired power stations, yet planning restrictions and health fears have left Victorians reluctant to embrace it. 

But this might all be changing. 

Gwenda Allgood is a no-nonsense councillor, five times a mayor, from Ararat. 

In mid-November she travelled to Seymour to speak about wind farms at a forum on energy .

"We did not have one objection," she told the audience, explaining the benefits of the Challicum Hills wind farm, built in 2003.

"I can only speak as I find: there is no noise from the turbines. I don't know why, but there isn't. And they're our best ratepayer they pay well, they really do."

A local environment group hosted the event .

But there was one key reason for the afternoon's proceedings: the Cherry Tree wind farm with its 16 turbines planned for a nearby ridgeline above the Trawool Valley.

The wind farm, proposed by Infigen Energy, was before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The project had become controversial in late 2012, following a meeting called by anti-wind farm activist group, the Landscape Guardians.

When Cr Allgood finished speaking at the meeting, a man named Gary Morris put his hand up. Sounding nervous, he read from his notes about a survey criticising another wind farm. "I'm just concerned about the noise aspect," he said.

"Instead of getting on the internet, you need to go out and visit them," Cr Allgood replied. "I invite you to Ararat, and I will personally show you around."

Like the rest of the world, Australia urgently needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. New wind turbines are already cheaper than new coal or gas-fired power stations, even without carbon pricing. And yet the forecast for wind power use is remarkably mixed.

In 2009, the South Australian Government set a target for renewables to cover one-third of its energy production by 2020. Already, it has nearly met the mark. Wind power alone now accounts for 27 per cent of that.

But, in Victoria, the industry has stalled. In August 2011 the State Government stiffened its planning rules, giving people who live within two kilometres of wind farms the right to veto, and prohibiting turbines in several regions.

A new report from Victoria's Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, said wind power comprised less than three per cent of the state's electricity generation.

The report strongly criticised the planning restrictions, arguing they discouraged a shift to low-carbon energy, made it more difficult and costly to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and damaged the local economy.

"Many proposals for new wind farms in Victoria have been withdrawn. Lost investment has been estimated at $4 billion and 3000 jobs," the report said, quoting figures from the Clean Energy Council.

A spokesman for federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the

government would commission a study into 'the potential health effects of wind farms', and confirmed that it would go ahead with a scheduled review of the federal renewable energy target, due this year.

Two weeks after the forum in Seymour, VCAT finally approved Cherry Tree. It is now only the second wind farm to win planning permission in Victoria since August 2011. The tribunal said the Victorian and NSW heath departments had expressly stated 'there is no scientific evidence to link wind turbines with adverse health effects', a view backed by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

It rejected the survey evidence of health concerns tendered by anti-wind groups, the Waubra Foundation and the Landscape Guardians.

It had earlier ruled that the visual and noise impacts of the project were acceptable, and that the turbines would not cause problems with bushfire, salinity, erosion, aviation or loss of wildlife habitat.

On the same day, the South Australian Environment Protection Authority released the results of its study of noise from the Waterloo wind farm.

Nearby residents who had previously complained were asked to keep noise diaries; in them, they noted 'rumbling effects' even at times when the turbines had been shut down.

The authority's recordings showed the turbines met local and international standards for both audible and low-frequency sound.

Ketan Joshi, from Infigen, said his company understood that this evidence, and the VCAT decision, would not change everyone's minds: "We're aware that a lot of these concerns don't

magically vanish as soon as you get approval," he said.

The industry really depends on good community engagement. People need to be deeply involved in the development, otherwise you're likely to face opposition."

For Cherry Tree, the company had run two public meetings, as well as stalls at a local festival and toured the Hepburn wind farm.

The anti-wind farm push in Seymour began with a public meeting co-ordinated by the Landscape Guardians.

In response, BEAM, the local environment group, distributed a 'myth-busting' flyer supporting the turbines, together with Friends of the Earth.

"They'd managed to scare the pants off a lot of people," said Leigh Ewbank, from Friends of the Earth.

The 'contemporary health panic' about turbines has drawn the attention of public health academic Professor Simon Chapman, from the University of Sydney. Chapman, who is renowned for his work on tobacco control, has traced the health and noise complaints made about Australia's wind farms.

In a paper published in October, he revealed that only 129 people had complained a tiny proportion of the population who lived near turbines and almost all of them did so after 2009, when critics began publicising the alleged health worries.

There have been no health complaints in Western Australia, which has 13 wind farms.

"The complaints line up with half a dozen wind farms that have been targeted by the anti-wind farm groups. That's the 'nocebo' hypothesis: if you spread anxiety, you're going to get anxiety," he said.

The final speaker at the Seymour forum was Waubra farmer Doug Hobson, who has eight turbines on his property. "The wind turbines have helped underlay what we're doing as a farming community," he said. "It takes the lows out of farming."

He said most of the people of Waubra did not want their town's name associated with the anti-wind farm group, the Waubra Foundation.

"Ninety-five per cent of the people in Waubra are in favour of the wind farm," he said. "Country people don't like change, but it does just become part of the furniture."

The only other wind farm approved in Victoria in more than two years is at Coonooer Bridge, a small farming community north-west of Bendigo. Its story is very different.

The project is being developed by Windlab, a spin-off company from CSIRO founded in 2003. Soon after it began, Windlab identified that the hills near Coonooer Bridge were particularly windy: in fact, their steady, strong winds constituted a renewable resource among the best in the world.

But in 2012, when Windlab began to consider building turbines there, Luke Osborne, the project's director, knew that wind energy was becoming controversial in rural areas.

His team began a series of town hall-style meetings with everyone who owned land nearby, as well as one-on-one conversations, in which they devised the ownership model for the project.

"We said, 'We not only want people living nearby to share in the financial benefits, we also want you to help guide how we do this'," Osborne said.

In less than a year, the five-turbine project had been approved by the local council. It will produce enough electricity to power 11,000 households.

Thirty landholders are shareholders.

The farmers with turbines on their properties agreed to take lower rent, and the company, slightly lower profits;

those returns are shared among the neighbours.

As with many other wind farms, it will donate money to the community in this case $25,000 a year. Everyone within five kilometres of the turbines will get a vote on how it is spent.

Osborne modelled his approach on the research of Dr Nina Hall, from CSIRO, who is studying the idea of 'social licence to operate' for wind farms.

Hall concluded that people's attitudes to the impacts were shaped by the way a project was run.

Ian Olive is one of those people. He has been farming near Coonooer Bridge all his life, continuing the work of his parents and grandparents.

Although he supports renewable energy, Olive expects the turbines, standing on the low mountain range on the south-western horizon, will be 'a stark monstrosity against the natural beauty' of his skyline.

But equally, Olive says, Windlab could not have consulted the community any better: the scheme has created no resentment between neighbours.

He says the company has done a good job in helping the community through its annual fund and the shareholdings for surrounding landowners, including his family.

For Osborne, gaining the trust of families such as the Olives represents the project's biggest triumph.

"We've tried our best to make sure the benefits for the area are real and well understood," he said.

"It's not a silver bullet not everyone wants to live near turbines but for the majority, it has made a difference.

"I'm a big believer in the fairness of this model. I hope what we've done here will help the industry."

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