Turbulent Times Ahead For Renewables


Just how anti-renewable energy is the Coalition? That's the question the multi-billion dollar Australian wind industry is asking this week, after reports that Liberal energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane is considering crippling new regulations for wind farms should the Coalition win government in 14 September.

The report, from The Guardian's Lenore Taylor, tells of a Coalition proposal to require “real-time noise monitoring” on all existing wind farms.

The noise monitors would presumably transmit information to a website so local residents could check on turbine noise levels, to ensure they are meeting current regulatory standards. “If we have real-time noise monitoring and a resident sees that a wind farm appears to be exceeding its noise levels, the company will have time to do calculations and show whether the noise came from the turbines or other factors,” Macfarlane told Lenore Taylor. “If we don’t do this my concern is that the issues around wind farms have the potential to escalate into a community divide similar to coal seam gas.”

The new regulation, which Macfarlane apparently also plans to push for in a private member's bill to federal Parliament, appears designed to assuage concern from Australia's small but vocal anti-wind movement, which has well-documented links to Liberal Party power brokers and fossil fuel interests. The anti-wind campaign has recently focussed much of its energy against Coalition politicians, via its well-funded and anonymously organised Stop These Things website.

Forcing wind companies to install real-time monitoring would be costly and potentially damaging to future wind investment, but there's no evidence it would measure what it aims to. The reason is obvious to anyone who has any knowledge of acoustic engineering: measurements taken from moment to moment tell you almost nothing. What matters in measuring industrial noise like a wind turbine is the difference that turbine makes to the ambient noise environment, measured over a period of time.

In fact, noise levels from wind turbines at the nearest houses are generally very low, below 40 decibels in most cases. Last year I visited Waubra, Australia's most controversial wind development to date, to report on wind turbine noise. I was astonished how quiet the turbines were, even standing within 20 metres of the blades. The wind itself was much louder.

There are no known health impacts of wind turbine noise. The available scientific data on the issue overwhelmingly supports the view that wind turbines are safe. So-called “infrasound”, or low-frequency noise, is often cited as a key concern for residents exposed to wind turbine noise. But infrasound levels from turbines are very low: as low as 25 decibels 200 metres away, according to this Clean Energy Council fact sheet (pdf).

The thing is, frequencies that low are inaudible. If infrasound really was making people sick, there'd be an epidemic of illness in our major cities: ordinary urban areas are awash in the stuff. In an interview with Pacific Hydro's Lane Crockett last year, Crockett told New Matilda that Pacific Hydro measured infrasound at a range of locations in urban Adelaide. “We went out and we did measurements around our existing wind farms, the beach, in the Adelaide CBD, next to a gas-fired power station” he said. “And, in fact, the infrasound was lower at the wind farm than at those locations.”

In many ways, it's quite surprising that the Coalition is so critical of the wind industry. Wind is popular, especially in regional Australia, where it's seen as a valuable resource for farmers and regional economies, and a valid part of the energy mix. In April, a ginger group of local businesses and environment groups in western Victoria called on Premier Dennis Napthine to loosen Victoria's highly-restrictive wind regulations; wind is now a major employer in and around the south-west Victorian towns of Portland and Hamilton.

Despite the complaints of the anti-wind activists, wind energy is actually very popular in Australia. In fact, it's much more popular than fossil fuels, even in communities directly affected by wind farms. Polls taken in the last two years show support for wind farms running above 80 per cent. A study undertaken by the CSIRO in New South Wales in 2011 found 81 per cent in favour of wind turbines, while a QDOS survey undertaken for the Clean Energy Energy Council found 82 per cent support in Victoria, 80 per cent in South Australia, and 73 per cent in New South Wales.

And then there's the issue of consistency. Wind is already more heavily regulated in many respects than the fossil fuel industries. In Victoria, for instance, you can't build a wind turbine closer than two kilometres from any house or residence. No such requirement exists for coal mines, coal-carrying railway lines or coal-loading terminals, despite the robust scientific evidence of the negative health effects of coal dust.

So what's driving this renewed threat to wind energy by the Coalition? In a word: ideology. While many Liberal and National politicians are agnostic or even supportive of renewable energy, for some in both parties, the whole philosophy of renewable energy smacks of dangerous sentimentality or green-tinged socialism. Much of the hostility is accompanied by climate science denialism: after all, if you deny the existence of global warming, what's the point of renewable energy in the first place?

The man who will become the chair of the Coalition's proposed business advisory council, Maurice Newman, is perhaps the exemplar of this line of thinking. Newman, a wealthy former business executive who once chaired the Australian Stock Exchange, is a well-known climate sceptic. Last year he penned an op-ed in The Australian (where else?) in which he claimed that “we have seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discredited” and that “a small but powerful group has captured [the ABC], at least on climate change.”

Now Newman is pushing to abolish Australia's most successful climate policy: the Renewable Energy Target, which mandates that 41,000 gigawatt hours of electricity in the national grid must be sourced from renewables by 2020. Newman is also anti-wind. As Lenore Taylor's reports, he apparently hosted a meeting of the Crookwell District Landscape Guardians – a chapter of the broader Australian Landscape Guardians, an anti-wind pressure group – at his southern highlands property on 18 April.

Newman is quoted as saying that “when we look at the experience of Germany, they have not been successful in reducing emissions; when we look at the science it no longer supports the global warming theory and when we look at the health and economic effects of wind farms and the obscene wealth transfer from poor to rich we have to ask: why are we persisting with them? I think it is a crime against the people.”

Most people don't realise it, but the RET has been far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the carbon price so far. It is the RET which has made wind and solar energy competitive at grid prices with brown coal and gas, leading to ongoing drop in fossil fuel emissions from Australia's electricity generators. With the Coalition already committed to rolling back the carbon price, the removal of the RET would remove essentially all price signals in favour of renewable energy in the Australian economy. It would be catastrophic for Australia's renewables sector. Wind investment would almost certainly cease.

In the eastern states, the election of Coalition governments since 2010 has led to widespread policy change that has negatively affected the renewables sector. Solar feed-in tariffs have been wound back, renewable investments have been abandoned, and stringent new regulations have been placed on wind farms. At the same time, these government have moved aggressively to ease planning and regulatory restrictions on fossil fuel industries like coal mining. A Coalition victory in September would most likely lead to similar outcomes. Australia's renewables sector is bracing for turbulent times.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.