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Health and economics will unravel wind power

By Max Rheese - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A fortnight ago the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee tabled its long awaited report into the Social and Economic Impacts of Rural Wind Farms, a report which is backgrounded against a log-jam of wind farm applications lodged in haste ahead of recent state elections in Victoria and New South Wales. If approved these applications would see an approximate tripling of turbines in both states.

The senate inquiry was a demonstration of the level of community concern with wind farm assessment procedures as it received 1017 submissions, many more than the average inquiry. The inquiry report noted that 535 (53%) were pro-wind, 468 (46%) against and 14 (1%) were neutral, this is contrary to the repeated claims of the wind industry lobby group, the Clean Energy Council and others that "the vast majority of submissions to the inquiry were positive about wind farms in rural communities."

All seven recommendations of the committee, directly or indirectly, were concerned with noise and adverse health effects, although Committee chair, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert was emphatic in interviews after the report was tabled that the inquiry could not determine a direct link between turbine noise and ill health due to a lack of peer-reviewed evidence. Nor were senators able to discount such a link – for the same reason.


The Australian Environment Foundation agrees there is a lack of peer-reviewed evidence into adverse health effects, which is why it called for a moratorium on wind farm approvals and construction in its inquiry submission to avoid further harm to people in rural communities who are bearing the unwanted impacts of industrial wind farms. This moratorium should remain in effect until peer-reviewed studies and medical research either absolves the wind industry or determines further precautions need to be implemented.

There was no lack of anecdotal evidence or tearful testimony given to senate inquiry hearings by residents who had abandoned – not sold – their homes located near wind farms and walked away. This no doubt had a powerful effect on the senators and is reflected in the recommendations for the federal government to undertake medical research into the effects of wind turbine noise as a priority. Unfortunately existing health concerns were given no such priority over continuing to expedite the burgeoning wind industry.

A peer-reviewed study by two Danish researchers released a few days before the senate report found that larger modern turbines emitted more noise, and importantly, also found they changed the spectrum of low frequency noise. Low frequency noise is the main feature of complaints relating to adverse health effects. The senate report also noted a separate Danish acoustics report that found "the lower frequencies dominate indoors, as here the changes in the lower part of the spectra will be perceived to a higher degree than outdoors".

The significance of these peer-reviewed findings is threefold, firstly, recognition that the enormous 150 metre turbines now used emit lower frequency noise than was known previously, with a larger noise footprint over the landscape than older turbines. Secondly, this type of low frequency noise can be more troublesome indoors than outdoors and thirdly, this research confirms exactly what sufferers have been telling medical researchers for several years about the effects of wind turbine noise. Not a single person suffering these effects in Australia over the last few years could have known the scientific results of this study beforehand.

Several curious outcomes were noted from the report, firstly, the unanimous back-flip by the Clean Energy Council and individual spokesmen from wind energy companies on the need for more medical research to address the issue of adverse health effects. Only 48 hours earlier the Clean Energy Council was arguing strongly on ABC radio that there was no need for further study, that it was a waste of time and previously having argued that "it is not an issue" and yet when the report was released, with its recommendations for prioritised medical research, there was immediate industry wide endorsement of the senate findings.

Andrew Thomson Development Manager from Acciona goes further by stating in reply to a question on the 7.30 Report as to why the wind industry had not addressed the health issue, "It (health) has never been raised as an issue quite frankly,...... and it's not until the last couple of years with the arrival of people like Dr Sarah Laurie in Australia and Nina Pierpont in the U.S. where we are starting to see cause for concern." Dr David Iser, a rural GP from Victoria raised concerns about the health effects of the Toora wind farm in March 2005. The Minnesota Department of Health [pp 17-18], detail studies and complaints from the U.K. in 1991, Wisconsin in 2001 and 2004 in Sweden. Dr Amanda Harry, a rural GP in the U.K. notes in 2004 that countries around the world were experiencing concerns over health issues and wind farms. Dr Harry also notes that the British Wind Energy Association had complained this "has not been an issue until brought up by anti-wind activists in this country" even though this was an established problem in 2004. Andrew Thomson works for a global company of Spanish origin operating in thirty countries; it is not credible to think this company was not aware of health concerns with wind farms articulated as long ago as 1991.


It seems inconceivable that a global industry that is investing billions of dollars in Australian wind farms has not yet bothered to satisfy itself, or the community, whether there is any merit in investigating health claims via independent research. They were either previously naïve in the extreme about the extent of community concern over health issues and since the report release have decided to acquiesce to mounting disquiet; or were only too well aware of the health problem, which they chose to do little about other than maintaining steadfast denial.

Secondly, the very heavy reliance in submissions to the inquiry from most wind farm supporters denying there could be possible health effects from wind farms because of the public statement of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) that 'there was no published scientific evidence linking wind turbines with adverse health effects'. To the casual or uninformed reader this compelling statement casts serious doubt on health claims; however, the senate report noted "The misuse of the NHMRC work by (wind) developers has damaged the perceived independence of the NHRMC". The NHRMC earlier itself expressed its disappointment at how wind industry supporters were misinforming others "By omitting the recommendations contained in the Public Statement and only noting that 'NHMRC has confirmed that there is no published scientific evidence to support adverse health effects of wind turbines on health' distorts the (NHMRC) Public Statement."

Thirdly, the curious avoidance by the senate report of any discussion of the negative economic impacts or the environmental rationale for wind farms, particularly given that economic impacts were a specific brief of the inquiry. Support for wind farms has been built on the false premise they are cost effective and lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This has been amply refuted by numerous Australian and overseas studies and confirmed by the recent report from the Productivity Commission. Paul Kelly from The Australian noted that "This [Productivity Commission] report is an assault on the inefficiency and inequity of schemes that directly subsidise renewables. It estimates that for Australia in 2010 the combined impact of the Renewable Energy Target and solar PV subsidies equated to $149 million-$194m. If you believe in fiscal responsibility and consumer fairness you must wind-back the long sanctified and hugely inefficient renewable-energy policies designed to milk votes via gesture politics." It appears votes are more important than fiscal responsibility and consumer fairness – not to mention the undermining of efficient long-term energy supply.

The question for federal and state governments following the report is: do we all continue to keep our head stuck in the sand with regard to possible health effects, the unsustainable taxpayer subsidies for insignificant emissions abatement from wind farms for the sake of gesture politics or will we seek out the facts to finally make some evidence-based decisions?

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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