A war of words over wind in Australia

AUSTRALIA: Maurice Newman, the 75-year-old former chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, believes human-caused climate change is a scientific delusion and a myth, dismissing the science behind it as a religion. You might not be surprised to hear that he hates wind power.

Illness Prime minister Tony Abbott says wind farms must monitor real-time turbine noise, despite numerous studies showing no ill-effect on health

Two years ago, in an article for right-wing political magazine The Spectator Australia, Newman said of wind turbines: "They fail on all counts. They are grossly inefficient, extremely expensive, socially inequitable, a danger to human health, environmentally harmful, divisive for communities, a blot on the landscape, and don't even achieve the purpose for which they were designed, namely the reliable generation of electricity and the reduction of CO2 emissions." It is fair to say that he has not modified his views since.

None of which would matter all that much, except that Newman is the hand-picked chief business adviser to Australia's recently elected prime minister, Tony Abbott. If his advice is heeded, and all the indications are that Abbott is largely in agreement, then Australia's wind-power industry is facing a difficult and uncertain future.

Newman's claims are easy to counter. A 2013 report prepared by consultancy Frontier Economics, commissioned by the UK government to compare its support mechanisms for onshore wind with those of other countries, concluded that wind-power costs in Australia are among the lowest in the world and so are its subsidy rates. Australia's own Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics has also confirmed that wind power is cost competitive with new-build fossil-fuel plants.

Unfounded claims

According to Newman, the costs of wind power amount to a crime against the people. Abbott uses less emotive language but he says that Australia's renewable energy target (RET), which calls for 20% of the country's energy to be generated from renewable sources by 2020, is causing pretty significant price pressure in the system.

Neither claim is supported by the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), which says that the main drivers of recent price rises have been upgrades and maintenance of the electricity network. The AEMC also says that measures in support of the RET make up less than 1% of the average household electricity bill.

This has not prevented a number of government-supporting MPs from calling for the target to be scaled down or the timeframe extended. Some want the RET to be scrapped altogether, a policy Newman advocates.

Wind power's contribution to Australia's energy production has been growing quickly. Wind-energy records were broken in four states last August, with one state, South Australia, deriving 38% of its power from wind during the month.

And, despite the claims of the country's vocal and vituperative anti-wind groups, wind power is extremely popular. An online opinion poll conducted last June found 77% of respondents in favour of wind power developments, with only 13% against and 10% undecided. There was a clear majority in favour of wind farms across all demographic groups and political persuasions. Even those who voted for Abbott's Liberal-National coalition in last September's election showed strong support with 71% in favour and only 15% against.

Faced with the inconvenient facts of wind power's economic competitiveness and widespread support across the population, the new government has turned to the issue of public health in its search for a big stick with which to beat wind turbines.

Government-sponsored hypochondria?

Policy in this area hinges on the claims that wind farms make people living in their vicinity fall victim to an astonishing number of ailments, ranging from sleeplessness and nausea to herpes and cancers.

The malady, attributed to the effects of low-frequency noise and infrasound from operating turbines, goes under various names - wind turbine syndrome, vibro-accoustic disease, and visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance.

Anti-wind groups also blame turbines for a number of mysterious modern-day phenomena, such as the rapid drainage of batteries of mobile phones, cameras and vehicles, or the spontaneous lighting-up of fluorescent bulbs. The claims were taken sufficiently seriously for the state of Victoria to impose a two-kilometre setback on new wind farms in 2011, a regulation that has practically shut down all new wind power development in the state. The administrations of New South Wales and Queensland are considering similar legislation.

The coalition government intends to compel wind farms to produce "real-time" monitoring of wind-turbine noise and make the data publicly available on the internet, so local residents can compare the results with state government noise controls. The wind-power industry argues that this requirement will impose "very significant costs" and that it will provide no useful information because it will not be able to differentiate turbine noise from background noise, such as traffic.

The new government is arguing for yet another study into the effect of wind turbine noise on human health, despite the existence of 19 peer-reviewed studies, none of which have found a causal link. In 2010 Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council conducted a "rapid review" and concluded: "There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms."

It began a more detailed review of the evidence in September 2012, the findings of which have been sent to the health, industry and environment ministers and are due to be released publicly in the next few months. However, Abbott appeared unaware of this when he said in January: "It is some years since the NHMRC last looked at this issue. Why not do it again?"

No scientific evidence

The New South Wales health department looked into the issue in 2012. It found the arguments mounted by anti-wind campaigners unconvincing and fears that wind turbines makes people sick to be "not scientifically valid". The Victoria health department's research reached similar conclusions. The Federal Senate Committee inquiry into a bill calling for regulation of excessive noise from wind farms investigated health issues in late 2012. "The number of health-related complaints about wind farms is small in proportion to the number of people living near these facilities," it said. "The numbers also vary greatly from one facility to the next, for reasons not apparently related to the number of residents in the area."

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University, has conducted an historical audit of all known health and noise complaints made about Australia's wind farms from 1993 to 2012. He found that only 129 individuals across the country have ever complained and 94 (73%) are residents near just six wind farms that have been regular targets of anti-wind groups. More than two-thirds of Australian wind farms, including more than half of those with large turbines, have yet to receive a single complaint. Two states, Western Australia and Tasmania, have seen no complaints.

Chapman points out that nearly all (98%) of complainants made their first complaints after 2009, which is when anti-wind groups began to add health concerns to their wider opposition.

A question of expectations

The University of Auckland in New Zealand conducted a study in 2012-13 that adds weight to Chapman's research. It exposed 60 participants to ten minutesof infrasound — frequencies too low for the human ear to detect — and ten minutes of "sham infrasound", which was really no sound at all. Before exposure, half the volunteers were given information that indicated wind farms could cause negative health effects, and the other half that they didn't. Both groups reported their health symptoms before and after the sound exposure. The group told about negative health effects reported symptoms of illness. The other group did not.

"Healthy volunteers, when given information about the expected physiological effect of infrasound, reported symptoms that aligned with that information, during exposure to both infrasound and sham infrasound."

The scientific evidence is pretty clear. But Australia's policy makers, it would seem, are not very interested in this. And wind power could be paying the price.