Australia: Senate inquiry into wind farms releases final report

On 3 August 2015, the Committee released its second and final report into the regulatory governance and economic impact of wind turbines.

The final report builds on the recommendations contained in the interim report tabled by the Committee on 18 June 2015 which were directed to addressing the alleged negative health, social and community impacts of the wind energy industry. Its release follows last month's announcement that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will no longer invest in wind farms.

INTERIM REPORT

The Committee's interim report contained the following seven "headline recommendations":

  1. Establishing an Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Industrial Sound (IESC) to research the impacts of audible noise and infrasound from wind turbines on human health.
  2. Establishing a National Environment Protection (Wind Turbine Infrasound and Low Frequency Noise) Measure(NEPM) developed through the findings of the IESC with accreditation of wind turbine facilities under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 in a State or Territory dependent on the NEPM becoming valid law in that State or Territory.
  3. The introduction of National Wind Farm Guidelines (National Guidelines) by the Commonwealth Government to be reflected by each State and Territory in their planning and environmental statutes.
  4. Eligibility to receive renewable energy certificates (RECs)to be made subject to compliance with the National Guidelines and the NEPM.
  5. Establishing a National Wind Farm Ombudsman to handle complaints from concerned community residents regarding wind farms.
  6. Imposing a levy on wind farm operators to fund the costs of the IESC and the Ombudsman.
  7. Requiring wind farm operators to make data regarding operation statistics, including noise monitoring data, publicly available.

FINAL REPORT

In its final report, the Committee made 15 final recommendations which largely expand on the headline recommendations made in the interim report. A summary of these recommendations is set out below:

  • the information held by the CER on wind effectiveness in offsetting carbon dioxide emissions at both 30 June 2014 (end of financial year) and 3 May 2015;
  • the risk management and fraud mitigation practices and processes that are in place and whether they have been appropriate;
  • whether all public monies collected in respect of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 are appropriate.
Rec 1 The IESC be established by law through provisions similar to those which establish the IESC on coal seam gas and require it to conduct research into health impacts associated with wind turbine projects and any other industrial projects which emit sound and vibration energy.
Rec 2

The IESC be assigned with responsibility to do a range of things, including:

  • recommend single, national acoustic standards for both audible noise and infrasound from wind farms;
  • provide scientific and technical advice to a range of State and Commonwealth authorities to assess whether proposed or existing wind farms pose risks to individual or community health.
Rec 3 The Clean Energy Regulator may not accredit a new wind power station unless the IESC is satisfied that it does not pose risks to individual or community health.
Rec 4 Eligibility to receive RECs to be subject to "specific compliance" with the NEPM with any wind farms operating in states or territories which do not require compliance with the NEPM to be ineligible to receive RECs.
Rec 5 The IESC to formally communicate its advice and findings to the Environmental Health Standing Committee.
Rec 6

The IESC to develop National Guidelines which address (among other things):

  • national acoustic standards
  • national standard on minimum buffer zones
  • a guidance note on local councils retaining development approval for local impact issues such as roads
  • best practice community engagement
  • national standards for visual and landscape impacts
  • birds and bats
  • indigenous heritage
  • fire risk
  • electromagnetic interference.
As per Rec 4, eligibility for RECs should be subject to "general compliance" with the National Guidelines.
Rec 7 The federal government to amend the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act Regulations 2000 to enable the partial or point in time suspension of RECs due to various breaches or non-compliances (e.g. non-compliance with conditions of planning approval).
Rec 8 State Governments to consider shifting responsibility for wind farm monitoring from councils to the State Environment Protection Agency.
Rec 9 State Governments to consider adopting a fee-for-service licensing system payable by wind farm operators to State Environment Protection Authorities, along the lines of the system currently in place in New South Wales.
Rec 10 The federal Department of the Environment to prepare a quarterly report collating the wind farm monitoring and compliance activities of the State Environment Protection Authorities to be tabled in federal Parliament.
Rec 11 The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to continue to monitor and publicise Australian and international research relating to wind farms and health.
Rec 12 Where the regulatory framework provided for pursuant to recommendations 8 and 9 cannot be enforced due to a lack of cooperation by one or more states, a national regulatory body to be established under commonwealth legislation for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing wind farm operations.
Rec 13 The Australian National Audit Office conduct a performance audit of the Clean Energy Regulator's compliance with its role under the legislation, including whether:
Rec 14 The Australian Government to direct the Productivity Commission to conduct research into the impact of wind power electricity generation on retail electricity prices.
Rec 15

The RET to be amended so that all new investments in renewable energy between 2015 and 2020 will be eligible to create RECs for a period of no more than five years. Existing investments in renewable energy should be grandfathered so that they continue to receive RECs subject to annual audits of compliance.

The federal government should develop a methodology for renewable energy projects so that they can qualify for Australian Carbon Credit Units.

If the above two recommendations are not adopted, there should instead be a limit on eligibility for RECs capped at 5 years from the commissioning of wind turbines.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Following the release of the interim report, the federal government committed to the following:

  • establishing an IESC by 1 September 2015 to examine (among other matters) the impact of wind turbines on human health;
  • publishing research on the development of Australian methodologies and frameworks in sound measurement and standards for wind farms to improve planning and compliance decisions by state and territory authorities;
  • publishing research on options for wind farm operators to maximise transparency such as by providing information on wind speed, operational statistics, operating hours and sound monitoring;
  • establishing a National Wind Farm Commissioner to resolve complaints from concerned residents which will publish documents on:
    • the location of existing and proposed wind farms in Australia;
    • planning and environmental approvals in place for each wind farm;
    • RECs received by each wind farm; and
    • data on wind farm operators.
  • seeking agreement from the States and Territories to implement the National Guidelines, as recommended by the IESC, and the NEPM.

The extent to which the federal government now adopts the Committee's final recommendations remains to be seen. However, a spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt has been reported as saying that the federal government has no plans to make further changes to the RET. This may mean that the Committee's recommendations to reduce RECs and block them in states that do not comply with the NEPM and National Guidelines may not be adopted, but again this remains to be seen.

Furthermore, the concept of National Wind Farm Guidelines was rejected by a number of state governments at a meeting of national environment ministers last month which suggests difficulties in the adoption of uniform National Guidelines by the states.

DISSENTING REPORT

It should be noted that the two labour representatives on the Committee produced a dissenting report which disagreed with the final report almost in its entirety.

The dissenting report claimed that the Committee had been prevented from arriving at a balanced view of the wind industry due to a range of factors, including:

  • the terms of reference excluding from consideration the environmental benefits provided by wind energy and the need to mitigate climate change;
  • the terms of reference excluding any comparison of the health and community impacts of wind energy compared to other forms of energy;
  • the terms of reference focusing on topics that have been repeatedly raised by opponents of wind energy generation and found to be without substance.

The dissenting report recommends:

Rec 1 The federal government not to proceed with the final report recommendations.
The federal government reassure the wind energy industry that it is not intent on preventing its further development based on unsubstantiated claims of negative health, environment and economic impacts.
Rec 2

A range of public acknowledgements from the federal government, including in relation to:

  • the benefits of wind energy for Australia's economy and the environment
  • the health impacts from fossil fuel extraction and generation
  • the lack of causal links between wind turbines and human health impacts.
Rec 3 State governments ensure that local governments are adequately resourced to undertake their monitoring and compliance roles under state planning laws.
Rec 4 State governments consider codification of community engagement guidelines based on the Clean Energy Council's Community Engagement Guidelines for the Australian Wind Industry.
Rec 5 State governments consider reforming the current system whereby wind farm developers directly retain acoustic consultants to provide advice on post-construction compliance.

A link to the final report is below (the interim report and terms of reference can also be accessed via the link).
http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Wind_Turbines/Wind_Turbines/Final_Report

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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