If you've read articles by Brendan Gullifer in The Ballarat Courier on wind energy, you would be forgiven for thinking that wind turbines are making people sick, dropping property prices and dividing communities. However there are questions emerging about what causes the biggest impact on people. Are wind turbines the problem, or are Brendan Gullifer, the Landscape Guardians and anti-wind energy campaigners the problem?
It's a hot topic in the Ballarat region, with a three-turbine proposal for Chepstowe, near Snake Valley, currently on the Minister for Planning's desk. Australia's first community-owned wind farm Hepburn Wind, have erected their two turbines in Leonards Hill near Daylesford which will be operational within months.
As well as these smaller projects, there are larger developments that are at varying stages of planning and development, including some that have been seemingly on hold for some time.
We've also recently had a Senate Inquiry into the social and economic impacts of wind farms visit Ballarat and over the past year there has been community consultation around national guidelines for the development of wind farms and community meetings in Moorabool Shire to discuss local proposals.
The Senate Inquiry in Ballarat was in stark contrast to hearings in Canberra and Melbourne. The Canberra hearing heard from companies involved in the development of wind energy projects, staff from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, CSIRO scientists, Greenpeace, the Aerial Agricultural Association and a couple of individual witnesses. The Melbourne hearing featured local community group BREAZE, Hepburn Wind, the Clean Energy Council and a slew of wind energy companies, balanced again by individual witnesses.
The Ballarat Senate Inquiry hearing was wall-to-wall Landscape Guardian groups and individual complainants who have lived within the vicinity of a wind farm or have concerns about a nearby proposal. Witness statements varied from the sincere to the bizarre. There is no doubt that some people are experiencing negative impacts from wind farms implementation, but it is the cause of these impacts that is important.
Claims that wind farms cause bodily vibrations for ten days and other equally extraordinary health impacts are difficult to believe and do little to encourage compassion from other parts of the community. Similarly, the strident and bullying style of the Landscape Guardians, strongly demonstrated at a protest at the Hepburn Wind sod-turning and other events, can only harm their cause.
Reports into the impact of wind farms have pointed to what is known as a 'nocebo' effect. That is the belief that something will have a negative impact and the continual reminders of the potential for negative impacts snowball into stress, anxiety and potentially anger at levels which can manifest as ill health. Health concerns should not be ignored and are a matter for individuals and their GPs, but public health is the responsibility of the wider community.
So are wind farms making people sick? A literature review by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is often quoted, stating that "There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impact on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines (NHMRC, 2010)."
The Department of Health in Victoria also did a review of the research available, stating that "the weight of evidence indicated that there are no direct health effects from noise (audible and inaudible) at the levels generated by modern wind turbines."
Of course public health advocates have criticised the NHMRC in the past, as have environmental organisations, for either not being thorough enough in their studies or for, in their view, ignoring the precautionary principle. A 2009 study commissioned by the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations and carried out by a scientific advisory panel comprising of medical doctors, audiologists and acoustic professionals dismissed the possibility of sound from wind turbines having direct adverse health consequences. This contrasts with Dr Nina Pierpoint, who is often quoted by Landscape Guardian groups and those opposed to wind farms. Pierpoint describes a collection of health effects such as headaches, sleeplessness and anxiety as "wind farm syndrome". While Pierpoint's report has not been published in a peer reviewed journal, even the American and Canadian Wind Energy Association's panel report conceded that the symptoms Dr Pierpoint describes are "more likely associated with annoyance to low sound levels (Colby et al, 2009)".
Conversations with people living amongst the wind turbines in Waubra, those who do not participate in some of the shrill debates that have occurred in various community forums such as the recent Senate inquiry, confirm that at times the turbines are audible and indeed this is a change for the community. Health impacts are often attributed to low frequency sound, below the human threshold of hearing, which is generally considered to be 20 Hertz and is commonly known as infrasound. Ex-Waubra resident Noel Dean, who appeared before the Senate inquiry in Ballarat, acknowledged that infrasound levels are higher at the beach than near wind turbines in Waubra. Despite infrasound being inaudible, Mr Dean claimed that it was the lack of audible sound in rural areas such as Waubra, as opposed to higher ambient sound at oceanside locations, that caused the inaudible infrasound to be disruptive and damaging to health.
Professor Peter Seligman also appeared before the Ballarat Senate inquiry. Seligman spent 30 years working in acoustics, including a key member of the team that developed the Melbourne/Cochlear multiple-channel cochlear implant and holds over 20 patents related to that research. He told the Senate inquiry bluntly that infrasound produced by walking is of a much higher level than anything in the surrounding environment, including wind turbines. He discovered this in his work on the cochlear implant, which would amplify all kinds of sound, including infrasound, and they had some difficulty isolating the normally audible range of sound frequencies from this infrasound.
Any audible sound from any source, including wind farms, can annoy some people. Research shows that the chances of complaints, annoyance resulting stress and health impacts are likely to be made worse by the kind of shrill debate, rhetoric, fears and negative publicity we have seen in The Courier from Brendan Gullifer, along with other media outlets. Of course the more noise there is the greater the annoyance, but in the case of wind farms, it has been found that the level of annoyance is more closely related to a person's sensitivity to noise, attitude towards wind farms, whether they receive an economic benefit and their attitude towards the area.
Another key part of the Senate Inquiry's investigations is the impact of wind farms on property prices. While the Pyrenees Shire stated that their independent valuations showed an increase in property prices in the Waubra area, complainants claimed the opposite and had anecdotal evidence of people struggling to sell their homes. Conversations with Waubra residents who aren't participating in the public debate again reveal that property prices are a concern. However, this is clearly identified by the residents themselves to be an issue of negative publicity - that when people see Waubra, it is noise and sickness they think of, not the positive elements of the community. These positive elements are certainly there and new Waubra residents testify to the strength and resilience of the community and interestingly talk positively about the wind turbines that they have moved in next door to.
So the question now becomes not just is The Courier's Brendan Gullifer making people sick, but is he also contributing to any drop in property prices in areas with wind farms or proposed developments?
Change is always a challenge and development is rarely without its impacts and controversy. Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions (BREAZE) recently surveyed residents in Snake Valley in order to gauge their opinions on the Chepstowe Wind Farm proposal. The survey of 35 random local residents revealed opinions were split roughly into thirds, with 12 against, 10 don't care and 13 supportive. Interestingly, at the time of the survey there was a community consultation meeting regarding proposed sewerage upgrades for Snake Valley. Community opinion on the sewerage upgrade was split in roughly the same way. This demonstrates that change will always result in mixed opinions, regardless of the type of change occurring.
Most of the negative opinion of wind farms in Snake Valley related to negative information and publicity distributed in the community. It is almost impossible to reconcile the negative publicity, including an apparent concern for the local Brolga population, with the fact that the landholder of the proposed Chepstowe Wind Farm site is a member of the Brolga Recovery Group and has been working actively in conservation and habitat restoration for 30 years. With that kind of contrasting information abound, it is no wonder there are mixed feelings. What is certain is that misinformation and shrill debate contributes nothing to peoples understanding and a positive resolution.