Not in my back paddock

Stone the crows! It turns out wind energy isn’t the health risk we were warned about.  But the crows wonder whether this will stop people opposing wind farms on the general principle that while cutting green house gas emissions is important, it is best done nowhere near them.

People who don’t like wind farms near where they live claim they make them crook. Nina Pierpont (MD, PhD) confirmed their fears last year with a book explaining the medical impact of wind turbines.  Apparently the  infrasound, (generally inaudible to humans), shadow flicker and blade glint causes insomnia, nausea, headaches, depression and general malaise. [1] Talk about (and with apologies to Michel LeGrand) the whine mills of your mind.

But now the National Health and Medical Research Council has concluded the complaint is a crock; “there is currently no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects”.[2]

Not, the experts say, that wind energy has no health impacts – the noise really irritates some people and the very presence of wind farms upsets others, undoubtedly including some of Dr Pierpont’s readers.

…if people are worried about their health they may become anxious, causing stress related illnesses. These are genuine health effects arising from their worry, which arises from the wind turbine, even though the turbine may not be objectively a risk to health. [3]

To the crows untutored understanding this sounds like a suggestion that people who do not like wind farms worry themselves sick about them.

There is also something odd about the way Wind Turbine Syndrome selectively strikes; money appears to inoculate against its effects. The NHMRC refers to findings that show, “people who benefit economically from wind turbines were less likely to report annoyance, despite exposure to similar sound levels as people who were not economically benefiting.”[4]

So the best chance of a cure for people who live in windy places is to have a rent-paying turbine built on their land, instead of copping all that infuriating flicker from the windmills across the way. Either that or be bought out by a wind farmer sympathetic to their suffering. As Dr Pierpont puts it,

… all turbine ordinances, I believe, should establish mechanisms to ensure that turbine developers will buy out any affected family at the full pre-turbine value of their home, so that people are not trapped between unlivable lives and destitution through home abandonment.[5]

If the NHMRC is right what Dr Pierpont sees as a health problem is really a loss of amenity – much the same as people who find themselves unexpectedly living by a new road or railway, above a mine or under a flight path.

Either that or people see wind farms as impositions that cost them cash. As a House of Representatives committee report on renewables put it, “some residents claim that their land values have fallen appreciably following the construction of wind farms on neighbouring properties”.  [6]

Opponents of wind farms in Victoria appear especially vulnerable to worrying about wind turbine and the damage they do to health and wealth. In the 2004 federal election windmills were an issue in the seat of Macmillan. And after the poll then federal environment minister Ian Campbell put a proposed wind farm on hold because he was worried that rare orange-bellied parrots might fly into the turbines, thereby becoming rarer.

After extensive study it appeared that this was not much of a risk, as the sensible birds had stopped visiting the vast majority of turbine sites. But in a commendable concern for the parrots, Senator Campbell played safe and blocked the project.[7]

It was a result that encouraged activists and stopping wind farms is now a Victorian state election issue, with the Libs promising to give local government the power to prevent turbines being built within two kilometres of houses.[8]

It’s not that all Liberals are unilaterally opposed to wind power. In the Senate, they voted to censure the government for not doing enough to back the Musselroe Bay wind farm planned for Cape Portland in north eastern Tasmania, where jobs are scarce and energy investors admired.[9] The crows can’t find anybody opposed to the project.

But in areas where the property values are high and people are used to getting their way the “not in my back paddock party” will always out-argue advocates of doing anything practical to reduce carbon emissions.

The Greens must be delighted that nobody much votes for them in the bush so that they do not have to choose between environment principles and keeping voters happy who oppose any commercial activity noisier than practicing pilates. And inner city Labor MPs must be relieved that they will never be forced to choose between green power and their electors’ property values.

Because the only way wind farms are ever going to accomplish anything is by getting bigger and louder and more industrial – with taller towers and larger rotors.[10] Which will not appeal to people who did not pay a fortune to have a power station, however green, over the fence.

As the Environmental Protection Council puts it,

Australians generally understand the need to reduce their carbon emissions, but also want to ensure that wind farms are developed in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. [11]

In itself this is a Seinfeld of a stoush, an argument about nothing much. As Scott Montgomery points out, wind farming “is one of the most environmentally benign of energy technologies”. But while wind farming is much more efficient than it was a generation back, it “can act as a vital supplement but not a principal source of global electricity”. [12]

The only chance of a wind farm replacing a base load coal fired power station, is for a state has an energy minister who likes apologising for blackouts whenever hot days push power demand up.

Wind Turbine Syndrome also demonstrates why politicians should not get too worried about demand for green energy. Sure, everybody wants it, but just not with the plants that produce it anywhere near them.

Of course there is a way to win popular support for wind farms – announce a nuclear power plant for the same site.

[1] Nina Pierpont, Wind Turbine Syndrome: A report on a natural experiment (K-selected books, 2009)

[2] NHMRC, Wind Turbines and Health (July 2010)

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Pierpont, 121

[6] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources, “Renewable Power; A case study into selected renewable energy sectors” (September, 2007) @ recovered July 8

[7] Ewin Hannan, “Breezy Dismissal”, The Australian, April 8, 2006

[8] “Councils to get control of wind farms under Libs” ABC news May 13 2010 recovered on July 7

[9] Senate Hansard February 23 2010, 880 @ recovered on July 6

[10] House of Reps Standing Committee on Industry and Resources, op cit

[11] Environment Protection and Heritage Council, National wind farm development guidelines (2009) 7

[12] Scott L Montgomery, The Powers that Be: Global Energy for the 21st Century and Beyond, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) 165, 167