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National wind farm guidelines a blow to industry

National wind farm guidelines a blow to industry

After the recent passage of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill, Middletons senior associate Antoinette Migliorino asks whether the proposed national wind farm guidelines will stifle investment in the industry.

After the recent passage of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill,  Middletons senior associate Antoinette Migliorino asks whether the proposed national wind farm guidelines will stifle investment in the industry.

With the much anticipated passage of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2010 in June 2010 and the commitment to a renewable energy target of 20% by 2020 - proponents are more confident forging ahead with construction of their approved wind farm projects.  But will the implementation of the Environment Protection and Heritage Council's “Draft National Wind Farm Guidelines” stifle new investment in wind farm developments?

The draft Guidelines were issued in October 2009 with the public consultation period ending in December 2009.  The EPHC is set to consider a final version of the Guidelines this month.  The Guidelines are not intended to be mandatory.  However, each State and Territory will elect whether or not it will adopt the Guidelines as a planning requirement.

The Guidelines are the Federal Government's response to rural community concerns in relation to what has become a highly contentious and publicised form of development.  However the question must be asked – Why aren't major infrastructure developments in urban settings burdened with similar prescriptive guidelines?

While the (currently 218 page) Guidelines are expressed intended for proponents, it seems clear that they have been drafted as a community tool to assist community members and stakeholders to better understand the process of site selection, feasibility, assessment, consultation, planning and development processes.  It is not a tool which the energy industry would deem necessary for wind farm proponents.

There is no doubt these Guidelines are an additional burden on Australia's renewable energy industry and will make it more difficult to achieve the desired renewable energy targets.

The Guidelines place greater burden on wind farm developers in comparison to other forms of developments.  Other developers of large infrastructure in NSW are required to adhere to the planning requirements prescribed by the Environmental Planningand Assessment Act 1979.  While that process is comprehensive and lengthy, it is a reasonable and necessary part of our planning system.  Adherence to a National Guideline (for wind farm proponents only adds additional cost and time to proponents and consent authorities.  In addition to the National Guidelines, the NSW governmenthas revealed plans that it will (in September 2010) issue its own state Wind FarmPlanning Guidelines, to compliment and add to those National Guidelines.

Consequently, there has been much concern expressed by the renewable energy industry (including the Clean Energy Council) that the Guidelines place an unnecessary burden on wind farm developers.

Most notably for proponents, the Guidelines adopt a range of stringent measures to govern noise impacts (eg. testing of special audible characteristics, separate day/night time monitoring and measurement of windspeeds at hub height) which are meant to provide a more accurate and conservative noise assessment. However the Guidelines fail to recommend uniform noise limits (which arguably should be more relaxed in light of the stringent testing conditions) instead leaving it to the States and Territories to adopt their own noise limits.  At present the noise limits applied to wind farm developments across Australia differ significantly.  This could mean that despite the attempt to provide greater consistency between jurisdictions – proponents could be faced with more stringent noise limits in some states, notwithstanding the application of more stringent uniform testing measures.  

The Guidelines also refer to the concerns raised by themedia and residents near proposed wind farms concerning the impact of infrasound (ie noise at frequencies below the normal range of human hearing <20Hz).  It is claimed in theGuidelines that infrasound "can be perceived by feel or in the form of headaches".  While the Guidelines also state that "there is no verifiable evidence for infrasound production by modern turbines" and "there are very few, if any, confirmed reported cases of infrasound noise emission problems from wind farms"– such suggestions tend to legitimise the common community perception that infrasound from wind farms may cause health issues.

A Review was issued by the National Health and MedicalResearch Council of Australia in July 2010 concerning wind turbines and health, which concluded that there is no scientific evidence to positively link windturbines with adverse health effects. The Review focused on concerns regarding the adverse health impacts of infrasound, noise, electromagnetic interference, shadow flicker and blade glint produced by wind turbines.

On a more positive note for proponents, while the NSWLegislative Council's Wind Farm Inquiry (December 2009) recommended a 2km setback requirement between wind turbines and neighbouring houses as a precautionary approach, in accordance with the conditions of many DCPs in NSW, the Guidelines appropriately do not adopt a 2km set back.  This position was supported by the NSW Land and Environment Court in the recent approval of the Gullen Range Wind Farm in which it rejected the proposed 2 km setback as "arbitrary".

It remains to be seen how the EPHC will react to strong industry objection to the draft Guidelines when they are next tabled later this month and what form of additional wind farm guidelines will be issued by the NSW government in September 2010.


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