Wind commissioner? Let’s have a coal commissioner too

The senate’s wind inquiry has recommended increasing regulation for wind farms. Éamonn Lawlor/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Wind turbines have got Canberra in a spin this week, with hearings underway from the senate inquiry into wind turbines and their possible health impacts. The committee yesterday released an interim report from chair John Madigan with seven recommendations to increase regulation around the wind industry.

A dissenting report from Labor senator Anne Urquhart questioned the political timing of the report.

Meanwhile, a leaked email from environment minister Greg Hunt has offered crossbench senators a “wind farm commissioner” in return for support for the passage of renewable energy legislation.

But behind the politics, how do the report’s recommendations stack up?

The recommendations

The interim report’s recommendations include:

  • a scientific committee to look into industrial sound

  • the drafting of national infrasound and noise measures

  • the development of National Wind Farm Guidelines for planning

  • making wind’s accreditation under the Renewable Energy Target (RET) dependent on adherance to guidelines and measures (old projects would have five years to comply)

  • a national ombudsman to handle complaints

  • a levy on wind farms to fund the scientific committee and ombudsman

  • data to be made freely and publicly available.

If implemented, these rigorous and extensive recommendations will create wide-ranging monitoring, compliance and review obligations. They are likely to produce a strong national health review framework for the sector. They will, however, also alter the operational dynamics of the industry. This has the potential to affect market progression.

Wind energy accounts for almost a quarter of Australia’s clean energy generation. Investment in wind has the capacity to return fuel savings that significantly outweigh the initial investment cost over the lifetime of the purchase.

This, combined with technological innovations and market subsidies such as the RET, has given the sector a reasonable degree of market force. Fostering wind energy has been crucial for the creation of a greater energy mix in response to growing climate change imperatives.

Health impacts compared

The Senate committee noted that it was “concerned” that the health consequences of wind turbines, in particular, dizziness, nausea, migraine, high blood pressure, tinnitus, chronic sleep deprivation and depression, had been ignored or derided. But how do these compare to other energy industries?

The health consequences of the fossil fuel industry have been ignored for many years. On any comparison, it is unfair to focus exclusively on the health implications of wind turbines and, at the same time, ignore the health implications of other forms of energy production.

Global energy demand is increasing with world energy consumption expected to increase 56% by 2040. Mitigating climate change demands a shift to renewable energy. Subjecting wind energy to a forensic degree of health regulation and ignoring the health risks of other (renewable and non-renewable) forms of energy production is disproportionate. It is unfair.

In Victoria, the Hazelwood Coal Fire Inquiry has been reopened, given the enormity of the health consequences associated with the coal fire last year.

Some of these very serious health issues: respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, long-term chronic health affects from pollutants including carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, and the longer term chronic health effects if the coal undergoes significant distillation and produces measurable amounts of toxic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The likelihood of escalating chronic health conditions and an increase in mortality rates occurring as a consequence of the coal fire is significant. Whilst the coal fire is a catastrophic event rather than an ordinary consequence of the generation of coal-fired electricity, it nevertheless represents an example of the risks associated with the generation of fossil fuel energy.

Compared to the recommendations by the senate committee on wind turbines, the recommendations from the Hazelwood Coal Fire Inquiry were relatively tame. The Victorian government made A$25.4 million available to fund a range of initiatives that include:

  • a long-term health study in the Latrobe Valley

  • new air quality equipment to be used by the Environmental Protection Agency, which can be deployed across the state

  • a boost to the mine regulator’s capacity to assess and monitor mine planning for fire prevention, mitigation and suppression

  • development of the state smoke framework.

There was no recommendation to appoint a coal ombudsman or to create an Independent Expert Scientific Review of the Health Impacts of the Coal Industry which would be funded by the imposition of a coal levy.

CSG concerns

Things are a little different in the gas sector. There has been significant review and regulatory development for coal seam gas extraction at both the state and the federal level.

However, the recommendations proposed have largely centred around the management of resource conflict, environmental assessment and risk allocation. The actual health impacts of coal seam gas extraction upon residents have not been the subject of review in either Queensland or New South Wales.

Indeed, the 2014 Chief Scientists report on coal seam gas (CSG) in New South Wales expressly omitted an examination of the health implications of CSG extraction.

This is despite the fact that toxins in CSG produced water include such volatile organic compounds as benzene, methane, heavy metals and radioactive materials and exposure can potentially have an enormous impact upon the respiratory, endocrine, nervous and cardiovascular systems, can affect foetal development in pregnant woman and may cause cancer.

The health risks of the wind industry need to be reviewed in balance with other social, environmental and economic factors. This is exactly what has occurred in the context of the numerous reviews and reports prepared for CSG across the country. The extraction and production of many forms of energy have health impacts.

A spotlight focus on the health implications of one sector in the absence of context and sector comparability, lacks balance and perspective.

The Australian wind industry is one of the most rapidly growing renewable energy markets given improved technology, relatively low operating costs and minimal environmental impacts. The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) has predicted that onshore wind and solar will eventually have the lowest cost of electricity of all the renewable options in Australia leading up to 2030.

Despite this, the wind industry remains highly susceptible to cognitive barriers; the recommendations and proposals of the Senate Committee are likely to exacerbate this.

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