Wind Farms: What we can’t hear can’t harm

Wind TurbineThis article is written by BEAM member Sarah Durrant and was first published on Australia’s leading clean tech and energy policy website, RenewEconomy.

In a new analysis, the Australian Energy Market Operator estimates Victoria will have 4,090 MW of new wind energy capacity installed by 2020. Those who support more renewables in the energy mix will welcome the forecast, yet it may be optimistic.

Today (Friday September 27), the Victorian Civil Administration Tribunal (VCAT) will resume the decision making process on the Cherry Tree Range wind farm proposed for central Victoria. Despite meeting the world’s strictest wind farm planning laws and laying outside the multitude of no-go zones imposed by the Baillieu government, the project could be thwarted. By what? The self interest and pseudo-science trumpeted by anti-wind farm groups.

The fate of the Cherry Tree Range wind farm is a test case for wind energy in Victoria. If it’s approved then there’s hope Victoria will achieve the high-penetration of wind energy AEMO predict by the end of the decade.

VCAT adjourned with an interim determination in April, finding the permit application was in accordance with all the planning considerations that the Mitchell Shire had contested. However the Tribunal decided it would await the outcome of an EPA SA study into alleged noise complaints at Waterloo wind farm, and also a new review by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

VCAT left us to ponder the question: whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from wind turbines and adverse health effects of a physiological nature.

BEAM Mitchell Environment Group – a local community group of which I’m a member – has taken a look at some of the most recent Australia/NZ sourced evidence to demonstrate that our support for the Cherry Tree project is backed up by quality evidence.

The EPA SA’s study Infrasound levels near wind farms and in other environments, published in January 2013, was brought to the attention of VCAT during the hearing. The study finds that infrasound levels at houses adjacent to wind farms are no higher than those at houses located a considerable distance from wind farms, and that infrasound levels at rural locations both near to and away from wind farms were no higher than levels measured at urban locations. Even the peaks were significantly lower than the threshold of perception.

More recently, in July 2013, an independent report on infrasound at the impressive Macarthur wind farm adds weight to this finding, with no change in infrasound levels identified between pre-operational monitoring and operational monitoring periods. Wind turbines are not adding to the existing levels of infrasound already found in the environment.

Our own Victorian Department of Health published its findings on the matter in Wind farms, sound and health in April 2013. It rules out the potential for wind farms to have damaging effects.

The Department of Health review finds that infrasound can cause sleep disturbance but, like sounds in any other frequency range, it will only have this effect at an audible level. Wind farm infrasound is at levels well below the hearing threshold, and evidence does not support claims that inaudible sounds can have direct physiological effects. Put simply: what we can’t hear can’t harm us.

In their Position Statement on Wind Farms, September 2013, the Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants agree with the Victorian Department of Health’s conclusions. The AAAC’s statement confirms that infrasound levels around wind farms are no higher than levels measured at other locations where people live, work and sleep. We’ve been exposed to levels of infrasound throughout our evolution with no apparent effects.

What of the symptoms sometimes described as ‘wind turbine syndrome’? The Victorian Department of Health asserts that these are common symptoms in the community generally and are not unique to those people living near wind farms. Whether we live near wind turbines or far away, we can all expect to suffer a similar incidence of medical conditions, including anxiety illnesses, hypertension or age-related conditions.

A University of Sydney study offers us some insights into why we might be hearing about alleged health impacts and presents evidence for the psychogenic “communicated disease”, i.e: the nocebo hypothesis. This work ties in rather neatly with a paper by University of Auckland academic Fiona Crichton (et al), that suggests how psychological expectations could explain the link between wind turbine exposure and health complaints. Invoke fear into someone that they’ll experience certain symptoms from infrasound and they will; even from ‘sham’ infrasound.

A good indicator of how planning commissions assess wind energy and health is found in the NSW Planning Assessment Commission’s recent determination on the Bodangora wind farm. The panel considered the issues in depth and with care. They accepted the advice of NSW Health and other health authorities, stating:

The Commission is satisfied the wind turbines will not impact on human health.

The Commission, too, expresses support of the statement by the NHMRC that there are no direct pathological effects from wind farms and that any potential impacts on humans can be minimised by following existing planning guidelines. Based on the PAC findings for Bodangora alone it would be difficult – if not impossible – for VCAT to justify a finding much different.

It seems VCAT already has all the evidence it needs in order to make its final determination; it might be argued that it had so back at the time of its adjournment in April.

Having watched the VCAT evidence slowly, sometimes painfully unfold, I personally hold great optimism that this baby will be born. While the political environment into which it might be delivered has changed greatly since its conception, now with new uncertainties to consider, there remains a community from across Mitchell Shire ready to welcome the arrival of the Cherry Tree Wind Farm.

 Sarah Durrant MBE spent 12 years (making a lot of noise!) working in trials and instrumentation at Proof & Experimental Establishments in the UK, for which she was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1985. Living in Mitchell Shire, she has been Vice-Chair of a district hospital board of management, and is a member of BEAM Mitchell Environment Group. She supports wind power as a safe and appropriate addition to the renewable energy mix, and looks forward to the realisation of the Cherry Tree Wind Farm project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *