This past week Tony Abbott has shown his true colours regarding renewable energy. The Australian Prime Minister admitted his government is trying to curb the growth of wind power:
Frankly it’s right and proper we’ve reduced the Renewable Energy Target because, as things stood, there was going to be an explosion of these things right around our country. There will still be some growth but it will be much less than it would otherwise have been thanks to measures this government has taken.
Indeed, last month the Abbott Government reduced the Renewable Energy Target (RET) from 41,000 gigawatt hours a year to 33,000 – thereby cutting back investment targets for wind power. Previously it cited behavioural changes in the population’s energy consumption patterns as the rationale for stripping back the RET. With people using less energy because of more expensive energy bills and other reasons, the need to invest in clean energy technologies to help the country reach its pledged greenhouse gas emissions reductions (of 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020) was not as significant as before, apparently. However, Abbott’s fresh revelations he and his government are opposed to the expansion of wind energy have thrown into doubt the sincerity of that prior rhetoric. His reasons for this opposition were troubling:
Up close, [wind turbines] are ugly, they’re noisy and they may have all sorts of other impacts. It’s right and proper that we’re having an inquiry into the health impacts of these things.
The first reason is simply irrelevant to whether we should invest in wind energy. If aesthetic appeal were the driving factor behind energy investment decisions, we should close all the dreary, gloomy, pollution-spouting and old-fashioned coal power plants. Yet other members of the Coalition Government share Abbott’s opinion, with Treasurer Joe Hockey last year describing turbines as “utterly offensive” and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce saying, “Wind farms are one of those things that everybody likes as long as it’s not in their backyard”.
But aesthetics shouldn’t be a legitimate concern compared to energy costs and security. According to Professor Gerard Ledwich, Chair in Power Engineering at Queensland University of Technology, wind power is currently the cheapest form of bulk renewable generation at about 6c per kilowatt hour, and it is gaining on coal, itself averaging at around 3-4.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Add to this the fact that, just days before Abbott’s comments, when South Australia lost its baseload coal generation, wind power helped provide it with the cheapest energy in the country for the whole of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, and wind power presents itself as a desirable option to improve the security and resilience of an energy grid.
The second reason, referring to the National Health and Medical Research (NHMR) Council’s $2.5 million research investigation into wind turbines’ health effects, is a valid point. We should be looking into the health impacts of wind turbines, as we should with all energy sources.
Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, has calculated that 129 people in Australia have complained of illnesses from wind turbines (a condition that’s been labelled wind turbine syndrome), based on the 23 known reviews on the topic. This figure translates to only 1 in 254 people, given that approximately 32,789 people live near turbines; while most of the complaints came within a small period of time and geographical range (see below). Well, a 2007 study found air pollution from fossil fuels was the cause of 3056 premature deaths and 27,519 illnesses in Australia in 2003 alone – it’s a figure that’s been cited as applicable for every year. Last year, the World Health Organisation revealed air pollution results in 7 million premature deaths globally every year. This doesn’t even take into account the myriad health risks associated with climate change.
However, whereas the relationship between fossil fuels’ air pollution and human health is well-understood, the same is not true for wind turbines. The whole reason for the NHMR’s investigation into wind turbines’ health impacts is because the whole concept behind wind turbine syndrome is just really strange. The purported explanation for the condition is that turbines emit low-frequency sounds called infrasound which can damage the inner ear, which plays an important role in balance, coordination and attention (see here). Thing is, infrasound isn’t unique to wind turbines, but radiates from beaches, storms and road traffic, “none of which have been shown to damage the vestibular system” according to ABC science journalist Wendy Zuckerman in this insightful article in the Saturday Paper.
Indeed, the NHMR continues to conclude “there is currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans”, but concedes current evidence is still limited. Zuckerman, like a number of other people, argued in her article wind turbine syndrome is actually a case of the “nocebo effect“, whereby people begin feeling symptoms when they are suggested they will actually receive them:
[Simon] Chapman conducted a review of wind turbine syndrome complaints from across Australia’s 51 wind farms. Although wind turbines have operated here since 1993, 90 per cent of people made their first complaint after 2009, once … anti-wind farm campaigners began disseminating information. Most of the complaints – 73 per cent – were confined to the six wind farms often targeted by anti-wind farm campaigners, including Waubra, home turf of the Waubra Foundation.
Another explanation came in the latest issue of Cosmos Magazine, from the publication’s health columnist, Doctor Norman Swan. Dr Swan’s latest column pretty much preempted Tony Abbott’s comments, as in it he discussed wind turbine syndrome in the overall context of the loss of control felt by neighbours of wind turbine owners. “There’s ample evidence that people become sick if you remove their sense of control over their lives,” Dr Swan wrote, using the example of a University College London study finding out lower grade British civil servants had more heart attacks than their bosses. He went on to say:
New technologies are also notorious for producing ill health, especially if they have been introduced without a sense of ownership. Australia suffered an epidemic of arm and neck pain in the mid ’80s when computers were introduced to offices… The causative issues included uncertainty about the technology, poor change management and fear generated by unions and the media.
In 2013 Australian filmmaker and researcher Neil Barrett directed a documentary revealing Waubra farmers who owned wind turbines – and were making money out of them – weren’t suffering any wind turbine-related illnesses, despite being the closest people to them. What Zuckerman and Dr Swan’s articles together suggest is people initially feel their lives and households have been intruded upon by neighbouring wind turbines, and then develop a nocebo-induced illness or stress when media, politicians and community groups begin reinforcing the idea that wind turbines are problematic. So, Tony Abbott’s two seemingly distinct reasons for opposing wind farms – that they are ugly and noisy on the one hand, and cause health problems on the other – can be boiled down to one and the same problem: an inability to deal with technological change.
And isn’t this becoming a common theme in Tony Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister.