ON THESE long summer evenings, I come home from work in daylight and see the windmills from a long way off. From the hills road, you see a straight line of six. From the coast road, you see a row of four and two off to the side. From Wonthaggi, you see a clump of spinning daffodils that were planted by a haphazard gardener.
It's not just the position that's mysterious. It's rare to see six turbines operating at the same time. You often see five turning while one is still, but not always the same one. Sometimes there is just one turning, then it stops and another starts. Is this a trick of the wind?
From their early days I heard our turbines weren’t much chop, or perhaps it was our wind that wasn’t much chop. It was a bit like our coal, which wasn’t the very best coal either.
So many theories, so many rumours. As Pontius Pilate put it, "There's too much spin. I don't know who's telling the truth." In fact, as Ben Courtice wrote in A turn for the Better (January 20, 2013), our little farm produced 28.3 gigawatt-hours in 2011, more than enough electricity to power the town and worth about $6 million retail. According to the operators of the farm, it saves 44,194 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, equivalent to taking 10,250 cars off the road.
After eight years, you'd think we'd be bored with talking about the windmills but people still like to bat the breeze. I’ve heard people who would ridicule a kinetic art installation in a gallery grow lyrical describing the way the windmills move. We usually settle on “sculptural”, but it’s more than that: it’s beauty and grace with purpose.
For some years, particularly before they were built, the wind turbines were a subject best avoided. A proportion of residents were dead set against the wind farm for a range of reasons: it was too near the coast; it was foreign owned (by a New Zealand state-owned corporation); it would kill birds; the turbines would frighten the cows; the sub-audible low-frequency noise of the blades would be unbearable; the flickering could cause epilepsy, even strokes. Worst of all, these 100-metre-plus monsters would ruin the view.
I used to wonder at the time – compared with the Latrobe Valley smokestacks belching out cancerous chemicals on the surrounding population? Ignorance wouldn’t normally shut me up but in this case I kept quiet because there were too many people who knew an awful lot. Our councillors were agreed: Bass Coast was no place for a wind farm. So there was consternation in 2002 when the state government called in the project and issued a planning permit. Then mayor Neville Goodwin said it was one of the worst things ever to happen in Bass Coast, ruining the iconic view of the coast from Kilcunda.
“Actually, I don’t think they look that bad,” I ventured one day to a friend after the turbines were finished. He looked at me warily. “I like them,” he said. All down the coast, people were saying the same thing.
I did a vox pop in Wonthaggi before the 2005 council election. Of the 20 people I spoke to, nine raised the windmills, even though it wasn’t a council issue. They needed to get it off their chests. “I love them,’’ people kept saying. A Kilcunda resident said she sat out on her verandah in the evening, soothed by the sight of the turbines turning in the breeze.
Ben Courtice suggests Wonthaggi, and Bass Coast, are ideally situated to replicate Hepburn, where residents have set up their own community-owned wind farm. There are two major obstacles: bowing to the anti-wind farm lobby, the state government amended planning laws in 2011 to give people power to veto wind turbines within two kilometres of their homes and to ban wind farms altogether in certain places, including within five kilometres of Bass Coast.
Bass Coast Council has no official policy on wind farms, but a sense of hostility remains. The Wikipedia entry for Wonthaggi still reads: “The Bass Coast Shire Council was opposed to the wind farm along with local residents”. But these are temporary obstacles and will be changed when sanity prevails.
What of the health effects – the so-called “wind-farm syndrome”? By proceeding with wind energy, are we condemning some of our fellow residents to a life of misery in their shadow? In 2010, the National Health and Medical Research Council assessed the total noise output of a 10-turbine wind farm as 35 to 45 decibels when a person stood 350 metres away. This was about the same level as standing in a "quiet bedroom".
Background noise in a rural area at night was rated at between 20 to 40 decibels.
Professor Simon Chapman, from Sydney University’s School of Public Health, spoke on Radio National last November about the health effects attributed to wind farms: “These include greying hair, energy loss, concentration lapses, weight gain and all the problems of ageing. Sleep problems are mentioned most, but insomnia is incredibly common. Chickens won’t lay; earthworms vanish; hundreds of cattle and goats die from ‘stray electricity’.”
Chapman contends the health complaints are “psychogenic: a communicated disease spread by anti-wind interest groups, sometimes with connections to fossil fuel interests. People can worry themselves sick.” The European wind industry sees the phenomenon as largely Anglophone, and even then only in particular regions where anti-wind farm groups are operating. One clue, Chapman says, is that money seems to be an antidote to the ailments of “wind farm syndrome”.
The pressing question for us in Bass Coast is where wind farms could be. I like the idea of putting them on the ridges, but the wind is more variable there. Degraded farm land away from the coast may be better. Perhaps they could be put out at sea, as they have been in several European countries. Anyway, this is a subject for debate and consultation: between us, we need to work out where they can go and where they cannot go.
Then landholders within the permissible areas can decide whether their land is available or not. With many farmers struggling financially, the income from hosting wind turbines could make the difference between survival and ruin. Of course, surrounding landholders are also affected by such a decision, but in most cases problems could be solved by spreading the income around: perhaps half to the landowner and half among the neighbours, depending on their proximity. If each whoosh or flicker of the blades is bringing you in money, it’s unlikely you’ll catch wind farm syndrome.
It’s a long-term vision but if we want wind power here we need to get moving now. The first step is to repeal the laws that prevent it from happening. We can get the ball rolling by putting the pressure on our local councillors and MPs.
Think your voice doesn’t count? Remember it took only a few angry voices back in 2003 to convince Bass Coast councillors that wind farms were the work of the devil.
Fanning fear: the windfarm nocebo effect Simon Chapman, ABC November 28, 2012