Tony Abbott finds windfarms visually awful and agrees they may have “potential health impacts”, and says the deal on the renewable energy target was designed to reduce their numbers as much as the current Senate would allow.
Speaking to the Sydney radio host Alan Jones – a long-term windfarm critic – the prime minister said: “I do take your point about the potential health impact of these things … when I’ve been up close to these windfarms not only are they visually awful but they make a lot of noise.
“What we did recently in the Senate was to reduce, Alan, capital R-E-D-U-C-E, the number of these things that we are going to get in the future … I frankly would have likely to have reduced the number a lot more but we got the best deal we could out of the Senate and if we hadn’t had a deal, Alan, we would have been stuck with even more of these things …
“What we are managing to do through this admittedly imperfect deal with the Senate is to reduce the growth rate of this particular sector as much as the current Senate would allow us to do.”
He said the RET had been “put in place in the late days of the Howard government” and “knowing what we know now I don’t think we would have done things this way, but at the time we thought it was the right way forward”.
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said the comments would create investor uncertainty. “There’s Tony Abbott at it again,” he said. “Now he’s anti-windmills.
“Renewable energy is part of Australia’s current energy mix … When you’re the leader of Australia you don’t always have the chance to, I think, just have thought bubbles. You’ve got to create investment certainty. What will the renewable energy investors in wind power now think, knowing Australia is run by a bloke who says he doesn’t like windmills?”
In a report released in February, the National Health and Medical Research Council also concluded that “there is currently no consistent evidence that windfarms cause adverse health effects in humans”.
When the Coalition came to government the RET required 41,000 gigawatt hours of energy to be delivered from renewable sources by 2020. The government immediately commissioned a self-professed climate sceptic, Dick Warburton, toundertake a review.
This recommended drastic reductions to the RET but after a furious public and industry backlash the government was forced to enter negotiations with Labor and the Senate crossbench to reach a compromise. After lengthy talks they agreed that the RET be cut to 33,000GWh, with exemptions for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium.
But the environment minister, Greg Hunt, and the resources minister, Ian Macfarlane – who brokered the deal on the RET with Labor – insisted its primary aim was not to reduce the amount of renewable energy built, or to reduce the number of windfarms, but to prevent the industry from failing to reach the original target, which would then trigger a penalty price that would force power prices up.
“The critical part here is the potential for doubling what’s been installed over the last 15 years within half a decade and that’s a very good outcome for the environment, it’s a good outcome for the sector, but it means it will be done in a way that it can actually build rather than the risk of not achieving and then falling into a de facto, massive penalty carbon tax of $93 per tonne which nobody wants to see,” Hunt said in an interview in March.
“Can I be a little indulgent?” he said. “I drive to Canberra to go to parliament and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive. I think they’re a blight on the landscape.”
A Friends of the Earth renewables spokesman, Leigh Ewbank, said the prime minister’s comments proved the government’s energy policy was ideologically driven.
“The prime minister admitted to Alan Jones that his government has actively sought to stifle the wind energy sector … the prime minister’s admission proves once and for all that his government’s energy policy is ideologically driven,” Ewbank said.
And he suggested Abbott “defer to the experts” on the issue of windfarms and health. “There are now 24 reviews by credible bodies, such as the Australian Medical Association, that show wind energy is clean and safe.”
Andrew Bray, national coordinator of the Australian Wind Alliance, said continual government interference in renewable energy came at a cost.
“It deprives regional communities of economic opportunities they should be enjoying now and holds Australia back from becoming the renewable energy powerhouse we should be,” he said.
Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler said the prime minister’s “stunning admission” that “his goal was to put an end to the renewable energy industry confirms [his] utter lack of foresight”.
“It’s gobsmacking that Australia’s prime minister can be so short-sighted, and so out of touch,” Butler said. “Tony Abbott is an embarrassment and this will not help Australia’s participation in the negotiations at the upcoming Paris conference.”
The Greens senator Larissa Waters said: “We sort of knew this was his view but he came right out and said it this morning. This is a prime minister who does not like clean energy.”