The Office of the National Wind Farm Commissioner recently released its first full Annual Report to the Parliament of Australia.
In the Summary, the Commissioner reported:
With regard to complaints received, our Office has received a total of 90 complaints about wind farms during the period up to 31 December 2016.
Of these 90 complaints received, 46 complaints were about operating wind farms and related to nine wind farms. As at 31 December 2016, a total of 32 of these complaints have been closed by our Office.
A further 42 complaints received by our Office were about proposed wind farms and related to 19 wind farms. As at 31 December 2016, 33 of these complaints have been closed by our Office.
The remaining two complaints did not specify a wind farm and have been closed.
Almost immediately, pro-wind forces in Australia claimed that the number of complaints noted was very small relative to what had been expected, and noted further that a significant number of the complaint files were closed because the individuals reporting chose not to pursue the matter further.
An obvious explanation for that is, like Ontario, people file complaints with the wind power developers and government but when their reports of adverse health effects and disturbance are met with inaction, they give up.
Conflict of interest
The Commissioner noted that the practice of using acoustics experts so developers may provide reports to government indicating compliance with noise regulations is open to a conflict of interest.
It is very common that the experts engaged to perform the design assessments and reports during the planning phase are the same experts engaged by the developer to perform the post-construction assessments. Developers often use the same experts on multiple projects.
The selection and use of the same expert in both the design and then operating phases of a wind farm may give rise to perceived or real conflicts of interest between the developer and the expert. As a compliance with the noise standard and is then engaged to assess the operating wind farm for actual compliance, may be placed in a difficult situation if the acoustician discovers the operating wind farm is in fact non-compliant, particularly if areas of non-compliance may be a result of errors made in the original acoustician’s pre-construction assessment.
There is certainly scope for a better separation between the experts used for the predictive assessments versus the experts used for the post-construction assessments of a wind farm, along with peer review of the expert’s work so as to minimise errors, maximise transparency and better manage perceived or real conflicts of interest. (page 28)
Wind power companies not managing complaints properly
What the pro-wind forces fail to point out too, is that the Commissioner was harsh in his criticism of how wind turbine noise complaints are managed by the wind power companies.
… our observations are that many wind farms are not following their own documented procedures when handling complaints, leading to situations including:
• multiple complaints from a resident about the same issue with no action being taken by the wind farm operator to investigate or resolve
a lack of rigour in investigations and correspondence, and
• a lack of clarity regarding next steps in the process leading to numerous complaints that remain unresolved and/or have not been closed.
Even if the endorsed complaint handling procedures were being followed, there is also a wide range of wind farm complaint handling procedures in place that vary by developer and project, resulting often in a lack of consistency in the quality and effectiveness of the procedures. Although wind farm operators possess a wide range of complaint handling skills, there are further opportunities to improve the capability of staff and effectiveness of the wind farm industry’s complaint handling procedures.
We have encouraged a number of wind farm developers and operators to voluntarily publish their complaint handling procedures on the wind farm’s website… (page 29)
Moreover, the Commissioner said, noise emission audits are not covering the full range of noise produced by the turbines, including “tonal” or “low frequency noise.”
In assessing noise-related complaints, the objective ‘tests’ currently in place do not necessarily capture the tonal character of noise emissions that a complainant may be experiencing. For instance, insufficient maintenance of infrastructure (for instance, a turbine or a substation transformer) may lead to harmonic frequencies that produce a harsher tone to the human ear. While this is not typically represented in noise assessment data, contemporary noise measurement or recording devices can be used to indicate that the tonal character of a particular noise emission may reasonably be considered to be disturbing or offensive to a complainant. (page 29)
Adverse health effects
As to specific adverse health effects reported, the Commissioner said that in the absence of actual medical reports it was difficult to make any conclusions.
Complaints regarding health concerns received by our Office, to date, have provided only anecdotal evidence regarding stated health issues and causality. It has therefore been difficult to confirm whether or not the stated health conditions reported by complainants are a direct result of the wind farm’s operations or from some other cause.
It is possible that stated health conditions may be caused by other known causes not related to the wind farm’s operations. Of concern is the potential situation whereby a resident may fail to seek and obtain appropriate medical advice for a treatable condition due to the possibly incorrect assumption that an operating wind farm is perceived as the cause of the health condition.
Health conditions may also arise as a result of stress, annoyance or anxiety related to the presence of an operating wind farm or concerns about the effects of a proposed wind farm. Further, uncertainties in relation to whether a proposed wind farm will actually proceed (a period which may extend for several years) may also contribute to stress and anxiety. Again, affected residents may need to seek appropriate medical treatment for their health conditions as well as seek ways to resolve their concerns.
The Commission recommended:
9.2.1. Federal and state governments should continue to assess the outcomes of research into wind farms and health, including outcomes of the two NHMRC funded wind farm health studies and recommendations of the ISCOWT. Environmental standards should be monitored and reviewed in line with any recommendations arising from these programs.
9.2.2. Residents living in the vicinity of an operating or proposed wind farm that are experiencing health conditions should be encouraged to seek appropriate medical advice to properly diagnose and treat any health-related conditions accordingly.
9.2.3. Medical practitioners who identify causational links between a patient’s health condition and their proximity to the operation of a wind farm should report such incidences in an appropriate way to the relevant professional body, association and/or government agency.
9.2.4. Residents who are experiencing unacceptable noise levels from a wind farm should be encouraged to report such incidents to the wind farm operator, the compliance authority and/or the appropriate regulator.
Don’t stop reporting
People wishing to report excessive noise or vibration from industrial-scale wind turbines should call the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change at 1-800-268-6060; if the call is placed during business hours, the caller may be referred to the local District Office.
The caller should receive an INCIDENT REPORT NUMBER.
The MOECC has told Wind Concerns Ontario that callers should be prepared to provide:
- name and telephone number
- direction of the wind
- wind speed (this is available from the weather network on TV or on your “smart” phone)
- location relative to the nearest turbine(s)
- a rating of the noise and/or vibration/pressure on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most severe.