Thursday, 28 February 2013
Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012; Second Reading
This bill is certainly one that relates to a topic very much discussed around the Australian community. I refer senators to the speech of Senator Birmingham back in November 2012 which confirmed very serious concerns about the health impacts of the noise coming from wind farms. I understand that since November last year we have proposed some amendments to the bill, effectively calling upon the National Health and Medical Research Council to develop appropriate guidelines for an independent study of the impacts of wind farms and the noise of wind farms on people living in the vicinity.
Mr Deputy President, as you know, I come from the north of Queensland. There are some wind farms up around Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tableland—indeed, they were some of the first wind farms to be established in Australia. There has been concern from residents in that area about health impacts on them from those wind farms. I have to say that, while I am one who believes in renewable power, I have often wondered about the visual pollution that wind farms cause. I remember in the very early days of the Greens political party, they were very vocal about the visual pollution of wind farms. You only have to go out to Lake George near Canberra to see what used to be a wonderful country vista with magnificent rolling hills—
You're right, Senator Boswell. I cannot understand the Greens on this either. Mind you, I cannot understand the Greens on anything. I do understand this and this alone: that they are a very left-wing socialist party and some of their members like Senator Rhiannon make no bones about that. They are quite open about the fact that they were once members of the communist party and believe in that socialist, left-wing dogma. That much I do understand about the Greens—anything else I do not really.
There is the issue of visual pollution. There is a place for wind farms at times, but one has to wonder why the community has not been outraged just at the visual pollution. Senator Madigan's bill refers more to the genuine concerns that many people have about the impact that wind farms are having on their communities, on their lifestyles and on their health. Neither the parliament nor the government should easily dismiss these concerns. You will be aware, Mr Deputy President, that this bill was referred to the Senate's Community Affairs References Committee, which presented a report on the social and economic impact of rural wind farms in June 2011—almost two years ago. The committee recommended that:
… the Commonwealth Government initiate as a matter of priority thorough, adequately resourced epidemiological and laboratory studies of the possible effects of wind farms on human health. This research must engage across industry and community, and include an advisory process representing the range of interests and concerns.
That recommendation was a unanimous one, and I emphasise the words 'as a matter of priority' to do this research. It is typical of the Gillard Labor government that they understand 'a matter of priority' as almost two years later and have ignored issues which really do concern Australians and which many people would say do have an impact on the health of Australians.
Is our Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, looking at these things as a matter of priority or is she campaigning in Australia's longest ever election campaign in Western Sydney? Mr Acting Deputy President, I will bet you that, as she campaigns in Western Sydney, Ms Gillard is not focused on the health concerns many Australians have about wind farms. I suspect that people in Western Sydney would not have to put up with the impact of wind farms, as I suspect there are not too many around that area—
Senator Boswell interjecting—
And you are right, Senator Boswell, I suspect there are not too many at Rooty Hill, but then I am not sure that Ms Gillard is going to Rooty Hill now. One of Ms Gillard’s ministers actually said that it would be high farce to book in at the Rooty Hill RSL. What a joke of a government. It would be funny if it were not serious, because problems that need the attention of the Prime Minister, problems that are addressed in this bill, are being ignored while the Prime Minister embarks upon Australia’s longest ever election campaign.
On 13 September 2012, a year and a half after the committee's recommendations were made, the government responded by saying that they accepted the recommendations in principle. Again, this shows how focused Ms Gillard is on the real health concerns of Australians! Apparently the government then provided an NHMRC literature review. They said, 'Here are a lot of readings on the subject; that is our response.' But that is not the sort of Australian based research, with thorough epidemiological and laboratory studies, that we think is necessary to provide the robust scientific evidence needed to manage this very concerning issue.
Senator Madigan and most of us on this side of the chamber believe that, where it is important, where it is relevant, we should make our decisions based on science. The government have continually ignored science. You only have to look at the bioregional marine plans to see that the government’s decision in that important area for Australians was based on the lobbying of a foreign environment group which has little concern about the Australians who would be impacted, and there was practically no reference to the science on the subject. One aim of the marine bioregional plan was to save fish stocks in the Coral Sea, near where I come from. The take of fish from the Coral Sea over many, many years has been infinitesimal. Even a year 1 science student would have been able to tell the Gillard government that. But they do not make decisions on the basis of science, as they should; they make them on the basis of political necessity, on the importance of getting Greens preferences at the next election and on the fact that the Greens are supported by some very wealthy people, including the Pew Environment Group. That group commenced some years ago in the United States on the back of very big donations from oil companies in the United States that felt they needed to absolve their consciences by doing something 'positive' for the environment.
We believe that these decisions and what Senator Madigan is calling for in his bill have to be based on science. That is why we have proposed an amendment to this bill which seeks a scientific approach. Senator Madigan will no doubt speak for himself later, but I understand there is some support for the idea that we should insist upon proper and adequate scientific research.
I mentioned my interest in wind farms. There are some in North Queensland. I have always been appalled by their visual pollution, particularly around Canberra, and in the north. There was the CopperString proposal up in North Queensland—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I think Senator Boswell mentioned a politician up that way. I am not sure if he is a politician—you never see him in parliament. You never see him voting on important issues. I never take much notice of what the current member for Kennedy says. I do recall, Senator Boswell, that for years he has been talking about development of the north and some water storage facilities on the Flinders and other rivers up that way. When a leaked draft coalition discussion paper on these things hit the newsstands—I do emphasise it is not coalition policy at this stage—all Mr Katter could do was oppose the proposals that I thought he had been calling upon and supporting for a long period of time. But it is always difficult to understand what Mr Katter's view is on anything.
There was a proposal for a power grid in the north. I do not want to go into that; it has fallen on tough times. But part of that proposal was for a wind farm in the plains to the west of Townsville, around Hughenden.
One would think that, if there are to be wind farms, somewhere like that might be a good place—assuming the wind patterns are appropriate there. It is, to a degree, away from population bases, so the sorts of health difficulties which Senator Madigan referred to in his bill would be obviated.
We believe there should be research which, as I said, includes full monitoring and full laboratory and epidemiological studies. It should be research which ensures that the views of industry and community are heard so that areas of concern can be studied and addressed. It should look at audible noise, low-frequency noise—infrasound—electromagnetic radiation and vibration arising from or associated with wind farms, including wind turbines. It should look at transmission lines, substations, telecommunications towers and other structures associated with industrial wind electricity generation. That is why we are moving this motion.
Wind farms and wind power generation are important in achieving the 20 per cent renewable energy target set by the Commonwealth—by the Howard government. As time has moved on, however, more and more questions have been raised about whether that 20 per cent renewable energy target is appropriate for Australia at the present time. I assume Senator Boswell will speak a lot more about that in his contribution to the debate on this bill. Suffice it for me to say that I do think there is a change in community perception and I think that is something the current government and any future government might have to look at very carefully.
In the limited time left to me I will just raise a couple of things. I am a great believer in hydro power. Very often you will hear people from Tasmania—and the Greens political party, for some reason, seem to have a greater following in that state than anywhere else—
It is a state which lives on hydro power and yet, when you talk about hydro power in any other state, suddenly it is bad, it is wrong and you cannot have it. You can have it in Tasmania but not anywhere else. Perhaps one of the Greens senators might tell me why it is good in Tasmania but not good in Queensland.
Fortunately, a new government in Queensland is seriously looking at hydro power. The Burdekin Dam has been up for some time—an initiative of the Fraser Liberal government—and now there is considerable money being spent on putting a small hydro-electricity power plant on it. There are opportunities to raise the dam wall and to increase the power supply from doing so. There was also a community meeting, just a couple of weeks ago up in Ravenshoe, at which the Tully-Millstream Koombooloomba Dam extension was discussed at length. Quite a bit of work has been done on that.
I see Senator McLucas mumbling to herself. You would think that, as a senator sometimes based in Cairns, she would be aware of community interest in a baseload power station for Cairns—a power station which relies not on fossil fuels but on water power. Rather than mumbling about it, I would have thought that Senator McLucas, who will no doubt take part in this debate later, would have had some interest in it.
I also mention the idea of using the enormous amounts of water which come out of the mountain ranges of Papua New Guinea to supply power—and perhaps even water in times of drought—to Queensland and Australia. The Queensland government some time ago put in place a memorandum of understanding with the PNG government on that proposal. It is something which shows that there alternatives to fossil fuels, that you can use renewable energy and that you can perhaps do so cost-effectively.
I know Senator Boswell and many other people have been concerned at the cost to Australia of the renewable energy program. I lament always that Ms Gillard broke her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. The carbon tax of course does not reduce carbon emissions. Even on the government's own figures, carbon emissions increase under the carbon tax. Australia is responsible for less than 1.4 per cent of the world's carbon emissions. One therefore wonders why Australia is burdened with the world's largest carbon tax—$23 a tonne. The Europeans are paying either $5 or $10, depending on which day of the week it is. The New Zealanders are paying $1. I think some Chinese provinces are doing it at 20c. Australia is paying $23, going up to $29, going up to $39, going up to $300 a tonne—and the Labor Party wonders why the jobs of Australian workers are going offshore. Time does not allow me to pursue that further except to lament that our Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, as the Labor leader, would promise not to introduce a carbon tax and then make it the first thing she did. I see that she and her ministers continue to say what a great thing the carbon tax is. If that is true, why did she promise not to introduce it? Did she not understand, back before the last election, that it would be as good as she now claims it to be? It just shows what an absolute farce the current government of Australia is.
Needless to say, this is an important bill. I congratulate Senator Madigan for raising it. I will be supporting the coalition's amendments and I hope that means we will actually get somewhere on this very important issue. (Time expired)
I must admit to some disappointment that we are today debating a bill about wind farm noise. The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Windfarms) Bill has its origins in concerns about the supposed health effects of living next to wind farms. As Senator Milne noted in her contribution to the debate, an enormous variety of symptoms have been attributed to wind turbines. The list starts with headaches, nausea, loss of sleep and fatigue, and goes as far as things like terminal cancer. Indeed, allegations have been made that animals keel over dead as a result of wind turbines. As a doctor, many of these symptoms are familiar to me, and they do have much in common with many other conditions that are associated with modern life. I do not doubt for a moment that these symptoms are real, but the cause is much more complicated than the substance of this bill implies.
What we are debating today are matters of scientific fact—are wind farms noisy, how much acoustic energy do they introduce into the environment, does that energy have a direct impact on the human body that can lead to health problems. These are not political questions; they are questions of empirical fact. I will come back to the facts of the health impacts of wind farms in a moment, but I do need to emphasise the importance of science in this debate. Science is the pursuit of truth; the pursuit of knowledge. As a scientist by training I have always respected, indeed have been in awe of, the scientific method and what it has achieved for the human race. The results are all around us. In a few generations, in the blink of history's eye, we have seen air travel, electric power and instantaneous global communication all move from the miraculous to the routine.
My medical training instilled a deep respect for the scientific method as a way of sifting truth from falsehood. Nowhere are the benefits more plain than in medicine. There is a deep respect for this method amongst medical practitioners and researchers. After all, it is not that long ago that medicine concerned itself with balancing the humours and bloodletting. Nowadays a fairly routine trip to the hospital might involve a trip, for example, to a PET scanner. For a PET scan, unstable atomic nuclei are introduced into the body so we can build up a three-dimensional image based on the gamma rays that are emitted. It is just incredible. Few of us would probably stop to consider the centuries of painstaking work that made this possible, but it is reflected in the longer, healthier lives that we lead here today. Many or even most of us would not be alive were it not for the scientific advances of previous decades and centuries.
In other words, science works. Its fruits are on display and cannot be denied. Indeed, we take them for granted. We cannot come up with cogent explanations for the workings of the mobile phone. I use an aeroplane frequently, and I will fly home tomorrow. I trust the phone and the aeroplane, and many other things, because they are built on sound and well tested scientific principles. Science deals with facts in a way that is fundamentally different from politics. Science is not about going into bat for a particular position, about finding some evidence to tailor some predetermined desired outcome. Science is a process; it takes into account the biases inherent in human nature and systematically eliminates them from the final result. Science is not a journey to some predetermined outcome but a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. That is quite foreign to the way public policy is generally made in this place.
It is paradoxical that our lives have become more dependent on science and technology while, at the same time, the status of science in the public debate is eroding. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was not that long ago that the polio vaccine, penicillin and even the atom bomb were branded as new reminders of how science is changing everyday lives and the future of our world. As constant scientific and technological innovation has become a part of background life, the significance of science has faded. As a result, scientists now occupy just another voice in the public debate. On a good day they are given equal billing with another lobby group or vested interest, and this is a dangerous thing when we are debating a matter of scientific fact such as whether wind farms are harmful to human health.
Scientists are not always the best people to participate in policy debates—they are often inexperienced and not skilled in the media, and they can be drowned out or outfoxed by those who are much better equipped for these tasks. Cashed-up lobby groups have the skills and resources to distort debates, and it can be difficult for scientific experts to overcome this. We have seen before the dangers inherent in this way of doing things. The tobacco lobby were extraordinarily successful in muddying the waters around science. They did not need to prove that tobacco was safe, that there was no link between smoking and lung cancer—all they had to do was instil in the public mind the idea that the question was not yet settled and then let inertia and commercial interests do the rest. The same thing is happening with climate change—think tanks, pet academics, fake grassroots groups; they have long been sowing doubt about the seemingly undeniable reality of climate change. They are not struggling for cash or access to the megaphone. Powerful and wealthy industries have a commercial imperative to delay action on climate change, and it is frightening to see how successful they have been.
This bill, which I contend is largely the product of such mischief by vested interests, is one small example of the phenomenon that is now playing out all over the world—and critically here in Australia.
Because of their extraordinary success, science and the sciences do command public respect. We still see scientists as disinterested experts we can trust. Politicians and lobby groups do their best to cash in on that. Science suffers from some of its worst abuses when it is misused and twisted to give a veneer of scientific respectability to a specific policy or ideology. This is pseudoscience, and it is rife in the public debate.
Sorting real science from pseudoscience can be difficult for the public at large, and it is a challenge that the media are often not up to. It takes a lot of time and hard-won expertise to do that. After all, an anecdote is very, very powerful. We all know about the power of the personal story. Personal stories are really of little worth when it comes to settling scientific questions, but they do have the power to sway a debate. They make for a juicy and readable story or a compelling TV moment, and the quest for balanced reporting makes it all too easy to give equal time to both sides of the debate. Especially in scientific matters where it may not be apparent where the consensus lies, it is easier to throw in quotes from competing experts. But, in reality, there are not two sides to every story—at least not two equal sides. In a debate like climate change, giving the impression that there are two sides accomplishes precisely what the vested interests want. The science is undermined because it looks like the question is open and the debate is still a live one.
As policymakers, we have to consider a variety of factors. Science is just one of them. Public values, priorities for scarce resources, and even election commitments all need to be taken into account, but we should be honest about it. Hand-picked evidence, friendly experts and data taken out of context are not science. That is just keeping up appearances. The role of science in policymaking is to find out what works. When used honestly, it is not just another tool that one can use to buttress a predetermined ideological position.
Scientists look for evidence that disproves their theories. They know that, if they do not, others will do it for them, and they will look foolish and lazy. No slogan, no matter how well received by a focus group, will help a scientist if her peers have failed to replicate experimental data. An inconsistency in theory cannot be dismissed based on good polling. In other words, integrity is critical in science. When used properly, science brings integrity back into public policy.
On the substance of this bill: what does the science tell us about wind farms? Wind farms are a mature technology. There are over 200,000 of them operating in the world today. That is enough for us to have some confidence in the effects they have on health. According to the NHMRC's public statement on wind farms and health, there is no scientific evidence that indicates that wind turbines have a negative effect on human health. The level of noise caused by a wind turbine at 350 metres, well short of the typical distance of houses from any turbine, is barely discernible from the ordinary background noise in a quiet bedroom. Measurements of the infrasound—that is, sound of a frequency too low to be detectable by human ears—show that levels near wind farms are lower than a typical urban environment. Of course, wind turbines are not completely silent. Experiencing the peace and quiet of the Australian countryside is one of my chief pleasures in life. Everyone should be entitled to a quiet environment and a good night's sleep. However, noise issues are already regulated, and wind farms are not exempt from these laws.
So, on the one hand, we have good evidence that wind farms produce noise at low levels, often undetectable to the human ear, and we have a situation where science can suggest no mechanism whereby such noises could impact the human body. On the other hand, we have a considerable body of stories from people who are suffering severe health impacts from their proximity to wind turbines. What is going on here?
The special interests that are hell-bent on disrupting the scientific debate in our papers and on TV are also having an effect on people's health. When outfits like the Waubra Foundation spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the safety of wind turbines, this scares people. It is a terrible thing to have to worry about your health and that of your family. I shudder to think of how anxious I would be if I thought a facility was being built next to my family's farm that would pollute the environment and make us ill.
The symptoms attributed to the so-called wind turbine syndrome, including headaches, nausea, tinnitus and loss of sleep, appear to be the invention of a single person. Those symptoms are not unknown. There are many historical examples of illnesses such as these associated with the rise of modern technology. In the 19th century, the symptoms we are discussing here today were given the label 'neurasthenia'. In 1880, George Beard attributed the causes of neurasthenia to a collection of things, including wireless telegraphy, science itself, steam power, newspapers and the education of women.
However, these symptoms did not disappear as we got used to the innovations that caused that anxiety back then. More modern examples include high-voltage powerlines, wireless phone towers, fluoridated water and, indeed, vaccination. All of these have been associated with the symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headache and so forth. In every case, the best science has failed to find a causative link between these issues and adverse effects on human health. Indeed, with things like wireless internet or powerlines, it is often possible to prove that the symptoms continue as long as the sufferer believes that they are being exposed to the source, even when the source no longer exists. In medical science this is known as the nocebo effect: the belief that something causes you real harm.
These problems, known as psychogenic illnesses, are well documented in the scientific literature. Psychogenic conditions may be on the rise. A growing distrust in science is manifesting itself in a suspicion of conventional medicine and technology. The advent of the internet—which is, incidentally, another one of science's great achievements—has widened access to information and misinformation. Anyone concerned about health impacts can find no shortage of information to fan the flames of their fears. Wind turbines would appear to be but the latest example of this phenomenon.
Simon Chapman, who has made some valuable contributions to this debate and has investigated the situation, has found that only a small minority of wind farms have attracted health complaints.
In evidence he gave to the inquiry into this bill he found that, while nobody in Western Australia has ever made such a complaint, it is where anti-wind-farm activism is present that complaints occur. Complaints about health tend to follow publicity about health effects. In short, there is no substantial evidence that wind farms impact on human health. But the literature on psychogenic illness is very compelling in this case.
Further evidence that has been tendered to the inquiry into this bill points out that people who have financial interests in a wind farm near their properties exhibit none of these symptoms. They are also rare in non-English speaking populations, such as in Denmark, where they have many more wind turbines but less access to the English literature on the supposed ailments associated with wind power.
I want to be clear about this: I do not doubt the testimony of those who are experiencing these symptoms. I believe that those symptoms are genuine and do lead to suffering. When somebody says they are experiencing pain or are in discomfort, we should not deny them that experience. Those symptoms are real. What I do contest is the source of these symptoms. The evidence is very clear that the acoustics of the turbines do not have a measurable impact on human health but, of course, the anxiety created by wind farm opponents does. Stress and worry have enormous consequences for health and wellbeing. Once the seeds of fear have been sown, it is very difficult to undo the health consequences. I therefore heartily condemn those who continue to spread this misinformation. It is the spread of misinformation that harms, not the wind turbines themselves. A bill such as this only exacerbates that fear and aids those who want to hinder the development of wind power for other commercial reasons.
This bill focuses on the supposed negative health effects of wind farms which, as I have pointed out, have no scientific basis whatsoever. Yet it completely ignores the health benefits, which are well documented in the scientific literature. Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, for power generation. Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal. As such, it seems absurd that we are spending time debating whether the noise from distant wind turbines can injure people and not debating the terrible and well-documented effects that coal has on human health.
At every stage of the process, from the mining of coal to the combustion of coal and the transport of coal, there are measurable impacts on our health. Coal fired power in Australia burdens the community with a human health cost—including from lung and heart conditions—of over $2 billion annually. Reducing the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport can reduce the incidence of these conditions of heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer. In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll. That does not even take into account the health impacts of climate change; extreme weather; heat waves; flooding; the spread of vector borne diseases like dengue fever and Ross River fever, and the increase in incidences of diseases like gastroenteritis, all of which the World Health Organisation have stated will increase as a result of runaway climate change. The effects of climate change have already been responsible for the deaths of many Australians.
21 This bill is a case study in the need for evidence based policy. Those who suffer from 'wind turbine syndrome' are not suffering because turbines are dangerous. They are suffering because they have been poorly served by those who claim to be acting in the public interest but are really acting for vested interests. Scaremongering about the health effects of wind power is irresponsible. It causes enormous anxiety for some people and it threatens to derail a promising and necessary industry for this country. For those reasons, I cannot support the bill.22
I rise today to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012. It would come as no surprise to Senator Madigan that I have strong views on this bill and it would also be no surprise to him that I am taking an active interest. I cannot proceed with my presentation to my Senate colleagues without addressing a number of issues which came up with Senator Di Natale's presentation over the last 20 minutes, given that the first 10 minutes of his presentation was a rambling discourse on the effects of science on everything that matters in life. That is very important, but I fail to see how trying to draw the link between the evolution of science and the way in which it is presented is helping his cause here, because that is the very issue this bill is looking to address.
I say from the onset that the proposed coalition amendment throws the onus back onto that issue of science. Basically it would rely on a report to be commissioned by the National Health and Medical Research Council onto the science of effects of this proliferation of wind farms. I hear all the emotive issues like Meniere's disease and tinnitus. I am not going to speak too much about that, but will address how the case was put to me very simply by a prominent sound engineer who has done work on these wind farms and also for most of the government agencies around the country over the years on issues of sound and its effects on the community. I think we have to be very careful to keep this argument simple because it does get clouded with complexity.
This man said to me, 'Senator Edwards, this issue of infrasound is something which does not affect everybody. Let me put it to you this way: if you and I put to sea on a moderate day and you get seasick and I don't, why is that?' I pondered the question. He said, 'That is the same as infrasound.' The cynical people who do not experience the effects of infrasound sit in judgement of those who do experience it. Let us be very careful when we are talking about the science, because science is something that you can hide behind. This is something that does not affect everybody.
With our amendment—it is a credible amendment; it is not something that should be baulked at by anybody here in this chamber—and a competent agency, and none are more competent than the National Health and Medical Research Council, to undertake with strict terms of reference an inquiry into this issue we will hopefully address the facts, rather than involve ourselves in this political discourse which pits science agencies against each other, depending on who is paying. It is the old story: you can get a very, very credible independent expert's report as long as you are paying.
Let me move on. On this area of renewable energy, everybody who has been listening to my comments and contribution knows that my issue has not been on wind farms and has not been around the issue of health—although I believe it is something that should be addressed and will be addressed, if our amendment is adopted. My issue is that the complexity of the argument of wind farms has 99 per cent of the Australian public completely disengaged. They are completely disengaged because they switch off. It is because of the issue at the very heart of wind farms, which is the 20 per cent renewable energy target.
We are committed to renewable energy at the coalition, but it has to be equitable, it has to be spread around this country and there has to be a network in which we can fully take up the benefits of renewable energy. Last year, I sat in on the Select Committee on Electricity Prices' inquiry. I can assure you, it is a very complex area across this country and one which the average Australian cannot get their head around. I will tell you why: to compare the cost of electricity generation—if you can compare it technology to technology—they use a mechanism called the levelised cost. I warn anybody who is listening that they will have to pay attention here, because the basis of renewable energies and the premise of how it is structured is based on this. I will get into acronyms a bit later too. The levelised cost of energy—the LCOE—is the most transparent metric used to measure electric power-generating costs and is widely used as a tool to compare the generation costs from differing sources. The levelised cost of energy, the LCOE, is a measure of marginal costs—that is, the cost of producing one extra unit—of electricity over an extended period. It is sometimes referred to as long-run marginal costs or LRMC.
The LCOE is representative of the electricity price that would equalise cash flows—that is, the inflows and outflows—over the economic life of the energy-generating asset. It is the average electricity price needed for a net present value, or an NPV, of zero when performing a discounted cash flow, a DCF, analysis. With the average electricity price equal to the LCOE, an investor would break even and so receive a return equal to the discount rate on the investment. The LCOE is determined by the point where the present value of the sum discounted revenues is equivalent to the discounted value of the sum of costs. The analysis of the levelised cost of electricity uses a set of core economic parameters and assumptions to enable a relatively consistent comparison of electricity generation technologies.
These assumptions have had a significant impact on the LCOE calculation—with assumptions about interest rates and policies such as carbon taxes et cetera, which all remain important in any calculation that is based on the economic life of the asset. Who could not be absolutely compelled by that argument? You wonder why people just pay their electricity prices and do not get involved in this discussion about renewable energy! The people that do get involved in this discussion are the people that are affected. That is the people who are affected both visually and regarding their health, which you cannot ignore. Senator Di Natale quite rightly said that those people should be heard—excuse the pun—because any pain should be addressed. As I said earlier, the pain is not experienced by everybody but cannot be ignored by anybody.
The people of Australia are unwittingly paying both high social and economic costs to produce wind energy. This bill is important for ensuring a sustainable balance can be struck between those interests of both local communities and wind farm developments, while still meeting Australia's 2020 commitment to renewable energy targets.
In in my home state of South Australia, we have had significant firsthand experience with wind farms. At Waterloo near my hometown of Clare, in the state's mid-north, TRUenergy announced plans only six months ago to add six new wind turbines to its existing Waterloo wind farm. It is a project worth about $40 million. So it is an issue for me and it is very close to home. It is also an important fact—and if anybody has followed my comments on this they would know—that South Australia accommodates nearly half of the wind power that has been installed to date across the country. Not insignificantly or surprisingly, this has resulted in significant increases in electricity prices throughout the state in recent years. South Australia has the highest rate of electricity in this country. It nearly parallels those with the world's highest power costs.
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
I will take interjections at any time from the Greens, if there is some credible thing that they would like to say about this. But the economics of it is that, with the rising cost of living, Australians are struggling to pay their power bills. You can ignore it as much as like and you can surround it with as much science as you would like to produce—
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will continue. Renewable energy certificates have enabled developers of wind farms to maximise their returns. Because of the commitment to the 20 per cent target, we have seen, as I said, this proliferation of wind farms in South Australia and this has seen our state pass the 2020 target in the year 2012. So we are eight years ahead of everybody else.
Senator Boswell interjecting—
I am not sure. There are a lot of reasons that we can attribute that to. So concerned was the South Australian community that my state Liberal colleague David Ridgway MLC, who was the shadow minister for urban development at the time, commissioned an inquiry into the activities of and the lax planning laws for wind farms in that state. Last year, the South Australian state planning minister brought in an interim change to the planning rules governing wind farms, which basically meant that it was a free-for-all for wind farm developers. The change allowed turbines to be built just one kilometre from people's homes and stopped people from being able to use existing laws to stop developments close to their home. The minister took away appeal rights. The minister has made an interim regulation in response to court action taken by a landowner against a wind farm proposal in the state's south-east. The court found in favour of the landowner and the development was dropped. We have a Labor minister in South Australia who is so keen to support the federal Labor Party in the proliferation of wind farms that he is prepared to give up his constituency in an effort to be the golden-haired boy amongst his federal parliamentary colleagues.
Wind farm developers have concentrated on South Australia because of the lax planning regulations and the absolutely unfettered ability to get approvals in that state, and this has been a fault of the Rann-Weatherill Labor government. The guidelines have left South Australia out on its own—out there as an absolute beacon of light for those who want to proliferate the development of wind farms in this country. In relation to that heavy hand of government coming down on people in the south-east of South Australia, the Law Society, when providing evidence to the committee of inquiry into these regulations, shared their deep concern about the power that the planning minister had used in setting up interim regulations. Disturbingly, they provided the minister with unrestrained powers to override the community when approving wind farm developments. No wonder there is deep suspicion and deep division within all communities—particularly in South Australia because we have had much of this development.
Politics is not above people, and if people are continually rallying, as they did in Middleton some two Sundays ago, and are wanting to be heard and are failing to be heard by governments then that is a hallmark of a government out of touch. Why can't and why wouldn't the government support the coalition's amendment to have a proper review of this science? I urge governments of all persuasions to have a look at the economics of it to just see if there is potential market failure. We see a procession of superannuation funds—basically those superannuation funds which are controlled by boards of management or have on them directors with trade union backgrounds—that are all flocking to government sponsored policy which protects investment. We have all found in the past that anything a government gives it can take away. So with the subsidies that exist for renewable energies we have to be very careful that we do not get a distortion of one energy type which can then be taken away by another government. What would happen to the economics of wind farms and wind farm developments if they did not receive a rebate for the purchase of renewable energy certificates? They would collapse. This is the problem with creating a business based on subsidies from governments.
The renewable energy target and the subsidies that go with it are relatively well protected because, generally, it is accepted by all in this parliament that we have to have a target for it. But what happens when governments of the ilk that we have in this country run out of money because of rising debt and mismanagement of the budget? Actually, where is Treasurer Swan at the moment? We have not seen him around for weeks now. He is probably lost out in the western suburbs of Sydney, I suspect, trying to find his fearless leader.
We have a reckless government with a cavalier attitude to their budget. On Christmas Eve, they said: 'That surplus we promised? It's not going to be there. Happy Christmas!' What happens to government policies where they subsidise things—and that it is the case with renewable energy—is that they tend to review them when they run out of money: 'How can we pull back? How can we restrain spending?' That is the risk for the Australian people with anything that is government sponsored welfare, if you like—if it receives a subsidy, a payment. Anything that happens with a change of government policy will see those wind farms stand silent—which is what they have to do, if I may digress, when it is a little bit too hot or, ironically, when the wind is blowing too hard. They have to be switched off.
There are many, many aspects to this whole wind farm debate. I am passionate about it. I know people whose health is affected. There are real people whose lives are affected through the regulation and the lack of compassion or understanding. This bulldozer style is typical of socialistic governments, where they just mandate laws without any consultation. I think they commonly call it 'announce and defend'.
A lot of people, including senators opposite, say that wind is wonderful and it does not increase the cost of living. They say that the carbon tax is a magic pudding for all of us and that, while we export jobs, we will all get healthier. Senator Di Natale attributed the deaths of many people to climate change. I guess that Dorothea Mackellar was a visionary. She must have been a visionary because she spoke all that time ago of the effects on this land of 'droughts and flooding rains'—long before the coal fired power stations that you talk of as the evil of this country came into effect. I urge you to support the coalition's proposed amendment.
The incorporated speech read as follows—
This Bill seeks to amend the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act to give powers to the Clean Energy Regulator that ensure accredited wind farms do not create excessive noise.
Under the Bill, the definition of excessive noise would be background noise plus 10 dBA.
Should a wind farm be found to be contravening the excessive noise provisions of this Bill, it would be prevented from creating and on-selling large-scale generation certificates.
The importance of having a nationally applicable definition of excessive noise has been explained by Dr Bob Thorne, a well-regarded independent acoustician. Dr Thorne said:
" The thing that none of us has is a consistency across all states. That leads to my mind to the most important function of this bill: it gives a consistent approach to excessive noise throughout all of Australia... This is where I would see the benefit of this particular bill in that it provides a certainty of approach to all states, it provides a certainty of approach to the industry and it gives a clear definition to all the different states ' legislation. "
The benefits of a definition of excessive noise that applies to all states and territories will provide clarity and consistency of application throughout Australia.
Those who live close to wind farms can therefore be assured the wind farms are required to operate in accordance with established noise guidelines so that any disturbance caused by wind farm noise is minimised.
Ultimately, this is about empowering individuals and communities who have felt disempowered as a result of these large industrial structures and the excessive noise they create.
The suggested limit of background plus 10 dBA is in fact generous compared with current Australian noise guidelines.
The South Australian Environmental Protection Authority's noise guidelines impose a limit of background plus 5 dBA in cases not involving wind farms.
So we must consider is that, in some areas, noise from wind farms is limited at 40dBA, or background plus 5 dBA, whichever is greater. This figure completely fails to take into account the fact that background noise — the sounds we hear all the time — is going to be far lower in rural and regional areas than in metropolitan areas, and instead allows the highest possible level of noise to occur.
The comparative 'noise nuisance' of 40dBA will naturally be much higher in the areas where wind farms are built.
During the Environment and Communications committee inquiry into this bill, leading acoustician Dr Stephen Cooper gave the following evidence:
" The standards say that if a noise is above the background it is likely to be annoying and that exceedances of up to five are of marginal significance. So the concept has been that for general noise you can have noise that is audible but once you get to about five, above the background, it starts to present problems to the community or those people being affected by the noise. So if the background is higher in a city environment, then you can have a higher noise level. If you are near a large industrial estate or near a freeway that generates noise, then you are in a noisier environment and you can have a higher level of noise emission from the industrial sources.
This graph clearly shows that, as you move to quieter environments, then the criteria that apply should also drop down. "
Excessive noise in general has been shown to cause sleep disturbance and disruption, as discussed in the World Health Organisation's 'Guidelines for Community Noise'.
There is so much information flying around in this debate that it important that independent research into the potential health effects of excessive noise from wind farms is undertaken.
I note that the Coalition has circulated amendments which, if enacted, would require the NHMRC to cause research to be conducted into the possible effects of noise from wind farms on human health.
I thank the Coalition members who have spent a significant amount of time working with Senator Madigan and me to construct some workable amendments. While I do have some concerns about their other amendments, I strongly support the need for more research.
Unfortunately the wind farm debate has been tarnished to some extent by certain individuals who choose to attack those who complain that their health has been adversely affected.
Allowing for independent research is something we should all support, no matter which side of the debate you are coming from.
A unanimous report from the Community Affairs References Committee in 2011 into the social and economic impact of wind farms in regional areas recommended that independent research be undertaken into the reported health effects.
And at this stage it's appropriate to pay tribute to the late Judith Adams and her tireless work in this area.
The committee also recommended that further consideration be given to the separation distance between wind farms and residences, and that further research be done on the noise effects of wind farms, including infrasound.
I want to take this opportunity to discuss some of the arguments that have been raised against this bill.
Some, including Senator Milne, have claimed this bill is 'anti-wind farm' and part of a campaign against renewable energy.
With respect, this bill is not anti anything except excessive noise.
We already have laws in place to control noise levels around airports, major roads, and other significant infrastructure.
How is this any different?
Yes, there are state and territory laws in place that put noise limits on wind farms. But these vary from region to region, and can't be enforced anyway because there is no real-time noise data available.
Senator Milne also spoke at length against the reported health
effects of wind farms. She went so far as to claim that 'where people have a financial interest in the wind farm... these people do not get sick'.
Firstly, I'd like to mention the case of David and Alida Mortimer in the South East of South Australia. They are turbine hosts — they get a financial benefit from having a turbine on their property — but they have been very vocal about the negative impact this has had on their lives.
This bill is not about the purported health effects of wind farms. This bill is about excessive noise — something that is widely acknowledged can have an impact on sleep and quality of life.
But where is the harm in commissioning research into possible health effects? If there is no link, then what is there to fear?
Senator Milne also said she believed Senator Madigan and I were 'part of a campaign against wind energy and renewables in Australia'.
I repudiate that in the strongest terms.
Professor Simon Chapman, whose work on the plain packaging legislation and tobacco advertising I greatly admire, also accused me of being an "anti-wind farm zealot", adding that my interest in this cause brought about a "sad decline of a once admirable independent."
At least he thought I was admirable once.
Professor Chapman is of course welcome to express his opinion, and I am pleased to be able to express mine.
I am not anti-wind farm.
In fact, I am pro-renewable energy. It is on the public record that I believe it is important that we have a mandated renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020.
I also believe that we have a very long way to go to achieve that.
My issue is not with that target but with the way the target is achieved through an over-reliance on one specific form of technology — wind turbines.
Wind farms do not provide a reliable baseload power, which means dirty coal-fired power stations need to be kept on standby.
We need to be investing in baseload reliable renewables, and I worry that our reliance on wind energy is in fact stifling investment in other areas, such as geothermal, solar thermal and tidal power.
So I am not anti-wind power.
But I do believe that wind power is only one part of the solution, and we shouldn't focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.
" [Cumming ' s] analysis shows that despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from green energy schemes driven by the renewable energy target, Victoria ' s wind farm developments have saved virtually zero carbon dioxide emissions in the state. "
He goes on to describe how, despite the feed of wind-generated power into the grid, fossil fuel generators do not reduce their rate of coal consumption.
In South Australia, Cumming estimated that the cost of greenhouse gas abatement was at $1484 a tonne.
I believe climate change is real and must be addressed urgently. We must do everything we can to mitigate the damage it has and will cause to our environment and our economy.
Part of that challenge is reshaping our economy to move towards less carbon-intensive ways of operating across all sectors. It is a fine balance between using a carrot and a stick.
We are not striking that balance.
For example, the structure of the current carbon tax could act as a positive disincentive to investment in other forms of renewable energy.
So, while I of course commend this Bill, I believe we also need to look at our over-reliance on wind energy and the repercussions for investments in other innovative forms of renewable energy.
I note that the Government does have upcoming legislation to extend a tax rebate to geothermal exploration activities.
This is certainly a step in the right direction.
But geothermal projects still struggle to get access to funding, even when specific amounts have been set aside.
For example, in a response to an estimates question I placed on notice last year, the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism stated that the Government had committed a total of $899 million to renewable energy projects.
Of this, only $302 million was for solar projects and $205 million was for geothermal.
And, even worse, only $104 million had actually been received by grant recipients.
This shows a serious neglect in funding alternative forms of energy.
We put all our eggs in one basket with coal-fired power, and we're now paying the price. Let's learn from that and not make the same mistake again.
I understand there is a lot of controversy about wind farms, and that these arguments make some people uncomfortable.
But ultimately, this is a question about excessive noise. It is fair and reasonable that there be a national standard for noise, and that wind farms publish live information to show their compliance with this standard.
In the end, communities must be empowered. They must have access to real-time information on the noise generated from these turbines, because right now they are fighting legal battles with one hand tied behind their back.
In the same way that aircraft noise near airports is publicly available, the same approach should be taken to wind farms.
Surely in the interests of transparency, the industry should not object to this information being made available to local communities.
As I said before, this is no different from noise restrictions in place elsewhere.
I indicate my support for this bill, and I hope this is only the beginning of the debate on these issues.
I am pleased to speak today on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012. The bill seeks to establish a definition of excessive noise for wind farms and the impact of noise on sleep and health. My colleague Senator Di Natale has canvassed with great sensitivity and coherence the way that you assess how people are experiencing health impacts. He did it far more coherently than I could. It is a shame that Senator Edwards is leaving the chamber, because I did want to pick up on one of the issues that he mentioned.
He is still here, which is excellent. The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill concluded that the bill is effectively discriminatory against one kind of power generator, that the bill will not prevent wind farms from operating but could in fact have an impact on electricity prices and that the bill involves the Commonwealth taking over planning and regulatory responsibilities that, in my view, properly lie with the states.
But the committee also concluded—and perhaps that is something that we can all agree on, although the Greens will not be voting for this bill—that every resident, whether in a city environment or in a rural area, should be protected from unreasonable environmental impacts by the operation of planning laws and guidelines. Obviously that applies to a much larger degree of industrial phenomena than simply wind farms. It is an important principle, though, and I would like to acknowledge Senators Madigan and Xenophon for bringing that forward, apart from the rather peculiar way in which wind farms have been singled out in this bill.
When the committee held the hearing into the bill, in November last year, there were strong feelings from people who felt that they had been negatively affected by wind farms. I draw senators' attention to the comments made by Senator and Dr Di Natale that those people should not be dismissed out of hand, because these symptoms are clearly real. People are not making these things up. But how we attribute the cause is extremely important.
Every large-scale industrial technology can be done badly. It can be done with poor consultation and it can have negative impacts on people. It is the case that wind farms have an impact. They are not invisible. They are large structures in the landscape. So there is a visual impact and there is a noise impact and there do need to be clear regulations in place about how to manage those. Ironically enough, I have never heard anybody in the wind industry, which I have good contacts with, disputing any of these things. We should study the impacts and we should learn the lessons. We need to acknowledge what exists in the medical literature and what does not exist. Most importantly, from the perspective of the Greens, we need to learn how to improve consultation processes with affected communities, whether it is for a wind farm installation or anything else.
The other thing from our perspective is to do with the placement of wind installations. If you put them across bird or bat fly ways, you can have impacts on wildlife. The industry has already learnt a great deal in the decades that it has been operating about how to place these installations well. It is crucial to learn the lessons and improve the processes about this technology, because this industry has such a large and important part to play in the future of electricity generation here in Australia and around the world.
We need to acknowledge another important report into wind farms, which was tabled in June 2011, from a Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry chaired by my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert. That offered another careful consideration of these issues. I am canvassing this history in order to underline the point that we must not dismiss these issues out of hand. I do not think wind farm developers should get a free run and be able to circumvent proper community consultation and proper planning procedures just because they are part of an industry I support. I think they should be held to the same standards of community engagement, public health and safety, and planning guidelines as other things—as we are so dramatically failing to uphold in the instance of the coal seam gas industry, the coal industry and the uranium industry, to name three examples that are close to my heart, where we see communities being assaulted, effectively, by invasive industrial processes that have very real and present health threats to those communities.
So the report that Senator Siewert undertook also adopted quite a sensitive approach to people who had come forward expressing health concerns and undertook very rigorous analysis, in particular, of the concerns around infrasound because those issues, in my view, had not been canvassed particularly well in Australia before that inquiry was undertaken.
So the Greens do take these issues seriously, but we also take the fortunes and the future of the wind energy industry very seriously because it is such an important part of our future. It has to be part of our future to mitigate the worst impacts of dangerous climate change. We already live in the age of climate change, and it is actually completely immaterial whether people like Mr Abbott and Senator Joyce believe it exists or not; it is occurring around them regardless. They can choose to adopt a policy blindfold and stumble around in the dark—I would prefer that they did not because of the harm that it threatens to the rest of us—but it is happening whether they believe it to be so or not.
Wind energy, as the most mature, large-scale renewable energy technology where economies of scale have long been an important part of the reason why it is being built, does have a very important part to play in the energy mix here in Australia. We need a zero emissions energy sector, and wind is clearly going to be a large part of that. In all of the studies that investigate how to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy networks, including the one that Senators Milne and Bob Brown and the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, were able to incorporate in the negotiations for the Clean Energy Act being undertaken right now into what a 100 per cent renewable energy sector for the national electricity market would look like, wind is going to take up a large fraction of the heavy lifting because it is cheap, it can be installed rapidly and the technology is mature. I would like to see a greater degree of local content of manufacturing and fabrication here in Australia.
Part of that is around the economics. Last week, my colleague Robin Chapple and I launched Energy 2029, which is a more fine-grained study than has yet occurred in Western Australia for how you would get to 100 per cent renewable energy on the South West Interconnected System—the SWIS—in WA. In both of the scenarios that we had commissioned, wind did a very large part of the heavy lifting for the reasons I have expressed.
As of February this year, wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels in producing electricity in Australia—
Thank you, Acting Deputy President. You will have a chance to speak, Senator Boswell, and I am so looking forward to hearing your contribution.
Now the LCOE calculations that appear to have completely baffled Senator Boswell's colleague Senator Edwards are just a standard way of assessing one energy technology against another. If you are going to compare the lifetime capital and operating costs of an energy technology in a way that is fair—you can compare a nuclear power station, coal, gas and various forms of renewable energy technologies, new and mature—then you need a metric like the levelised cost of electricity, otherwise you are not operating on a level playing field.
It is a shame that Senator Edwards came in here expressing his bafflement at how these calculations are made, because they are entirely standard in the energy industry. What they tell us is that a new wind farm can supply electricity at a cost of $80 per megawatt hour, compared with $143 or $116 from a new coal or gas fired power station. Senator Boswell, 80 is lower, is less, than 143—
Senator Boswell interjecting—
so wind electricity is therefore cheaper—cheaper is the word that I will use—than coal or gas. And both coal and gas technologies have important negative health consequences for the people living near them. Most of the focus has been on coal dust and the impacts of the coal industry, but I would also invite senators to contemplate the plume of toxic organic chemicals that come from, for example, Woodside's gas plant on the Burrup Peninsula that then shrouds the populations of Karratha, Dampier and Roebourne. The gas industry has its health impacts as well, and they need to be called to account.
Senator Edwards—I found this enormously amusing—blamed wind energy for increases in electricity costs in his home state of South Australia. I am from WA, where, because of blocking actions by the Barnett government, we have not seen as great a deployment of wind energy as we have in South Australia. They are starting to get the picture, so we are seeing some installations, but SA, nonetheless, are still further ahead than we are. When you are calculating in a deregulated market like SA the merit order effect of who shall we bring on because there is a supply gap, which generators can supply energy at the least cost, wind energy generators are generating electricity at night for an effective marginal cost of zero, of nothing because, once you have put the capital in, the energy of the wind is delivered for free. And so the Essential Service Commission of South Australia—the ECOSA—which regulates retail electricity prices in South Australia, has recently released a draft price determination that proposes an 8.1 per cent reduction. Senator Boswell, that means the price is going down by 8.1 per cent in the electricity standing offer because you have such a high degree of wind installation generating electricity effectively at the cost of nothing at all. And that, ECOSA proposes, is likely to translate to a reduction of $27 per megawatt hour. What that means in South Australia is a fall in electricity bills by an average of $160 per household. Senator Boswell, that is prices going down, which is different to prices going up.
Senator Boswell interjecting—
I might need your assistance, Acting Deputy President, in spelling out to Senator Boswell the difference between prices going down and prices going up. We can dwell here further if you think that it would be useful to do so.
Renewable energy is capital intensive, and the costs are all up-front, but your fuel costs are zero, and that goes for solar energy as well, which is why it is so exciting to see in Spain, the United States and other markets around the world the development of very large-scale, effectively better than baseload, solar power stations.
Senator Boswell interjecting—
Senator Boswell, they had a housing bubble because of rampant speculation in the housing market, and thank goodness they have got out in front and developed a robust renewable energy technology sector. We will shortly be importing componentry from them because they got out in front. It is not too late for Australia to take a lead in this industry and in this sector, but attacking the wind industry in particular and singling them out, I would respectfully suggest to our coalition colleagues and to Senator Madigan, is a rather poor way of doing that.
Wind power has actually grown faster than the booming solar industry but of course it had something of a head start. In 2008, installed wind power capacity rose by 30 per cent and it is the fastest growing type of new electricity generation. That is why the contributions that you will hear from all Greens who will speak in this debate will say that it is very important to get the planning processes right, to make sure that communities do not feel they are being cut out of the consultation processes if these things are going in their communities or close to their communities.
Currently Australia has 59 separate wind farms, which consist of 1,345 individual turbines with 2,480 megawatts of capacity. Generally you would not get them all generating at the same time but if all of those wind farms were operating at maximum output, they would produce almost 2½ gigawatts of electricity—that is, the output of two large nuclear installations. This technology is mature and it does have a very big place in the Australian energy market. I should acknowledge that there are currently over 14 gigawatts of large-scale wind farm energy projects around the country. One of the reasons the industry is finally stepping up here is that we have some of the policy settings right. We have a renewable energy target that was, I acknowledge, introduced by the Howard government.
It was two per cent originally, Senator Boswell. I was around then. We thought at the time that that renewable energy target was interesting and, of course, partly because of rapid advances in the wind industry, that target was met years before schedule. It was ramped up to 10, it was ramped up to 20 and now we are seeing, not because this technology is flaky and not because this technology is expensive but because it is so successful, coordinated attacks by fossil incumbents on the wind energy sector. I do not believe for a moment that the individuals presenting with health concerns at these public meetings or the people who fronted Senate inquiries are part of some grand anti-wind conspiracy, but let us not deny that renewable energy technology, capital intensive but having zero fuel costs, is a very effective competitor to fossil fuels. It has the incumbents extremely worried and they are doing everything they can to shut out these competitors.
From a purely commercial point of view you might say that it is their right, as energy incumbents, to protect their investment. The Greens believe there is a public health and an urgent social, economic and environmental imperative to ramp up the output of renewable energy generators across the board. This does not mean cutting regulatory corners, it does not mean putting communities at risk, but the urgency cannot be understated for ramping up this technology. Whether they be mature technologies like wind or encouraging the next generation like concentrated solar thermal plants, the need is absolutely urgent.
To give a sense of the importance of the wind industry, in my home state of Western Australia, the South West Interconnected System, the SWIS, which effectively stretches from Geraldton through to Kalgoorlie and Albany, takes in the big generators in Collie in Kwinana—SWIS is about 50 per cent in the electricity consumed in WA. Of the small fraction of renewable energy on that grid, 75 per cent of the renewable energy is generated by wind farms. Three of the largest ones, Collgar at Merredin, Walk Away at Geraldton and Emu Downs at Badgingarra, are very large-scale utility plants making a large contribution. It is not going to be enough and we believe that the wind energy industry has a big future in WA, as it does elsewhere. We want to see the same results as those we have seen in South Australia where the large-scale deployment of this technology is seeing wholesale electricity prices falling.
The coalition are entitled to their own opinions and that is good. That is why we assemble in this parliament—to have a clash of opinions. But can you at least not invent your own facts and make things up, which Senator Edwards was doing before, insisting that wind energy has pushed prices up when the South Australian electricity regulator is telling us it is pushing prices down. We know to a decimal place how far wind energy is pushing prices down. I want to underline the idea that we start now in a serious way to roll out the next generation of renewable energy infrastructure, which, once it is built, requires maintenance but no fuel. That is what will ultimately push electricity prices down. When we become efficient about how we use electricity and stop wasting so much of it and when we finally have a large amount of infrastructure in the ground which effectively has zero fuel costs, we will start to see electricity prices coming down.
We do not believe that this bill provides the best way forward, although I think all of us who have contributed have acknowledged the motives of Senator Madigan in bringing it forward as being to give some voice to people who have expressed genuine health concerns. All I can really do by way of comfort to Senator Madigan is to call his attention to the way Senator Di Natale, or the other the Australian Greens, spelt out that these people do need to be given a voice, to have their legitimate concerns aired. But let us have a look at the cause and effect relationship, at exactly what is giving rise to these concerns in the first place. We should look in a fairly clear-headed way at Denmark—world leaders in wind energy technology. They have huge onshore and offshore installations and buffer zones; they do not have people living right underneath the turbines for perfectly good reasons. They have zero of the health effects that some claim are causing the impacts which are being reported to Senate inquiries and through various other processes.
The Greens will stand with the wind energy industry. It has a huge part to play in energy policy here in Australia. We will not be giving them free rides. We will not be enabling cutting of corners, regulatory or consultative, but let us at least try to work from an acknowledged body of facts in this debate—to do any less than that really is to let down the constituents who have spoken to Senator Siewert and Senator Madigan expressing these health concerns—so that collectively we can take the urgent actions that are required of this present generation to rapidly expand the installation and deployment of renewable energy in this country.
I have listened to Senator Ludlam carefully, and what he is saying as I understand it is that, if you subsidise something so much, it becomes cheaper and therefore it will give out a cheaper product in the end. If I could put it this way, if the government completely built every house, paid for it and put it on the rental market then of course your rent would be less than for someone that had to build a house and get a return on his investment. That is what Senator Ludlam is saying in a nutshell: the government pays for it—well, the government does not pay for it; the cost gets passed on—the product becomes cheaper and therefore eventually you will not have to pay for it or it will cost less. That works if there is a subsidy on it. If Senator Ludlam can tell me that renewable energy does not need a subsidy, he has got the strongest convert he will ever get. But unfortunately renewable energy does need to be heavily subsidised, and that subsidy is being paid for by industry in Australia.
That is not the subject of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012. The subject of this bill that is presented by Senator Madigan and Senator Xenophon is to consider the health issues and the effects on the communities and lifestyles that people are forced into as they live in the vicinity of these particular wind farms and solar energy farms. It is not something I have followed closely, but I have heard and listened to people that say they have definitely been affected, and I think this bill deserves support. I hope the coalition will support it.
But I think there is a bigger effect than that. That is a huge effect, but the effect this is having on prices, the cost of industry, the cost of business and the cost of jobs has to be taken very seriously into consideration. I have here a list of industries that are paying a renewable energy tax and a carbon tax, and I have a list of these people that were paying these taxes in July. I will not mention their names, except for the people that have said that I can. There is a car hire business. You would not think a hire car business would pay much renewable tax or carbon tax. In July they paid $440 of carbon tax and a renewable energy tax of $291. Multiply that out. This is for a very small car hire business. The combined carbon tax and renewable energy tax comes to $8,772 a year. That is a domestic industry. It is a small industry. It probably has an office and not much else. So those self-employed people that drive those cars have to front up for a tax bill of $8,772 every year.
I have another one here called Urangan Fisheries. Urangan Fisheries is owned by a friend of mine called Nicky Schulz. He started off fishing when he was a kid. In fact, he went out fishing in a sailing boat and then developed a fishing business and then, from that, developed an export industry. It employs 60 or 70 people. I asked him to do his carbon tax sums. He said he would in July. In July his carbon tax was $1,967.75 and his renewable energy tax was $1,294.87. So multiply that by 12 and he is up for $39,151.44 in carbon and renewable energy tax. Nick Schulz is a fisherman who worked his way up to be a fish processor, and his product goes on the export market. Because of the high dollar he is having tremendous trouble meeting the market—getting his product away. He has three or four boats of his own, and a number of other fishermen come in and use his facilities to process their fish. He has to meet a high dollar and then pay $39,000 for the privilege of having a carbon tax and a renewable energy tax. How do people compete? How can he compete? How can he sustain his business, which is basically export, when these taxes are inflicted on him? He is having a great deal of difficulty doing it.
There is another one, a Queensland ice distributor. I knew these people. Ithaca Ice Works, as it is known, is run by the Mee family—Jimmy Mee. There have been three Jimmy Mees: I have known his grandfather and his father, who is about my age, and now the son runs Ithaca Ice Works. It is a family business, probably employing 20 or 30 people. They are forced into paying a carbon tax of $4,676.72 for July and a renewable energy tax of $3,093, which comes to $93,236. That is renewable energy and a carbon tax. To say, as Senator Ludlam did, that a carbon tax and renewable energy are not costing anything is just absolutely wrong. They are costing industry a fortune.
I have another one here: a small poultry farm paying $8,446 in combined renewable energy and carbon tax. I can go on and on and on. There is a fairly significant hotel on the Gold Coast paying $13,057 a month in carbon tax and renewable energy tax of $9,209 a month—a total of $267,192. These people are struggling. The tourist industry is struggling because of the high dollar. They are fighting to stay in the game, and then a renewable energy cost and a carbon tax are inflicted on them, and then they have to compete against much cheaper nations for the tourist dollar. It is just hurting them. It is a killing field out there. Twenty-seven thousand jobs have been lost in the manufacturing industry. I am not suggesting it is all because of the carbon tax and the renewable energy tax, but they have taken a toll.
If we want to have a manufacturing sector in Australia, we have to take all this into consideration. It is not only the wind farms; it is the same with other technologies like solar—especially rooftop—which continues to enjoy generous subsidies via the Renewable Energy Target scheme. Australians are paying for energy sources that achieve nothing environmentally and only work to drive power prices higher every year. RET is costing Australia $5 billion a year, not far behind the $9 billion carbon tax. The RET in its current form is unacceptable, and one reason for that is that it was originally a fixed target, but now with 20 per cent by 2020 we are paving the way for around 20 to 28 per cent of power to be sourced from renewables by 2020. We put a target figure of 20 per cent, but, because of the dwindling demand for energy across Australia, AEMO's annual energy and maximum demand forecast in 2012 was significantly lower than the 2011 estimate. Matt Zema said:
Energy use in the large industrial sector was expected to decline three per cent between 2011-12 and 2012-13. That is expected to fall even more over the next five years.
You would think with a rising population and a demand for more jobs that our energy use would be going up. Instead, jobs are being cut, factories are shutting down and electricity consumption is falling—all thanks to the sky-rocketing prices that have resulted from the carbon tax and RET. Reducing the LRET to 28,000 gigawatt hours would make it a true 20 per cent target rather than the 41,000 gigawatt hours target that represents around 26 or 28 per cent of the forecast future demand. Power companies, businesses and industry have all flagged a significant cost saving that could be made by doing this. It is chilling to think what the Australian situation could be in 2020, with 26 to 28 per cent of power coming from renewables. Right now around 10 per cent of electricity generated in Australia comes from renewable sources. Of that, seven per cent is from hydro while three per cent is from wind and solar. The Productivity Commission estimated that the abatement of one carbon tonne cost $60 for wind sources and between $473 and $1,043 for solar sources. Hydro is reliable and relatively cheap, but wind and solar are costing us too much and we do not gain anything environmentally.
Just last week the Queensland Competition Authority announced the biggest hike in household electricity prices in years. The typical customer's annual bill went up by $253. Solar rooftop subsidies and the carbon tax were named as the big culprits. Make no mistake—wind and other renewables are just as bad. The cost of RET now stands at 60 to 70 per cent of the cost of the carbon tax. This will only go up as the annual renewable target goes up. The QCA's findings were not isolated. IPART has already reported the average cost of RET compliance for a typical electricity customer will be $102 per household, which is a nearly five per cent increase on the previous year. It is not only householders who are suffering under the wind and solar power induced RET burden; energy retailers have been forced to pass on the cost of overpriced renewable generated electricity to their customers or to shoulder them themselves. Origin Energy will cut 350 jobs by the end of this year, mostly in Queensland and Victoria, on top of the 500 jobs it has already cut this financial year. There were the 500 or so jobs cut last year by Ergon Energy, which has long pinpointed RET and the government's carbon related policies for pushing up prices. If the power companies are struggling with the cost of renewables, it is their business customers who are really bearing the brunt of this destructive policy. I have brought into this chamber several examples of the hundreds of thousands of dollars RET along with the carbon tax is costing Australian business. As long as 2020 renewable target stays in place, these huge Greens influenced imposts will not go away. One large industrial user in Queensland predicted a $5.78 million electricity bill this year—$1 million tied to the carbon tax and $495,000 tied to RET. Over a quarter of its bill will come from the carbon tax and RET combined. The RET alone represents almost 10 per cent of the power costs.
We all rely on our experience in this place. Senator Di Natale is a doctor and he brought forward his views on renewables. Before I came into this place I sold hardware products and represented various factories in industry. I know how they work and I know who they employ. I know the value of people having a job and I know the value of low-income earners having a job. Unfortunately we are seeing 27,000 people losing their jobs—not because of the high dollar but because of the high renewable energy and carbon tax costs. They are the people that the Labor Party should be supporting—the lowest paid people and the people on Newstart who get $38 a day—and they have been told to go and find a job. I do not know where these jobs are, because every day you see industry closing—300 jobs at Amcor the other day, Pentair, Origin Energy. If factories are not closing, they are moving to New Zealand, like Heinz, which is shutting down some lines here and moving to process tomatoes and beetroot in New Zealand because the costs are too high here.
When manufacturing businesses make the decision either to close or to turn into distributing businesses, buying products from China or America and distributing them and going from perhaps 300 jobs to 60 jobs, they are announcing that renewable energy and the carbon tax are pushing them out of business. It is the underprivileged, those on low incomes, who are paying the price. They are the processors, the people on the production lines; they are the people who work in factories. They are the people out in the west, where the Labor Party are at the moment, trying to say, 'We support you.' Well, they do not support you. They are keeping you out of jobs. Pentair, the pipe manufacturing people in Western Sydney, had to close down. A couple of hundred jobs went there.
If the Prime Minister is sincere, she will go out there and try to recognise the problems that people from Western Sydney have. They do not live in the eastern suburbs; they live in the western suburbs and they have been traditional Labor Party voters. But, because of the high carbon tax prices and the renewable energy tax, businesses are shutting down every day. Amcor shut down just the other day. There are 700 jobs going from various businesses. I do not think 27,000 is a realistic figure. The Food and Grocery Council said that 7,000 jobs have been lost from the food processing industry, with 350 businesses having shut down.
These are not the people who live in eastern Sydney or on the North Shore; these are the people who live out in the western suburbs. They want a job. They want the dignity of having employment. But you have given them $38 a day and said, 'Go and get a job.' Well, there are no jobs out there; they have been shut down. All the Labor Party have done is come up with an industry policy that has put more cost on businesses. They are trying to embed in business a public servant who is supposed to tell them what to do and how to source local government product. Businesses know where the cheapest product is. That is how they live—by sourcing cheap products to make their product and put it on the market.
Every day we see the government come up with some stupid thought bubble, some stunt that says that business will pay: 'We will shift the cost onto businesses and they will pay.' Businesses cannot pay any more. They have had it up to the neck. They are going underwater, they are closing down and they are shifting offshore. We are going to see a diaspora of Australian manufacturers and Australian food processors right around the world because they cannot live in Australia with the high dollar and the high costs. It is completely closing down. I think the Prime Minister would understand that you cannot just keep putting costs on businesses and expecting them to employ. If you do that, the inevitable is going to happen; they are going to shut down, turn into distributing companies, import their product from overseas or shift overseas and export back into Australia.
A carbon tax and a renewable energy tax are just luxuries that Australia cannot afford to pay. A renewable energy tax does not achieve the lessening of carbon. A carbon tax gets carbon out of the air but renewable energy does not. Therefore, I will support this bill of Senator Madigan’s. I think he should be commended for bringing it before the Senate.
I rise to speak to the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012, introduced by me and Senator Xenophon. This bill does not actually belong to Senator Xenophon and I; it belongs to and represents a growing number of people in Australia who are affected by wind turbines placed near their homes in rural Australia. The number of people living with wind farms near their home is increasing and will continue to increase. Permits are currently being granted all over the country.
My stance on renewable energy has been questioned, but both Senator Xenophon and I have spoken of the virtues of various types of renewable energy, including geothermal energy, solar energy and tidal energy. In the course of debate on this bill we have spoken about a lot of peripheral issues but not actually about the bill. Even this morning in this place, people have gone off on various tangents. This bill is about people. This bill is about communities. This bill is about people’s health. This bill is about there being an incentive to act and to comply by the proponents of wind farms. If there is no penalty, there is no incentive to act. If there is no regulatory body that actually regulates, it is a toothless tiger.
Earlier today we heard about campaign tactics of fear. The campaign tactics of fear are very broadly used by some in the green movement, which then brings into contention in the community the motives of some in the green movement. Yet I do know that there are many genuine people in the green movement who do have genuine concerns and raise those concerns in the community in a very honest and open way. But the green movement gets tarnished by the actions of some.
Earlier, in Senator Di Natale's contribution, we heard about the contribution of Professor Simon Chapman. Professor Simon Chapman, along with any other person in the Australian community, is entitled to an opinion.
But, when you use the honorific 'professor' in speaking about health, most people in the community believe you are a medical doctor or a professor in the field of medicine. Professor Simon Chapman, however, is a sociologist. Professor Simon Chapman is entitled to an opinion, as we all are. That is his right in our democratic country. But let us be crystal clear about what he actually is and does—while acknowledging that in the past he has done some very good work on the issue of smoking and its effect on people's health.
We have also heard today about the effect on people's health from coal and other forms of energy generation. But how do we know of these impacts? We know coal and other forms of energy have serious health impacts on people because there has been independent, eminent research on the subject. Research is still being conducted today on what is happening to people. I support such research wholeheartedly, whether it is into the impact of coal, coal seam gas or whatever. To question is to learn.
In the midst of all this public debate and toing and froing, people in the community quite often tell me that they feel disempowered. They feel disempowered because they are presented with predetermined outcomes—people turning up at meetings and doing the old tick and flick. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan comes to mind here, and I think the people of Collingullie, west of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, will attest to that and to their disgust and sense of disengagement with the political process.
As I have said from the first time I raised the issue of wind farms in the Senate, all I want is for there to be independent, rigorous, eminent Australian research under Australian conditions. I want the methodology of and the facts from that research in the public domain so that proponents, opponents and people who are undecided can see how we reached a conclusion. It is important, though, that even when we do reach a conclusion we do not close our minds to new research that may present itself in the future.
I am appalled at how some opponents of this bill have approached this debate. The concerns of men and women around Australia have been belittled, mocked and ignored. Here we are, some 20 months after Senator Siewert chaired the initial Senate inquiry into wind farms, and nothing has been done. I would also like to make it clear that the National Health and Medical Research Council does not itself conduct research. This is something which people in this place fail to be clear about. 'I will hand it to the National Health and Medical Research Council to do it', they say—but the NHMRC does not actually do research itself.
The legitimacy of claims of illness caused by wind farms have been questioned and the people making those claims belittled. We have heard the claims of these people referred to as being the result of 'the nocebo effect' and we heard experts questioned by the inquiry clearly state that a diagnosis of illness caused by wind farms could never be considered until every other possibility had been eliminated. I have always said that the onus of proof should not be on residents to prove that a wind farm is damaging to his or her health; the onus should be on the proponent—the corporation making the profits—to prove that they are compliant and that they are not having an adverse effect on people's health.
I have also raised grave concerns about the way this bill was dealt with in committee. Leading experts on both sides of this argument from around the world gave evidence which, in some cases, was either ignored or distorted. I question Senator Cameron's attempts to explain away all the health complaints by reference to what he also calls 'the nocebo effect'. In doing so, he totally ignores the overwhelming evidence that health impacts from wind turbines can be and have been proven—that they are a legitimate concern.
To date, the objections I and others have received from the wind industry have been about the bill's requirement that they supply the data which will determine whether they are in breach of regulations or not. If they are not in breach, what is the problem? I would have thought that they would be tripping over themselves to provide the necessary information to support their claims that they are compliant with the so-called regulations which govern them.
I find it ironic that the proponents of this industry are the sorts of people who espouse free markets—the so-called level playing field. Yet here we have an industry which is not subject to the same requirements as every other industry in this country. Every other industry in this country is subject to an 'intrusive noise' definition of background noise plus five decibels. This industry is not. When we talk about noise in an urban setting—say, for instance, Redfern in Sydney—the background noise is different from the background noise in a place like Waubra.
People living in the country are used to a different level of background noise from people living in Redfern in Sydney, Brunswick in Melbourne or in the heart of Brisbane. You cannot compare them.
I think the problem is that, like the Waubra wind farm, many wind farms are operating without having been given a certificate of compliance by the state authority, yet they have been accredited by the Clean Energy Regulator and are in receipt of hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy certificates. The checks and balances appear to have been pushed aside in the rush to get the turbines up and running and to start the lucrative flow of RETs.
My argument is that this bill is to address people. We are elected by people to represent people. We are not elected to represent corporations and we are not elected to represent an ideology. We, collectively in this place, have a duty of care to people. Today we have heard the economic arguments, but the fact is that we are talking about people. Time and time again this debate has fallen into an economic argument. This debate, this bill, is about people, about their health and wellbeing and about their right to live on their properties and enjoy them the way they have for generations. These people are not political activists, and a great majority of these people are coalition voters. These people, who are also ALP voters and Greens voters, are affected by these things.
I implore all of you to think seriously about this matter and to give this industry the scrutiny that you foist onto other industries—and rightly so—to make them accountable. If this industry can prove that it is compliant, that it is not doing what people claim is affecting their health and that of their families and their communities, I will be the first one to stand up in this parliament and admit that I got it wrong. To date, I do not believe I have got it wrong. Let me assure you that I will stand up here and I will say, 'I got it wrong.' How many people ever stand up in this place and say that they got it wrong? We just carry on regardless. We never say, 'We got it wrong.' But there is a whole group of people whose health is affected. Let us get to the bottom of it, let us stop ignoring it and let us create a real level playing field.
Thank you, Mr President, and I thank the Senate. I simply seek to make clear the coalition's position in relation to the bill that was just voted down, given that it was last year that my second-reading contribution was recorded. The coalition is extremely disappointed that the Labor Party and the Australian Greens just joined forces to stymie debate on this legislation of Senator Madigan and Senator Xenophon. We had sincerely hoped to be able to proceed to the committee stage and had circulated, as all senators are aware, extensive amendments to Senator Madigan and Senator Xenophon's legislation. The coalition supported the second reading vote because the coalition hoped to be able to proceed with debating those amendments. Regrettably, that is not going to occur. I indicate to the Senate that the coalition's position at the third reading would have been conditional upon the passage of our amendments, which we are very disappointed not to have had the opportunity to debate.