Key Players

Introduction

The Jupiter Wind Farm proposal was a 6-year project involving a considerable amount of work attending meetings, disseminating information, researching, writing letters, making submissions and strategising. A great deal of time was spent trying to second guess what the proponent would do, what the Department of Planning (the Department) and eventually the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) (known as Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) during the Jupiter years 2012-2018) would do. We thought it would be useful to offer our views on how the key players interact with each other and the community.

Keep in mind that our experience is mainly based on the Jupiter Wind Farm proposal and a general familiarity with wind farm proposals in NSW on the Southern Tablelands.

We often felt like we were on the outside of a complex process looking in at an inaccessible and sometimes unfathomable system which grinds slowly along. Yes, there is a process but it is far from clear. And it purports to be transparent, but only if you, as a community, demand attention and make your voice heard, otherwise you will only be told things on a need to know basis. And your silence will be taken to mean acceptance of the wind farm.

In summary expect:

Department of Planning

NSW Department of Planning

The Department of Planning and Environment exists to make people's lives better by making NSW a great place to live and work. They help to provide homes and services, build great communities, create jobs and protect the environment. That is the mission statement on the Department's home page.

Wind farms create jobs and generate renewable energy when the wind blows. But they also impact the environment and people’s lives. To that extent the Department’s interest is conflicted because wind farms are both good and bad for people and the environment.

The Department is responsible for overseeing and guiding a wind farm proposal from inception through the EIS process to determination, and if the wind farm is approved the Department and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) are jointly responsible for monitoring its operation and compliance.

They are the planning authority, and the main focus is to facilitate the development of wind farms under State Significant Project Legislation. The legislation is geared more to the approval of projects whilst minimising impacts, rather than their rejection. And so, the community should give the Department as many reasons as possible to reject the proposal.

The second aspect of the Department’s role is to supervise the EIS process and ensure legal requirements are met, and the relevant guidelines are followed. If this is not happening, make sure that the Department is aware of the problem when it happens. Don’t wait to be asked and don’t wait until the EIS is on public exhibition. By then it is too late.

Thirdly, they offer guidance to individuals and communities. The Department sees itself as acting on behalf of communities and individuals in a paternalistic way and will make their own decisions about the impacts on you.

Having decided what the impacts are, the Department assesses the application by weighing the importance of the project against the impacts on communities. Sometimes the Department will call in consultants to independently assess the EIS. They do not check what was not done.

The Department is an excellent source of information and will attempt to answer questions and provide guidance once the EIS process is underway. However, the answers often fall short of being useful in calling the process to account.

Nevertheless, you should keep the Department informed of any concerns you may have about the proposed project or the proponent. The Department is better able to understand and represent your views if you communicate with them.

But, the reality is that the Department will work closely with the proponent to develop an approvable project by providing advice, extending deadlines and allowing rewrites.

The simple truth is the that the EIS process can never be objective when consultants paid by the proponent drive the impact assessment process and the Department does little to check that it has been done comprehensively. It really is up to the community to check and cross-check the accuracy and completeness of EIS documents and hold the Department, the proponent and the IPC to account every long step of the way.

On past behaviour the Department will:

This is a process weighted in favour of the proponent. By its design this process gives the proponent considerable leeway in developing an EIS and to mitigate their way through a development application process with impunity. The precautionary principle never applies, nor does prudent avoidance. There is no burden of proof on the proponent unless the majority of the impacted community protests omissions, inaccuracies, flaws or errors in the EIS documentation. The community must unite in opposition, must do an enormous amount of work and demand that their interests are considered every step of the way.

Jupiter Case Study

The site for the Jupiter Wind Farm was surrounded by hundreds of houses. Some houses were very close to the project area, but even those further away would have had large numbers of turbines dominating their view. The Department came to public meetings, visited people’s homes, participated in CCC meetings and answered thousands of emails and phone calls. The information they provided was useful.

In their assessment of the Jupiter Wind Farm, the Department criticised the lack of consultation by the proponent. They were critical of the quality of the impact assessments in the RTS and deemed the level of impact unacceptably high. They recommended the wind farm be rejected.

Bango Case Study

Even though 50% of the local community opposed the Bango Wind Farm, it was approved with minor modifications – the number of turbines were reduced from 75 to 71.

In their assessment report, the Department applauded the proponent many times for reducing the number of turbines proposed to be constructed from 122 to 75 to address biodiversity and visual impacts whilst acknowledging that there were still medium/high visual impacts on 11 or more residents.

By doing this, the Department is encouraging a strategy whereby the proponent proposes an unrealistically high-impact, implausible wind farm which would then be whittled down whilst pretending genuine consultation and concern for the environment.

Moreover, 10 non-associated residents signed benefit sharing agreements to tolerate impacts before the final wind farm layout was known and the impacts assessed.

The Proponent

Wind Farm Developer (The Proponent)

The location of a wind farm is largely determined by proximity to the electricity grid, the availability of landowners willing to host a wind farm, and the viability of wind in the area. Considerations of the impacts on non-associated residents and impacts on biodiversity are a secondary consideration.

The proponent’s role is to select the location of the wind farm, sign up host properties, facilitate the wind farm approval and coordinate the various consultants. The proponent is the spokesperson for the wind farm and is responsible for consultation with both the Department, other government bodies and the community. Ultimately, they are responsible for the content and accuracy of all of the impact assessments.

Keep in mind that the proponent is a wind farm developer. Their main goal is to obtain planning permission to build a wind farm which they will then either sell on, or build themselves. Often the proponent is the front for a group of investors. In other words, this is a business venture and it is about making money.

And the proponent's strategy is driven by the way the assessment process works.

The proposal does not exist until the SEARs is issued and yet the proponent is expected to consult the community and prepare a preliminary wind farm design which minimises impacts.  The department then issues a SEARs which outlines what the proponent is required to assess and who to consult prior to submitting a DA. Sounds perfectly reasonable except that  the SEARs frames the development as follows:

the construction, operation and decommissioning of a wind with a maximum number of turbines

In other words the SEARs immediately puts a cap on the maximum number of turbines as well as the height of the turbines unless the proponent submits a modification after the project is approved. Sounds reasonable but...

So what does the proponent do? They design a wind farm with as many hosts and prospective hosts as possible and as many turbines as will fit in the space knowing that hosts and turbines will likely fall by the wayside as the environmental assessment process plays out.  This worst case approach produces a PEA which describes higher than anticipated impacts and higher than anticipated benefits in terms of jobs and financial incentives.

So what actually happens? An unrealistic proposal which excites the hosts, terrifies the closest landowners and alienates others now sits on the table for several years whilst the proponent conducts environmental assessments.  Their priority being to retain as much of the original proposal as possible.

How does the proponent do this? The first priority is to sign up all the hosts already identified on the map of the wind farm and then work through the list of 12 or more government agencies who need to be consulted. At the same time the consultants start work of the biodiversity and heritage studies and survey work which need to be done to satisfy OEH. In other words, the proponent's priority is to plan a wind farm acceptable to government.

What about community consultation? Well, in the early stages community values are virtually ignored and consultation is a matter of informing the community through the CCC, mailouts and presentations about all the benefits of an improbable wind farm whilst explaining the essential work the consultants are doing to get the design of the wind farm correct.  And so the community is held at bay and unaware of the impacts on them whilst the proponent works out the optimal number of turbines and a wind farm design which might be approved.

What about noise impacts? Background noise monitoring at hosts and agreeable landowners properties (referred to as receptors) will be done when hosts have been signed up and at least a tentative wind farm layout is known. But the results will not be known until the EIS is published.

What about visual impacts? Once the wind farm layout is finalised photomontages and wireframes for dwellings and public viewpoints within the impact zone will be prepared. But the results will not be known until the EIS is published.

Finally the EIS goes on public exhibition  This may well be the first time the community has a chance to assess the impacts of the wind farm that still assumes the removal of turbines.  Up to this point the focus has been to design a wind farm acceptable to government. Community concerns about noise, visual and other impacts will be addressed during the response to submissions phase.

And so, an unfeasible proposal spirals through an assessment process on a timetable largely dictated by the proponent. And it is in the proponent's best interests to let the process play out slowly so that they can stitch together the biggest wind farm they can.

If the Department and or the IPC determine against the wind farm, or remove turbines as a condition of consent, the proponent has the right to appeal to the Land and Environment Court and attempt to have these decisions overruled.

So much for genuine community consultation and prudent avoidance of impacts.

On past behaviour, the proponent will:

 

Jupiter Case Study

The Department recommended that the Jupiter Wind Farm be rejected but not before a campaign which started with a proposal for up to100 turbines was whittled to 88 turbines at the EIS stage, 54 turbines after the response to submissions and finally the proponent offered to reduce the number of turbines to 44 in a last ditch attempt to avoid refusal of the wind farm.

The Jupiter Wind Farm project was withdrawn by the proponent following the assessment by the Department and prior to it being considered by the IPC.

This withdrawal followed a long and fierce battle with a community united in their opposition to the project. Over 400 opposing submissions were lodged by people immediately impacted by the wind farm. The CCC was a clear demonstration of community opposition. As were the 30,000 odd emails and telephone calls made raising concerns with both the proponent and the Department.

The community was vocal in its opposition.

The Department had indicated their concerns about the unsuitability of the area in their earlier rejection of the first EIS. In the Department media release of 29 October 2015, following this rejection, they state:

The Department has reviewed the EIS and found that the proponent has:

  • not adequately assessed the visual and noise impacts of the project, as required by government guidelines
  • not undertaken sufficient consultation with local residents about measures to reduce impacts of the wind farm, particularly in regard to visual impacts; and
  • not fully considered the compatibility of the project with local planning controls and the emerging rural-residential nature of the area.

The proponent seemed reluctant to heed these warnings and stubbornly insisted that the location of the Jupiter Wind Farm was perfectly acceptable. A conclusion easier to reach if one has no concern for the impact on non-associated landowners and the surrounding community.

The Department understood the seriousness of the impacts on the community. The Department’s assessment of the Jupiter Wind Farm proposal discussed the level of impacts on non-associated landowners as unacceptably high.

However, the Department considers that even with the proposed changes and the negotiated agreements, the project would result in significant and unacceptable visual impacts on a large number of residences in the vicinity of the project, and that it is not possible to effectively mitigate these impacts to acceptable levels. This is supported by the nature and number of submissions opposing the project, with more than 95% of the 270 submissions from residents within 10 km objecting to the project and raising visual impacts as the principal reason for their opposition.

It is interesting to note that in the proponent’s letter withdrawing the project, no mention of the impacted community was made. There was a missed opportunity for a gracious statement acknowledging the high level of concern amongst the community and the community's ongoing opposition to the project as at least one important reason for withdrawing the project.

Instead, the community did not rate a mention. The reason for the withdrawal was an accusation of the lack of independence of the Independent Planning Commission, and this before the IPC had even begun the process of assessing the application. Indeed, the letter itself is a study of intrepid insensitivity to the community, criticising the Department’s assessment and the consequent withdrawal of the proposal as a “great disadvantage and a lost opportunity for the local area…”.

IPC

NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC)

Unlike the Department of Planning, the IPC does not have a mission statement on their website.  But rather they describe their functions as: to determine State significant development applications where there is significant opposition from the community; conduct public hearings for development applications and other planning and development matters, or provide independent expert advice on any planning and development matter, when requested by the Minister for Planning or Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment.

So, IPC exists to make expert, independent planning decisions and sometimes provide advice to the Planning Minister.

The IPC only gets involved with a wind farm determination if more than 25 objections are received or a local council objects to the proposal.  Their role is to independently assess the whole process in a short time frame and to confirm, modify or reject the Department’s recommendations.  They do this by:

The IPC rarely:

This independent process is weighted in favour of the proponent and approval of a wind farm.

Jupiter Case Study

The proponent withdrew their application even before the public meeting.

However, the IPC failed in those first few weeks to respond to community requests for private meetings and community-led site visits.

The community requested to participate in proponent-led site visits.  The IPC agreed to this, but the tour was restricted to public view points, citing public liability issues.

The community raised the issue of transparency when public meetings with the community were audio recorded and private meetings with the proponent were not.  This now seems to be resolved in that the IPC now publishes transcripts of all their meetings.

Bango Case Study

The IPC agreed with the Department’s recommendation to remove 4 turbines but disagreed with their recommendation to remove another 2 turbines because they, the IPC, disagreed with the Department’s assessment that one residence would experience high visual impacts.

Here we have a situation where the two lead agencies assessing a wind farm cannot agree on the visual impacts of two turbines on one residence. Once again, the precautionary principle – if in doubt leave it out - was turned on its head.

Community Engagement

Community Engagement

Given this recurring behaviour of the three key players, the community will feel that they are on the outside of a complex process looking in at an inaccessible and sometimes unfathomable system which grinds slowly along.

Early, respectful, inclusive and meaningful engagement with the community should inform the siting and design of the wind farm is a mantra which is repeated throughout the Wind Energy Guidelines. And yet, most wind farm proposals kick off the same way and unfold fairly predictably:

The protesting community is often left feeling like naughty children relegated to the back of the room and expected to be silent.

There can be no meaningful consultation when there are inequalities, where there is no trust, openness, fairness, authenticity, inclusiveness nor responsiveness.

The proponent, the Department and the IPC are part of a process which favours the wind farm developer, and the community will have little confidence in the outcome knowing that a major development is being thrust upon them.

Public Attitudes to Wind Farms

It will be a long and protracted process if you decide to challenge a proposal to build a wind farm near you.  You will be caught up in a process which favours the developer.  And the developer will use social support for renewable energy to justify the proposal and dismiss those who oppose their wind farm as anti-wind farm campaigners.

Ground your arguments in fact and try to keep an open mind. And don't let misinformation and allegations of being anti-wind farm distract you.  Focus on the impacts of this particular wind farm on the community and the environment.

Nevertheless, you will be confronted by many comments from the wind industry, the media and individuals which should be explored and questioned.

To assist you, we have prepared a summary of some of the things which will be said and the challenges you need to explore.

Challenge 1: Not in my backyard and the siting of wind farms

Siting a wind farm is frequently a matter of convenience. More often than not willing hosts along the Great Dividing Range drive the process, creating biodiversity and social issues.

What people value and the need for extensive and genuine community consultation is an important part of the approval process in NSW. The intention being a wind farm design which minimises the impacts on people and the environment. Nevertheless, wind farm proposals are not required to provide a rationale for site selection, nor consider alternative sites.  And wind farms are increasingly being sited close to where people are living.

Challenge 2: Wind farms mean jobs and wealth for the local community

Wind farms are often backed by foreign investment, the turbines come from overseas and the farm is built by specialist construction teams brought in from outside the local community and operated by a handful of personnel. And yes, the construction team will inject money into the local community during construction, but most of the revenue goes to the wind farm operator and the hosts.

Over its lifetime, an $850 million wind farm with 120 turbines will generate revenue of about $2.3 billion, hosts will get about $46 million and local council $4 million. The economic benefits to the affected community are minimal.

Judge for yourself how much money flows to the local community over the 25 year operational life of a wind farm.

Challenge 3: Modern turbines are quiet and do not cause health problems

The Department requires three different kinds of noise to be assessed and monitored and will assume that turbines within 1500m of residences will not be noise compliant.  More distant turbines can cause noise issues depending on topography and it is not unusual for turbines to be removed for non-compliance or operated in a controlled manner in order to remain noise compliant.

A wind farm proposal can be refused for noise non-compliance.

Health will be considered a non-issue by the proponent and the Department.  And yet, there are studies around the world on wind farms and sleep disturbance.

In past assessments the Department has interpreted the NHMRC stance on wind farms and human health by saying there is no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affects physical or mental health. However the NHMRC actually says that there is no consistent evidence, that the research is poor quality and further investigation within the 1500m buffer is warranted. In that context, it would seem a strategy of prudent avoidance should be applied to wind farms and they should have a buffer zone of 1500m around all residences including hosts.

The NHMRC has commissioned Australian research into the health impacts of turbines with the first results expected in 2020.

Australian research indicates that the unique characteristics of turbine noise can travel up to 9km, but the jury is still out on the health implications.

Challenge 4: Wind farms do not affect property values

Property values is another impact considered to be a non-issue by the Department.  It may well be that the value of host properties will rise, after all they stand to gain the most, although some evidence suggests otherwise.  But, non-associated landowners in close proximity may well have the most to lose.  The two main studies on property values and wind farms suggest that rural residential and rural lifestyle blocks are negatively impacted by wind farm developments. Read the reports on property values and talk to estate agents.

Challenge 5: Wind farms are good for the environment

Certainly, wind is a renewable energy but wind farms will not by themselves reduce CO2 omissions unless coal and gas-fired power stations are decommissioned.  This is complicated by the intermittent nature of wind, and the close clustering of wind farms in 'energy precincts' and the likelihood of too much power one day and not enough the next.

A wind farm is an industrial development which destroys habitat when it is built and creates a wildlife barrier when it operates because of the scale, movement and noise.  The is particularly impactful when wind farms are clustered along biodiversity corridors. Unfortunately, there are no adequate studies of bat and bird strike and the kill rate at one wind farm as indicated above is only one part of the story. Birds travelling distances are at risk from multiple wind farms particularily when they are clustered together. And that on top of other anthropomorphic risk (road kill, poison etc) which are not quantified either.

And in the longer term, is the bat and bird strike in concentrated areas of high conservation value along the Great Dividing Range acceptable?

Challenge 6: The visual impact

The height, scale and mechanical character of wind turbines, including the fact they move, creates an unavoidable level of visibility and they dominate the landscape says the Visual Assessment Bulletin.

People have widely different attitudes to the aesthetics of wind turbines.  It is one thing to view a wind farm from a train or a car and another to live with the view.  The Visual Assessment Bulletin suggests that a view from a village or lookout be rated high, a view from a dwelling medium and from a train or a car low.

Turbines are out of character with the natural environment and can alter people's enjoyment of the landscape where they live.

Challenge 7: The financial inequity

Many people and groups such as the Wind Alliance, prioritise the importance of the host farmer and the benefits of financial security to the struggling farmer.  However neighbours should not have to pay a price for this.  Benefit sharing is promoted as an opportunity to redress the inequity - hosts generally get more than $15,000 per turbine per annum, neighbours get about $2,000 per annum.

The wind farm transfers wealth from surrounding residents, who lose property value and amenity, to the host farmer who gains financially.

Challenge 8: Wind farms are a tourist attraction

Maybe so, two wind farms are listed on the Discover NSW website along with museums, wineries, national parks and many many other attractions. The point being...

Most importantly make up your own mind