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Public Health And Wellbeing Amendment Bill 2020

"Wind turbine syndrome is an example of something that spread rapidly, and it was fanned and encouraged by those who opposed swift and decisive action on climate change"

Dr READ (Brunswick): It is a pleasure to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment Bill 2020, which is about the process for the community to raise concerns about noise from wind farms in Victoria. Currently those who have concerns about farm noise can raise them under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 as a nuisance complaint, which means that the local council has to investigate them. The bill changes the process so that concerns are raised with the Environment Protection Authority, the EPA, and the EPA investigates them instead. The Greens support this change.

The Public Health and Wellbeing Act nuisance complaint laws are very old, from a time before wind farms were a common and widespread technology in Victoria. The Greens support the community being able to raise genuine concerns about pollution, including noise pollution; however, the way wind farm noise complaints are managed under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act simply does not work in 2020. Councils lack the relevant expertise to investigate complaints and are being overburdened by malicious and unfounded complaints being made by anti-wind farm crusaders. At this point we are just nearing the end of a period where a communicable disease has swept our state, provoking fear and a significant government response. I am not referring here to COVID-19 but to wind farm syndrome.

Wind farm syndrome is a syndrome, like a disease, which became apparent a bit more than 10 years ago and spread from person to person. These kinds of panics about new technologies have existed for centuries. There were concerns about telephone tinnitus in the late 19th century, there were fears that electricity was bad for your health, which delayed the uptake of electricity to houses by many decades, and we have lived through panics about microwaves and televisions and screens. And mobile phones causing brain cancer is interesting. Mobile phones have been in widespread use for about 20 years, but the incidence of brain cancer has flatlined over that time. These panics come and go, but they spread much more quickly now in the digital era. Wind turbine syndrome is an example of something that spread rapidly, and it was fanned and encouraged by those who opposed swift and decisive action on climate change, who, to some extent knowingly, I believe, exploited an unsophisticated population who started to manifest symptoms of anxiety and present them as wind turbine syndrome.

Climate change is still often referred to in media debates as a controversial topic. One contribution to it being regarded as controversial is the sort of side debates like the safety or otherwise of wind farms. And now here we are in the midst of a climate emergency with widespread, severe fires in places that have never burned before—right around the globe, not just talking about Australia. We are dealing with the legacy of at least a decade of inactivity fanned in part by factoids disseminated around wind turbine syndrome. The Greens agree with the government in this bill that it is far more appropriate for concerns about wind farm noise to be managed by the EPA, which has the expertise to determine whether noise is genuinely a nuisance and already regulates noise pollution in Victoria.

As a Greens MP, I recognise the vital role that wind energy will play in transitioning our state to 100 per cent renewable energy. I have heard directly from wind energy businesses who face relentless, unfounded and malicious opposition to wind farms using this old provision in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. The Australian Wind Alliance, for example, welcomes the changes put forward by this bill, which we will support.

While I am speaking about it, I want to raise a few related issues about wind energy and energy projects. The bill does not relate to the approval process for establishing a new wind farm. That is something that is managed under planning laws. Earlier this year the government announced that a further 600 megawatts of energy generation will be built in Victoria, and this is great.

It is urgent that we transition to renewable energy, and that means building new large-scale wind, solar and storage, and it is a great job creator for Victoria right now. However, it remains important that any new development, regardless of whether it is for renewable energy or a road, goes through an appropriate environmental and community assessment process. Yes, the Greens support wind farms, but we certainly do not support building them at inappropriate locations where they will have a detrimental impact on land and wildlife. It is crucial that our environmental assessment processes prevent this, and frankly I think that the assessment process is inadequate and I want to see it strengthened.

Another issue I would like to put on the record while discussing this bill is the need for the government to do more to support publicly owned and community-owned energy. I am aware that there is already some government support through the New Energy Jobs Fund, but we could be doing more. I am concerned that much of the government’s current energy agenda is supporting big business rather than our communities. The recent Big Battery announcement is a good example. I understand that the government takes this approach because it seems easier, but I want to see us doing better.

We have also suffered for too long with large energy companies exploiting an essential service for private profit. I ask the government to genuinely work to support Victoria’s transition to public and community energy. As we transition to renewable energy we should be able to do both. Community-owned wind farms are common in Denmark and Germany. They are a powerful way for communities to connect, work together, share the benefits of energy and take local climate action. Hepburn Wind was Victoria’s first community-owned wind farm and is a great showcase of the power of community energy. Having energy owned by the public and the community will pay off in many ways, one of which is that it builds the social licence for energy projects and could well cut down on malicious opposition of the kind this bill is having to address.

Finally, the last point I want to make relates to micro wind generation. These are the small-scale wind turbines, about the size of an aircraft propeller, that can go in a paddock or on someone’s roof. They are like the wind version of solar panels on your roof, and they are an important part of the renewable energy puzzle, especially in regional Victoria. Unfortunately, micro wind installations in Victoria are being hampered by inconsistent assessment processes by local councils. Some councils are assessing these very small turbines appropriately, whereas others are treating them as if they were a 100-megawatt wind farm. Just as the Victorian government has stepped in to modernise regulation of noise from wind farms with this bill, I ask them to look into and modernise the regulatory framework for micro wind in Victoria as well.

The government’s commitment to modernising energy and to transitioning Victoria to renewables has been solid. In the last few weeks we have seen big commitments in line with policies that the Victorian Greens took to the 2018 state election and initiatives we have called for in a Green New Deal economic recovery for Victoria. We have had an announcement that saw 600 megawatts of new wind and solar energy for Victoria, a big 300-megawatt battery, minimum standards for rental homes to be developed so that renters no longer have to freeze in winter or boil in summer, and funding for energy upgrades in public housing and low-income homes. These sorts of energy efficiency announcements are as important as a new power station in supplying energy for the Victorian grid. A new transmission line connecting Victoria and New South Wales completes the puzzle, because of course we are part of an east coast grid.

It is great to see all these commitments. Perhaps they are not yet at the scale that the Greens have called for or with the commitment to public ownership that we see as vital, but they are still great. And all these new commitments do exactly what they need to do: they are replacing Victoria’s outdated and polluting coal power stations. The Yallourn coal-fired power station in particular becomes more marginal than ever with new storage and a transmission line that could bring cheaper energy south from New South Wales. I urgently call on this Labor government to announce a timetable to close Victoria’s coal power stations by 2030 that also includes a transition plan for the Latrobe Valley community as the Greens have called for. It is time this government is honest about the end of coal in Victoria and plays a leading role in developing an alternative future where the Latrobe Valley community can benefit from a renewable energy future without the toxic and dangerous pollution that comes from coal.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
25 November 2020



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