By Professor Simon Chapman, University of Sydney
People who host wind turbines on their properties and derive rental income from wind energy companies have important stories to tell about living alongside turbines, but they’ve largely been absent from the debate on wind farms and health. Australian filmmaker and researcher Neil Barrett is finally giving this critical group a voice in his new short film, The way the wind blows, released today.
In Barrett’s short film, 15 hosts and some of their neighbours from the central Victorian district near the town of Waubra tell what it’s like to live surrounded by large turbines.
Turbine hosts at Waubra earn A$8,000 a year for each turbine on their land. In the bush, the expression that wind farms can “drought-proof a farm” is common: a land owner with ten turbines can wake up each morning comfortable in the thought that a tough year with poor rain or bad frosts can be ridden out, thanks to income from wind generation.
All of Barrett’s interviewees say they can hear the turbines but none say they are bothered by them or suffer from any health problems they attribute to the turbines. If there is such a phenomenon as “wind turbine syndrome” it would seem it is a condition that, remarkably, can be prevented by the wonder drug called money.
Significantly, too, none of those interviewed say their contracts prevent them from speaking publicly about their experiences with hosting turbines, repudiating the mantra of wind farm opponents that suffering hosts are gagged from speaking out by evil wind companies.
In 2010, a small group comprising mostly wealthy landowners established the Waubra Foundation, which opposes wind farms being established near their country estates. None of the directors of the foundation nor its chief executive, an unregistered former GP Sarah Laurie, live within 125km of Waubra, yet took on the name of the town to highlight what they believe are serious health problems associated with living near wind turbines.
Barrett’s film reveals the deep resentment that Waubra residents feel about these out-of-towners hijacking their town’s good name. None say that Laurie has ever contacted them, with one commenting, “I wouldn’t give them the time of day if they turned up here.”
Laurie and the Waubra Foundation have done all they can to spread concern about the harms they allege are caused by living near wind farms. One former Waubra resident has been particularly prominent, speaking emotionally at anti-wind farm meetings about how wind farms have ruined his health and caused his family to move to Ballarat, at great personal expense.
In a statement that would be of immense interest to Apple, Samsung and Nokia, he recently told a meeting in Barringhup that electricity generated by wind turbines started charging his cell phone without it being plugged in:
I’ve had my … mobile phone go into charge mode in the middle of the paddock, away from everywhere.
In 2012, he wrote a public submission to a parliamentary inquiry where he revealed he had suffered a serious head injury some eight years before the wind farm opened in 2010:
I have been in brain training care and rehabilitation for about ten years because of an unfortunate, unrelated accident.
Indeed, the most common health complaints voiced by complainants are problems such as disturbed sleep, anxiety, hypertension and normal problems of ageing that are very prevalent in all communities, regardless of whether they have wind farms.
In a 2012 Ontario legal case, complainants were asked to provide their medical records going back a decade before the local wind farm commenced operation. This would have provided relevant information about any pre-existing health problems. When they failed to so, their case failed.
In a peer-reviewed paper of mine to be published shortly, I conducted an historical audit of all known health and noise complaints made about Australia’s 51 wind farms from 1993 to 2012. Using four sources (wind company records, submissions made to three parliamentary enquiries, local media monitoring records and court affidavits) I calculated the number of complainants around Australia.
More than two-thirds of Australian wind farms including more than half of those with large turbines have never received a single complaint. Two whole states – Western Australia and Tasmania – have seen no complaints.
Of the 129 individuals across Australia who have ever complained, 94 (73%) are residents near just six wind farms which have been targeted by anti wind farm groups.
Almost all (98%) of complainants made their first complaint after 2009 when anti wind farm groups began to add health concerns to their wider opposition. In the preceding years, health or noise complaints were rare despite large and small-turbine wind farms having operated for many years.
In late 2012, anti-wind farm campaigners launched an anonymous website, Stop These Things. The apparently well-funded site specialises in emotive videos of wind farm victims, but in nine months has only run profiles of 18 mostly aged complainants. Barrett’s film profiles nearly that number of people telling a very different story.
Anti-wind farm activists have promoted a bizarre and ever-growing number of health problems associated with turbine exposure. My favourite is the alarming problem of disoriented echidnas.
Among Laurie’s more interesting claims is that wind turbines cause lips to vibrate at up 10 kilometres, and that within 1km to 2km of wind turbines, air pressure changesoccur “sufficient to knock them off their feet or bring some men to their knees when out working in their paddock” and “have been reported by farmers to perceptibly rock stationary cars”.
Laurie has repeatedly claimed that “a large number” or “over twenty families” and most recently “more than forty” families are “wind farm refugees” who have had to abandon their homes. But Laurie has declined requests to make her list public.
Another prominent activist George Papadopolous, claims to be able to sense a wind turbine at 100km away: from Sydney’s CBD to Lithgow, as the crow flies.
Barrett’s film brings a fresh and important perspective to a debate that has so far been dominated by a small number of complainants and those oxygenating their fears.
Fifteen years ago, Australian news media ran countless stories on community fears about mobile phone towers. Those still worrying about health risks from the towers are rare today. Wind turbine syndrome is likely to go the same way.