Menace captures our attention like few other concepts. We cannot turn our gaze from bearers of bad news. Few know this better than Australia's anti-wind lobby - an amalgam of small groups that exist solely to inhibit (and ultimately, halt) the development of wind energy in Australia.
A key player in anti-wind activism is the 'Waubra Foundation', an organisation that exists primarily to spread the notion that low-frequency noise from wind farms causes headaches, nausea, embryonic chicken mutations, and more than 200 other symptoms jointly known as ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’. Ex-General Practitioner Sarah Laurie leads the charge as CEO (and sole employee) of the Waubra Foundation.
They distribute distress via emotionally charged community meetings, packed with anecdotal reports of health effects.
Buoyed by the spread of wind energy related health concerns, Laurie and several other anti-wind groups have begun to flex their muscles as they march proudly into new avenues of anxiety. They recognise that current or recent threats hold sway in our minds.
Temperatures this summer have broken several records - extremes that will become significantly more likely as the planet's atmosphere warms. With the onset of summer comes bushfire season, a threat that is sadly well-known in Australia.
Our natural response to the threat of fire has been exploited by members of the anti-wind lobby. Sarah Laurie wrote extensively on wind farms and bushfire risk, in a comment posted on an anonymously-run anti-wind blog:
"The wonderful pilots who fly these water bombing aircraft are saving countless lives and properties. They CANNOT do this within and near a wind development under conditions of poor visibility, such as a raging bushfire, because they cannot see the wind turbines or the associated infrastructure”
This is accurate. The Country Fire Authority have the following to say regarding visibility:
"Fire suppression aircraft operate under “Visual Flight Rules”. As such, fire suppression aircraft only operate in areas where there is no smoke and during daylight hours.”
The presence of wind turbines has, in fact, no impact on their fire suppression capabilities during times of low visibility. She continues, unabashed:
"It has been of great concern to the Waubra Foundation for some time that the ADDITIONAL risks of placing large industrial wind turbines in bushfire prone areas.......are being denied or ignored by all relevant authorities and responsible officials."
Laurie’s claim, of widespread ignorance and denial in fire-fighting organisations, is odd. It is analogous to her claim that the entire medical profession is suffering from 'mass ignorance'. As with most purveyors of pseudoscience, Laurie is convinced a widespread conspiracy exists to suppress her notions.
"Also of great concern is the fact that some pilots working for state fire services have privately said they have been gagged from speaking out about this problem."
The probability that these organisations are engaging in a conspiracy to silence their staff and suppress criticism of wind energy is, presumably, quite low. I suspect these organisations had more pressing issues this summer.
This class of conspiracy theory is typical of groups that seek to induce alarm. The compulsion to present unnerving suggestions of corporate treachery seems to override basic sensitivity and insight. However, attempts to stir unnecessary alarm during bushfire season are not limited to the Waubra Foundation.
Humphrey Price-Jones is the head of the NSW Landscape Guardians - a key player in NSW's anti-wind establishment. He employs the same tactic in an article in the Goulbourn Post, on January 11th.
“Importantly, if [a fire] broke out in an area where there were turbines, aerial support would be out of the question because you can’t water bomb turbines. No pilot would fly near them,”
This statement has an odd implication. One would expect, if his logic holds, that the fire fighting authorities would be utterly confounded by transmission lines, buildings and other tall infrastructure. Price-Jones also implies that wind turbines may be the cause of bushfires (Laurie states the same in her commentary).
“[Humphrey Price-Jones is] frustrated that wind turbines continue to be built, pointing out that two fires have broken out in South Australian developments.”
Of the approximate 5,000 years of total operational time logged by 1,182 wind turbines on the National Electricity Market since early 2004, there have been three nacelle fires, all of which were contained safely. ‘PT100’ sensors either de-rate or shut down when the temperature exceeds a set value.
Wind turbines are also likely to reduce the probability of scrub fires caused by lightning – the blades contain lightning protection, including cables that conduct the electricity safely to the ground.
Our current energy mix is skewed towards fuel sources that damage the Earth’s physical systems. This damage is quite likely to have been a contributing factor to the extreme conditions we have seen this summer. Wind energy technology has a part to play in our transition away from fossil fuels, and so the risks of this technology ought to be assessed with level-headed analysis.
The seriousness of bushfire risk and climate change warrants a reasoned, scientific approach. It’s frustrating to see illogical and overwrought conjecture polluting information that ought to be evidence-based and accurate.
Ketan Joshi is a data analyst at Infigen Energy.