The third annual report of Australia’s National Wind Farm Commissioner is about to be released. Commissioner Andrew Dyer’s recent appearance before Senate estimates and various presentations to the energy sector show that the report will cover all complaints received during 2018, and also contain all data from the very first complaint received since November 2015 when the Commission office opened. It has also now taken responsibility for investigating complaints about solar farms (5mw or more) and energy storage facilities (major batteries of 1mw or more).

The Commission combines all complaints made from a single household as one complaint, so the data is effectively best understood as a count of complaining households across Australia.

During 2018, 123 complaints were received:

  • 8 (7% of total) about four operational wind farms (there are 78 operational wind farms across Australia, meaning some 95% of Australian wind farms had  no residents who ever complained in 2018)
  • 95 (77%) about 34 proposed wind farms
  • 3 (2%) about 3 proposed solar farms
  • 17 (14%) which did not specify any existing or proposed farm

In total, across the 37 months that the office has been open for complaints, it has received 286 complaints:

  • 65 (23%) about 11 operational wind farms
  • 191 (about 51 proposed wind farms
  • 3 about 3 proposed solar farms
  • 27 which did not specify any existing or proposed farm

Of the 286 complaints, 268  (94%) have been closed by the office with the remainder still being processed.

Many complainants mention more than one issue. The Commissioner’s statement to Senate Estimates noted that “Over the three calendar years of our operations, cited issues in complaints received that have dropped considerably include health, from 46 instances to 18; noise, from 55 to 38; and vibration, from 19 to zero. Cited issues that have increased over this time include visual amenity, from 24 instances to 57; lack of community engagement, from 15 to 41; construction, from seven to 14; and planning processes, from 26 to 42.” Most of these concern farm that were not even operating when the complaints were made.

The phenomenon of complaints about wind farms is by no means the first time we have seen communities expressing anxiety about new technology, with small minorities of those who are anxious, expressing that anxiety through complaints and sometimes somaticizing it in symptoms.

Perhaps the most recent and pertinent comparison here is with mobile phone towers and the phones themselves. The heyday of anxiety about these was in the mid-1990s, when cell phone use began to accelerate rapidly. Within a few years, a large and quickly a very large proportion of the population was using cell phones. The resulting service demands required that transmission towers mushroom across all countries.

Mobile phones and towers rapidly moved from being exotic technologies to being near-ubiquitous in every nation on earth. While outbreaks of health concerns were quite common in the early years of phone use, today they have long been a phenomenon of the past. It is now around 25 years since reports of protests about mobile phone towers regularly featured in Australian news media.

While there are still die-hard enclaves of passionate crusaders against mobile phones and Wi-Fi, these are tiny. Their dire warnings in the face of no evidence of any increase in the diseases they have constantly warned us all about have rendered them as marginal and eccentric as the occasional person we have all encountered who tells us they would never have a microwave oven, a computer or a television in their home because ‘those things are deadly’. Here, there is probably no rival for heroic predictions gone badly wrong than that made in 2006 by two researchers who predicted that by 2017, half of all the world’s population would have developed electrosensitivity.

The ever-diminishing number of complaints — including health complaints – documented in  the forthcoming third report of the Commissioner, shows that the sub-culture of complaint about wind farms is almost now on life support. This was entirely predictable for any student of the history non-diseases attributed to new technologies when they first appear.

Own goal from wind farm loathing senators?

The cabal of former wind farm loathing senators (Madigan, Leyonhjelm, Xenophon, Day) whose infamous 2015 report gave birth to the national wind farm commissioner via the appeasing Abbott government can be seen today to have kicked a massive own goal.  In their fevered imaginations, they would have hoped that a government sponsored complaints office would be deluged with complaints about these evil industrial artifices blighting bucolic landscapes, decimating local birds, and ruining the health of oppressed local residents.

But just the opposite occurred. The transparency of the Commissioner’s investigative processes circumvented the populist rhetoric of indifferent, corrupt and secretive wind energy companies trampling on the concerns of powerless locals. I’ve had a Google alert set for Australia’s anti- wind farm advocates, the Waubra Foundation. I’ve had nothing since in my inbox since about August 2015.

Historians of the renewable energy revolution will bookmark that there was a period of complaining about wind farms in Australia that started up in 2009 and then died away a decade later. May it rest in peace and we all learn about how predictable the rise and fall of these psychogenic “communicated diseases” are, and what we might to avoid them in the future. The final chapter in our free book and the detailed descriptions and recommendations of the National Wind Farm Commissioner’s previous reports are good places to guide how to go about this.

own goal