I’m pretty sure time has passed at roughly the same rate (one minute per minute) this year, compared to previous years. But it’s been momentous and arduous, and devastatingly destructive and then triumphantly unremarkable. Things went weird. Time passed at a different rate.
The 40 most Onion-like Australian politics headlines of 2015
It says a lot about the state of Australian politics that this is the third year running I have been able to compile a…
My world, of generation technology upgrades — the decarbonisation of our energy system to lessen the real impact of greenhouse gas emissions — saw the climax of an a-scientific, politically sustained war of attrition. The year began deep in the belly of the culture wars, and we’re closing it off stepping into the sunlight, blinking and bewildered.
In vaguely temporal ordering, here are the happenings of 2015, in my weird little world.
A report found that wind turbine syndrome is definitely real (except, science….)
Back in January, there was widespread media coverage of a report commissioned by a wind farm operator in Victoria, that purportedly showed evidence of ‘wind turbine syndrome’. Except, the study wasn’t published in a scientific journal, it only had six participants (all of whom were opponents of the wind farm), there were no statistical measures of significance…you get the idea. It report even claimed that stationary wind turbines can cause ‘wind turbine syndrome’, through ‘vibrations’.
The NHMRC wants to study ‘wind turbine syndrome’ (there’s also no evidence that it’s real)
Awkwardly adjacent to the aforementioned report was the release of a full-scale evidence review around ‘wind turbine syndrome’, conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). They wrote that:
“Examining whether wind farm emissions may affect human health is complex, as both the character of the emissions and individual perceptions of them are highly variable.
After careful consideration and deliberation of the body of evidence, NHMRC concludes that there is currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans.
Given the poor quality of current direct evidence and the concern expressed by some members of the community, high quality research into possible health effects of wind farms, particularly within 1,500 metres (m), is warranted”
It was awkwardly worded, and the final paragraph is now touted as proof that there is a problem. And, any scientific research that clears wind turbines of health effects will be instantly rejected by wind farm opponents, who are already set in their beliefs.
“Eco-modernism” became a thing
‘Eco-modernism’ was outlined in a manifesto released in April — a philosophical framework for the inclusion of nuclear power in environmental advocacy, necessitating some tweaks to existing views on the concept:
“We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse”
Read and interact with the key players behind this movement, and you’ll see a broad range of views, and some very thoughtful analysis and discussions from all sides. I found Mark Lynas’ introspective piece on their efforts the most interesting.
The Australian continued to publish articles about ‘wind turbine syndrome’
This is a pretty broad sub-category, but here’s a quick summary:
- A computer scientist who openly hates wind farms was cited as an acoustics expert
- An analysis that claimed to prove wind farms are inefficient was funded by anti-wind groups (and not declared)
- They claimed German doctors had declared wind turbines a health hazard — they really, absolutely hadn’t.
- They claimed research showed that workers at wind farms were suffering from ‘wind turbine syndrome’ — it didn’t, and they aren’t.
- They claimed a ‘wind farm health researcher’ was supporting government policy — but the NHMRC rejected the research.
- They cited a government report in an article about wind turbine syndrome — but the report was about the mining industry, not the wind industry.
- They claimed that high South Australian electricity prices are caused by wind farms — they’re not.
Repeatedly asserting something that isn’t supported by scientific evidence actually harms communities near wind farms.
The renewable energy target was reduced
After a drawn-out period of negotiations between the government, the opposition and various stakeholders including the clean energy industry, Australia’s only major climate policy, the Renewable Energy Target, was reduced from 41,000 gigawatt hours to 33,000 gigawatt hours of new clean energy supply by the year 2020.
Tony Abbott complained about ‘visually awful’ wind farms
In accordance with previous Prime Ministerial expressions of disgust at clean energy, Abbott declared that, after having cycled past a small wind turbine on Rottnest Island, he’d categorised them as “visually awful”. It was the first complaint the island had ever received about the wind turbine. On Alan Jones’ breakfast show, he said:
“What we did recently in the Senate was reduce, Alan, reduce, capital R-E-D-U-C-E, we reduced the number of these things that we’re going to get in the future. I would frankly have liked to reduce the number a lot more but we got the best deal we could out of the Senate. And if we hadn’t had a deal, Alan, we would have been stuck with even more of these things.”
During Abbott’s tenure, clean energy investment plummeted, and his remarks about visual awfulness and health impacts played a big role in that.
It was spectacular and horrifying, watching the Prime Minister fantasise about the non-existence of my industry, just as Hockey had fantasised about the non-existence of our wind farm. On the upside, we now have possibly the best wind-energy Twitter account, inspired by Abbott’s comments:
The Pope created an enormously awkward moment for climate change deniers
I wouldn’t have predicted the inclusion of the Pope in this list.
He released an encyclical on the environment, urging rapid and uncompromising climate action. He said, in the document:
“Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.”
There’s plenty to take issue with in “Laudato Si (Praise Be), On the Care of Our Common Home”, but it marked a significant moment: a conservative institution urging progressive change.
There was a senate inquiry into wind turbine syndrome
Crossbench senators already open hostile to wind energy managed to see through the creation of a senate inquiry into what was originally an incredibly broad range of complaints about wind farms, but ended up being almost exclusively about the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ theory.
You can get a good summary of the issues from the #WindInquiry hashtag, but suffice to say, it did significantly more harm than good. An interim report was released the day of senate negotiations around the renewable energy target.
The CEFC was told not to invest in the cheapest clean technology
The Clean Energy Finance Corporation is a government body that “mobilises capital investment in renewable energy, low-emission technology and energy efficiency in Australia”. It has a specific charter: it invests in clean energy and makes a financial return for the taxpayer.
This year, Abbott and Hockey issued an additional directive: the CEFC was to be barred from investing in the cheapest, most readily deployable clean energy technology in Australia:
“Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann have issued the so-called green bank with a directive to change its investment mandate, prohibiting new wind funding. It’s understood the directive was issued without the approval or knowledge of Environment Minister Greg Hunt, angering the minister.”
No one really knows where this ended up, but the news was still a signal to investors, and it certainly had an impact.
Alan Jones got his statistics badly wrong
We got a Wind farm Commissioner, and an “independent scientific panel” studying wind turbine syndrome
The senate inquiry into wind farms saw the creation of two new government regulatory roles, championed unashamedly by the small-government libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm.
The ‘Wind Farm Commissioner’ will deal with complaints about wind farm operation. The ‘Independent Panel’ will collate and report on the current state of scientific research into ‘wind turbine syndrome’. The Commmissioner role comes in at ~$600,000. This is in addition to $2.5 million that’s been set aside by the NHMRC to study ‘wind turbine syndrome’.
I’ve written about how this is probably going to significantly more harm than good. A focus on community engagement and ownership schemes would make a positive difference — not the maintenance of health fears.
Abbott and Dutton laughed at the prospect of people drowning due to climate change.
This stuck with me, and I suspect I won’t forget about it anytime soon. I wrote about it here. It was just…horrid. It wasn’t funny.
Abbott lost his leadership of the country
A few days after grinning at the prospect of people losing their homes and lives due to climate change, Abbott lost his job.
It was an odd end to the real impacts of his personal antagonism towards clean energy in Australia. Certainly, the policy of the government hasn’t changed, but we’ve seen an end to the weird, frequent remarks about wind farms from positions of power….
The NSW Assistant Health Minister warned of ‘pressure waves’ from wind farms
Except, not really. Assistant Health Minister Pru Goward warned that:
“The poor lady has a neurological disease and the electromagnetic radiation from the wind turbine, she’s a very straight-forward farmer’s daughter, but she feels that it makes her ill, because of the electromagnetic force. Of course, that’s what the turbines doing, it’s creating electromagnetic radiation. Look, Angela, I think we’d all agree it would be wonderful to think we had more renewable energy policies. Our policy’s very focused on solar”
And later in the year, followed up with:
“Increasingly, I am [of] the view that there is some validity on the health effects” of wind farms, Ms Goward was reported in the Yass Tribune as saying on Friday. “There are a number of people with health problems…it is clearly not psychosomatic.” Ms Goward went further on Monday, telling Fairfax Media turbines’ blades created pressure waves that “resonate in the skulls” of people living as far away as five kilometres.
“I don’t think we know enough about the impacts,” she said. “It is something we should be prioritising.”
Again, this kind of stuff actually harms efforts to make relationships between wind developers and communities better.
Australian fossil fuels launched a marketing campaign that wasn’t well-received
There’s been a curious shift towards the Australian fossil fuel industry thinking it can PR its way out the serious implications of climate change.
Adelaide had a power outage and everyone blamed wind farms
In the long-held tradition of taking any occurrence in any location at any time, and blaming it on wind farms, a power outage happened in South Australia, quite a serious one, and instantly, wind farm opponents blamed it on the prevalence of wind in south Australia.
Except, they were wrong.
Turnbull talked-up innovation, but domestic deployment is still lagging
Okay, there are still a few days left in 2015. But we end this summary on the resurgence of a boisterous leadership, buoyed by the adoption of popular language about innovation and invention. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop talked up innovation at the 21st Paris Conference of Parties:
“Australia will lead by example in the way we invest in and use technology and increase collaboration between businesses, universities and government.
It will be innovation and technological breakthroughs that will ultimately be the game changers in our climate change responses…
…We are transforming the way we produce electricity. In 2001 we set the world’s first mandatory renewable energy target and by 2020, nearly one-quarter of Australia’s electricity will come from renewable sources.”
As you might recall, the CEFC was directed not to invest in wind, and the RET was reduced from a higher target. Additionally, the CEFC and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which funds research into new clean technology, both still face abolition.
We really could be doing a lot better, when it comes to both deployment and investment in research.
It wasn’t a great year. We found ourselves dragged down, not by technological shortcomings or uncontrollable setbacks, but by attacks based on aesthetics, and an odd imagined disease.
2016 will feature a federal election, and the Liberal-National party looks all but set to win it. Regardless, there’s still a way to go when it comes to capturing all of the resources available to us.
I’m a little optimistic, which is probably foolhardy, but I don’t care.