Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms

For the first time, I just wrote a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the Senate Inquiry into the Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms. It's not a comprehensive treatment of the matter, just some points on a couple of key matters - jobs and climate. I have my reservations whether community submissions to these inquiries are really taken seriously, but at the very least sitting down to write a submission is a good way to collect one's thoughts. 

The inquiry was set up at the behest of Steve Fielding, a well-known climate denialist and the only MP for the arch-conservative Family First party. If you want to make a submission, Cam Walker from Friends of the Earth has outlined some ideas for how to go about it from an environmental viewpoint at the Yes to Renewable Energy blog. I also recommend this blog, in particular the comments discussions on some posts, to peek into the interesting world of the anti-wind farm lobby.

Following are the notes that I scribbled down which I based my submission on.

1. The Wind industry and employment

1a. General considerations of employment in the wind industry
Wind industry employment can generally be expected to be higher than in the existing fossil-fuel power generation industry. According to Greenpeace(1) the average person-years of work for operation and maintenance of (onshore) wind energy is 0.4 per megawatt of energy generated. The equivalent figure for coal is 0.1 and for gas, 0.05. This becomes particularly important considering issues of climate change and how we source our energy in future, as outlined in point 2 (below).

As a new industry, wind power faces numerous hurdles to break into an energy market dominated by very large players based in fossil fuels. This was illustrated by problems in the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Certificate scheme in 2008-9, which caused serious problems for financing large scale renewable energy generation. Because so many certificates were being taken up by small-scale domestic solar installations, Portland company Keppel Prince Engineering was at the time reluctantly looking at shedding up to 200 jobs(2) (See my previous article). This would have a very obvious and large negative social and economic impact on the whole region were it to happen.

Conversely, we can see that the existence of the wind industry is also providing many jobs already. This important contribution, including in regional areas where quality jobs are often scarce, must be recognised.

1b. Maintaining a skilled workforce
The importance of sustaining the engineering industry and the associated skilled workforce in Australia is something very important to me, personally, for reasons that also impact on large numbers of Australian workers. The wind industry, which has great potential for growth, could play an important role in this regard.

A few years ago I completed an adult apprenticeship as a Fitter & Turner, a mechanical engineering trade. Older acquaintances tell me of times as recent as the 1980s when (for example) the NSW Railways had an annual intake of around 300 apprentices. Another old tradesman told me that when he finished school he was able to choose between 12 large engineering firms as to where he would do his apprenticeship. Compared to my experience as an apprentice in Melbourne – supposedly the centre of Australia’s manufacturing industry – these sorts of statistics are like a fanciful dream.

I changed employer three times during my apprenticeship, and not once found myself in a position where I could gain experience in the broad range of skills that are vital to master a trade. The great bulk of my training came through learning theory at TAFE, which is entirely inadequate for what is expected of a tradesperson. Through my contact with many other apprentices over several years, mainly at shared TAFE classes, I observed that my problems were common.

Reasons for these problems include de-skilling of much work (and the decline in the manufacturing industry overall) and an environment of competition and outsourcing which encourages employers to work as cheaply as possible, hence cutting out much meaningful training for employees. Yet the ability to learn and progress at work is one of the fundamental conditions for job satisfaction.

Promoting new growth areas such as wind holds hope for people working in the engineering industry to have the opportunity to find more satisfying, skilled work and training. While I am not claiming that the wind industry alone can fix all these problems, the illustration of Keppel Prince Engineering’s well publicised problems in 2008-9 does illustrate (in the negative) what is at stake.

Additionally, Australia unfortunately has little in the way of wind turbine manufacturing. If we were to have an industry in large wind turbine manufacturing, it would significantly further increase skilled employment from this industry here.

1c. Conclusion
The growth of the wind energy industry has important social/economic benefits in the provision of quality, skilled employment including for regional Australia in particular.

2. Climate change

2a. Social impacts of climate change
As I write Australia is witnessing a long list of climate related disasters and problems. Just to take headlines of articles on negative impacts of extreme weather events from today’s ABC online news feed (Feb 1 2011)(3):
• Residents urged to flee monster cyclone
• Ross River cases keep rising in SA
• Wet weather deals another blow to grape growers
• Service to farewell toddler flash flood victim
• Levees holding up as flood waters rise
• Flood recovery sparks mine boom skills shortage fears.
• Crews battle blazes as Hunter temperatures soar
• North Qld industry shuts ahead of cyclone
• Sydney braces for hot week as mercury rises
• Crews battle blazes in Victoria

While the views on climate change of Senator Fielding are well known, the advice from climate scientists internationally is that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious threat. It would be reckless and irresponsible for the Australian government to not act on their expert advice.

Just today’s news headlines bear out the threats of climate change. Warming seas cause stronger cyclone activity and increased evaporation, which leads to increased precipitation and therefore greater flood risks. Every one of the above news headlines relates to serious and measurable threats to health, community and economy.

Currently the world has experienced less than 1°C of warming since 1900(4), and international targets (such as they are) are aiming for 2°C as an upper limit.(5) Even this aim is excessively optimistic given the lack of binding international agreements for serious action.

Clearly, if the world continues to warm, we must expect weather-related disasters such as those above to become worse and worse.

2b. Australia’s national responsibility for climate change
Australia’s per capita emissions of greenhouse gases became the highest in the world in 2009.(6) While Australia cannot singlehandedly or unilaterally prevent climate change, it is in our own interests, and it is morally incumbent on us as a developed country, to set an example of how to mitigate dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

2c. Conclusion: Wind’s role in mitigating climate change
There exist many detailed proposals for how to move away from fossil fuel use to clean energy sources. It is inconceivable that this could be done without extensive use of wind power. For example, the most ambitious plan currently in circulation, Zero Carbon Australia(7) uses a combination of 40% wind power and 60% large-scale solar thermal power plants.

While direct benefits of a given wind farm to a particular local community may not be readily identifiable, the benefits of avoiding dangerous climate change should be obvious by now to all communities. Wind has a vital part to play and this ought to be recognised as a part of the wind industry’s positive social and economic impact.


1. Working for the climate. Greenpeace International and European Renewable Energy Council, August 2009
2. Wind / Solar industries stall The 7:30 Report, broadcast 08/12/2008 http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2008/s2440907.htm
3. Transcript available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/archive/2011/02/01/
4. See UK Government Office for Science http://www.bis.gov.uk/go-science/climatescience/world-is-warming
5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_United_Nations_Climate_Change_Conference
6. Reported by ABC news, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/09/11/2683439.htm
7. Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan. University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute and Beyond Zero Emissions, 2010

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