New Wind Energy Guidelines for state significant wind energy developments provide much needed guidance on the regulation of visual and noise impacts for renewable energy developers.

Released on 19 December 2016, the Guidelines reflect ever growing opportunities for developers in renewable energy in support of a push to meet Australia’s Renewable Energy Targets by 2020.

Framework for Wind Energy Guidelines

The new framework will apply to new large-scale wind energy proposals that are State Significant Development (SSD), i.e. a capital investment value of AU$30 million, including modification applications.

SSD windfarm developments will be assessed under the State Environmental Planning Policy (State and Regional Development) 2011 and will be approved by the Minister or delegate.

The Wind Energy: Visual Assessment Bulletin complements the Wind Energy Guidelines and provides a methodology for assessing visual impacts of wind farm developments.

There are two main stages of the visual assessment process:

  • a preliminary environmental assessment phase; and
  • the assessment and determination phase.

The preliminary assessment process includes gathering information from community consultation, topography, relative distance, existing vegetation and public viewpoint amenity impact and providing this data to the Department of Planning in order to obtain a Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirement (SEAR).

The NSW Government’s release of the new windfarm specific standard SEAR is proposed to guide developers in assessing key issues in wind energy proposals.

The assessment and determination phase requires a more detailed and comprehensive visual assessment as part of an Environmental Impact Statement including broader and overall landscape impacts of the proposed wind energy project, justification for the proposed layout against visual performance objectives, and identification of mitigation and management measures.

When assessing impacts, the consent authority will weigh up the landscape and visual impacts against the broader public interest. Notably, the Bulletin refers to the decision of Chief Justice Preston of the Land and Environment Court in Taralga Landscape Guardians Inc v Minister for Planning and RES Southern Cross Pty Ltd (2007) 161 LGERA 1 as an example of how the Court has balanced public interest against other impacts of windfarm developments.

The new framework seeks to move towards a clear and consistent merit based approach to visual performance objectives, providing greater certainty for both the industry and the community.

Noise Impact

The Wind Energy: Noise Assessment Bulletin complements the Wind Energy Guidelines and sets noise limits and a methodology for assessing noise levels.

The Bulletin introduces some of the strictest noise limits in the world at 35 dB(A) or the prevailing background noise plus 5 dB(A), whichever is the greater for each operational wind speed.

This limit is based on the requirements set out in the 2009 South Australian Wind farms – Environmental Noise Guidelines which guide the methodology adopted by this Bulletin.

The framework for noise impact assessment includes consideration of special noise characteristics including tonality and low frequency noise. It is worth noting that renewable energy technology is improving globally to reduce impacts of these special noise characteristics and tonality is now obsolete in European windfarms1. Strict penalties apply for exceeding special noise characteristic restrictions in accordance with the South Australia Guidelines.

Following determination of a project, monitoring of noise impact conditions are imposed and a noise mitigation and management plan is adopted to ensure compliance.

The Bulletin acknowledges the difficulties associated with wind turbine noise monitoring and provides opportunities for developers to propose alternative techniques, such as measurement of noise at intermediate locations from a variety of locations, which provides greater certainty in measurement data and is an improvement on the draft 2011 Guidelines.

The Bulletin also refers to the National Health and Medical Research Council’s determination that there is no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affects physical or mental health and commits to continuing to monitor contemporary scientific research outcomes to ensure its position reflects robust evidence on any health effects.

Community consultation agreements

The new Guidelines allow developers to enter into negotiated agreements with landowners to manage exceedances in assessment criteria and the decommissioning of turbines. Under the Guidelines, the developer is responsible for the reasonable costs of entering into such an agreement including payment of the landowner’s costs of obtaining independent legal advice.

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The sophisticated reforms to NSW Wind Energy Guidelines will provide more opportunities and streamlined regulation for developers entering the rapidly growing renewably energy sector.