Wind farms are typically required to establish a complaint handling procedure and supporting systems and processes to comply with planning permit conditions. It is also common sense that the wind farm be able to properly receive, investigate and resolve complaints as part of normal facility operations and effective community engagement.
Complaint handling procedures are generally required to be submitted and endorsed by the responsible authority. However, currently, requirements for complaint procedures are often limited to noise and construction complaints only. Limited guidance is provided in permit conditions as to the process, scope, requirements and standards that the complaint handling procedure should adhere to.
While wind farms are likely to be compliant with the requirement to submit and have an endorsed complaint handling procedure, our observations have been that a number of wind farms (or proponents) have not published the procedure or communicated the procedure to the community. This lack of transparency can make it difficult for community members to know how to make a complaint and the process by which they should expect their complaint to be handled.
It is pleasing to see that many wind farms have adopted our suggestions and solid progress has been made in both the transparency of process and compliance with processes for complaint handling. However, there are still further opportunities for some wind farm proponents to ensure they are following their own documented procedures when handling complaints, and avoid situations including:
- multiple complaints from a resident about the same issue – with no visible action being taken by the wind farm operator to investigate or resolve
- a lack of rigour in investigations and clarity of correspondence, and
- a lack of clarity regarding next steps in the process leading to numerous complaints that remain unresolved and/or not closed.
Even if the endorsed complaint handling procedures were being followed, there is also a wide range of wind farm complaint handling procedures in place that vary by developer and project, resulting often in a lack of consistency in the quality and effectiveness of the procedures. Although wind farm operators possess a wide range of complaint handling skills, there continue to be further opportunities to improve the capability of staff and effectiveness of the wind farm industry’s complaint handling procedures.
We have encouraged a number of wind farm developers and operators to voluntarily publish their complaint handling procedures on the wind farm’s website. Many wind farms have now complied with this request. Some wind farm proponents have also revised their complaint handling procedures as a result of discussions with our Office. The Office continues to make suggestions to improve existing complaint handling procedures to the many industry members who have sought our assistance.
While objective measures and standards are used to determine compliance with noise restrictions, it is also evident that there is further scope to investigate complaints relating to noise emissions from turbines and other infrastructure. In assessing noise-related complaints, the objective ‘tests’ currently in place do not necessarily capture the tonal character of noise emissions that a complainant may be experiencing. For instance, insufficient maintenance of infrastructure (for instance, a turbine or a substation transformer) may lead to harmonic frequencies that produce a harsher tone to the human ear. While this is not typically represented in noise assessment data, contemporary noise measurement or recording devices can be used to indicate that the tonal character of a particular noise emission may reasonably be considered to be disturbing or offensive to a complainant.
Other events can cause abnormal noise annoyance from wind turbines. These include loose bolts, lack of greasing of the rotating nacelle during the yaw process and lightning strike of a blade (piercing a hole in the turbine blade that causes a high-pitched whistling sound). These situations require a rapid response to a complaint and it is in everyone’s interest that the turbine be repaired and the noise emission rectified.
Following our discussions with the relevant Minister and Department, the Victorian Government moved quickly to introduce additional permit conditions related to complaint handling procedures and transparency based on our initial observations and recommendations. We understand these additional conditions have been applied to both new, renewed and modified planning permits issued for wind farms in Victoria.
Finally, industry bodies such as the CEC may have a key role to play in leading the development and promotion of a consistent, best practice complaint handling models and procedures for the wind energy industry that can be adopted by industry members – configured for their specific operations.
We have also observed opportunities for clearer protocols to be put in place between wind farm operators and emergency response agencies, in particular as it relates to aerial firefighting and the ability to direct a rapid shutdown of wind turbines and the positioning of turbine blades during a shut-down to minimise the obstacle. Other potential obstacles to aerial firefighting, such as meteorological masts, radio towers and powerlines may also exist around the wind farm site and pilots need to be well aware of this infrastructure. A consistent standard to the visible identification of meteorological masts should be considered.
7.2.1. Planning permit conditions should stipulate that wind farm complaint handling procedures support all types of complaints raised about the wind farm and also meet minimum standards for complaint handling procedures. The developer should implement appropriate systems and processes to support the procedures and maintain an appropriately detailed complaint register.
7.2.2. Planning permits should include a condition requiring the endorsed complaint handling procedure and the complaints register to be published on the wind farm’s website. The website should include a toll-free number and an email address for making contact with the wind farm operator to make an enquiry or complaint. Developers should also implement these provisions from the commencement of development as part of best practice transparency and community engagement.
7.2.3. Planning permits should include a condition requiring the endorsed complaint handling procedure to be followed and be complied with by the developer. Failure to comply could be deemed as a material breach of permit compliance.
7.2.4. The responsible authority should have the powers and capability to audit a wind farm’s complaint handling activities and complaints register so to monitor compliance with the procedures and the planning permit conditions.
7.2.5. The complaint handling procedure and the wind farm operator should have the capacity to accommodate handling of urgent or emergency complaints. These complaints may be related to safety issues as well as unacceptable noise conditions due to damage to the turbine caused by external events such as lightning strike or mechanical failure. The wind farm operator should respond immediately, on-site, to address and rectify such issues. While objective measures and standards may be in place for assessing noise emissions, a subjective, reasonableness test should also be applied when assessing noise emissions such as abnormal noise emissions, tonality, special audible characteristics and low frequency noise.
7.2.6. For extreme emergency conditions, such as a bushfire, the wind farm operator should have appropriate controls, protocols and procedures in place, consistent with the emergency response requirements, to ensure the wind farm can be rapidly shut down. Power network operators should be aware the wind farm capacity may need to be shut down quickly in the event of a bushfire.
7.2.7. Wind farms should also work with the relevant firefighting agency to review procedures related to turbine blade positioning during a fire that minimises restrictions to aerial firefighting. The wind farm should also use appropriate marking devices to ensure transparency of other aerial obstacles such as meteorological masts, radio towers and powerlines to the firefighting agency. Such obstacles should require planning permits, a referral to CASA and be assessed as part of the aviation impact statement.
7.2.8. The industry peak body (CEC) could provide further leadership to the industry by developing and promoting best practice standards for complaint handling along with community engagement, landowner/neighbour agreements and quality assurance of member companies. The CEC could also encourage or mandate that its industry members voluntarily publish their wind farm’s complaint handling procedure and that members are properly trained and skilled in complaint handling.
7.2.9. Policies and procedures for handling wind farm noise complaints lodged with local councils need to be in place where the possibility exists for noise complaints to be made under other governing legislation, such as the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.