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, the Commissioner’s 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 the Commissioner’s suggestions to make their procedures transparent and available and solid progress has been made in both the transparency of wind farm complaint procedures and compliance with their 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:
- wind farms not following their own published procedure for handling complaints
- wind farms failing to internally escalate the complaint when the complaint has not been resolved
- 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
- complaints remaining continuously open when they should be closed, 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 respective 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. As 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.
The Commissioner has 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 the Office. The Commissioner continues to make suggestions to improve existing complaint handling procedures to the many industry members who have sought assistance from the Office.
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, maintenance or operating issues with infrastructure (such as 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 the Commissioner’s 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 the Commissioner’s initial observations and recommendations. It is understood that these additional conditions have been applied to both new, renewed and modified planning permits issued for wind farms in Victoria.
There may also be other avenues for complaints to be lodged by residents in proximity to a wind farm. In Victoria, complaints about ‘noise nuisance’ can be lodged under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to local government. Council’s need to be fully aware of their responsibilities under this Act and ensure they have appropriate documented procedures to receive and handle wind farm complaints in the case they are lodged under this legislation.
Finally, industry bodies such as the CEC may have a key role to play in leading the development and promotion of 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.
The Commissioner has 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.
Not all turbine manufacturers or specific turbine models, have the ability to remotely lock the turbine blades into the required position for safe aerial firefighting. Some blades will continue to drift with the wind, further increasing the risks to pilots and reducing the workable airspace between turbines to fly and drop retardants.
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 and adopted into planning guidelines and aviation safety assessments.
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 best practice standards for complaint handling procedures (such as the Australian/NZ Standard for Complaint Handling – AS10002:2014). 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 proactively implement these provisions from the very 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 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 assess, 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. Complaint handling bodies such as developers, local councils, state governments and compliance authorities should ensure their complaint handling procedures are relevant for wind farm matters. Further, complaints need to be closed out at the appropriate time with the complainant being advised accordingly.
7.2.7. 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.
7.2.8. 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.
7.2.9. Wind turbine design standards need to be upgraded to mandatorily require the ability to remotely position and lock turbine blades in the event of a bushfire. Developers should only select turbines that conform to this standard.
7.2.10. The industry peak body (CEC) should continue to provide leadership to the industry by developing and promoting best practice standards for complaint handling, along with community engagement 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.
7.2.11. Policies and procedures for handling wind farm noise complaints lodged with local councils should be in place where the possibility exists for noise complaints to be made either as an alleged breach of compliance and/or under other governing legislation, such as the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.