The design and approval of a proposed wind farm relies heavily on third-party consultants (or ‘experts’) to prepare a range of reports related to noise assessments, visual amenity, shadow flicker, aviation impact and various environmental assessments. Experts are selected and paid for by the developer. The expert reports are typically included with the developer’s submission to the responsible authority when seeking approval for the wind farm project.
Much of the report information is based on results from predictive computer modelling and therefore the accuracy of the reports and recommendations is dependent on the quality and precision of the computer model, the accuracy of the data used and the skills of the expert in interpreting the output of the modelling analysis.
Once the wind farm is built, experts are often re-engaged to carry out post-construction assessments. These assessment reports utilise actual data from the wind farm, however still rely on assumptions and modelling to analyse the collected data and present in a format to enable conclusions.
It is very common that the experts engaged to perform the design assessments and reports during the planning phase are the same experts engaged by the developer to perform the post-construction assessments. Developers also often use the same experts on multiple projects.
The selection and use of the same expert in both the design and then post-construction phases of a wind farm may give rise to perceived or real conflicts of interest between the developer and the expert and the desired expectations of the expert confirming a compliant wind farm. As a hypothetical example, an acoustician engaged to assess the proposed wind farm’s design for compliance with the noise standard and is then engaged to assess the operating wind farm for actual compliance, may be placed in a difficult situation if the acoustician discovers some aspects of the operating wind farm is in fact non-compliant, particularly if areas of non-compliance may be a result of errors made in the original acoustician’s design assessment.
There is certainly scope for a better separation between the experts used for the predictive assessments used in the design versus the experts used for the post-construction assessments of a wind farm, along with the addition of audits of the expert’s work so as to minimise errors, maximise transparency and better manage perceived or real conflicts of interest.
In summary, best practice that has been observed is as follows:
- expert is appointed by developer to carry out relevant assessment as part of planning and design activity
- independent auditor is appointed to scrutinise and review expert’s assessment/design report and makes findings/recommendations known to developer, the responsible authority and other relevant agencies (e.g. Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Country Fire Authority, Environment Protection Authority etc.)
- once the wind farm is constructed, a different expert (to the design expert) is appointed to carry out the required post-construction compliance assessments, and
- the post-construction report is then reviewed by a different independent auditor for accuracy and integrity. The auditor makes findings/recommendations known to developer and responsible authority.
These additional steps and separation of experts and auditors will go a long way to enable strengthened confidence in the significant decisions being made on the basis of expert reports. The process will also better protect industry from errors and risks of being non-compliant. Already, jurisdictions such as Victoria have adopted this framework for all new and modified wind farm planning permits, and some other states have implemented variations on the above.
Finally, it is expected that these reforms will increase the opportunities for additional experts and auditors as well as help facilitate growth of skills and firms in the relevant disciplines.
6.2.1. Given the reliance on information provided by experts in wind farm planning and compliance decision-making, experts used for wind farm compliance assessment engagements should be selected from an approved panel or list. The panel or list is to be maintained by the responsible authority (or environmental regulator) and expert selection for a given project is to be approved by the responsible authority.
6.2.2. The expert organisation (or expert) selected to perform post-construction assessments at a wind farm should be a different expert organisation (or expert) to the one that was engaged for the design/planning phase of that wind farm.
6.2.3. Expert reports, assessments and techniques used for planning submissions, such as the predictive noise assessment and the post-construction noise testing plan, should be reviewed and assessed by an independent auditor, appointed or accredited by the responsible authority and/or relevant regulator. Further, expert reports prepared with respect to post-construction compliance should also be reviewed and assessed by a different, independent auditor that has been appointed or accredited by the responsible authority and/or relevant regulator.
6.2.4. The appointed independent auditors (refer to Recommendation 6.2.3) should be suitably qualified, experienced and accredited, have the ability to assess the integrity and accuracy of the expert’s report and be able to identify and confirm compliance or non-compliance with the relevant permit conditions.
6.2.5. Planning approval processes should carefully take into account the advice of auditors and referral agencies, such as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), before deciding on whether to approve a project.