The design and approval of a proposed wind farm relies heavily on third-party consultants (or ‘experts’) to prepare a range of reports including assessments related to noise, 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. Many of the assessment reports rely on complex calculations or results from predictive computer modelling. The accuracy of the assessment reports and recommendations is therefore highly dependent on the quality and precision of the assumptions used, correct application of calculations, the integrity of computer modelling applications, the accuracy of the data used and the skills of the expert in interpreting the output of the resulting 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 derive conclusions.
It is very common practice that 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 may 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 placed upon the expert to confirm a wind farm’s compliance. 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 much 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:
- A suitably qualified expert is appointed by a developer to carry out relevant assessment as part of planning and design activity. The expert must be free of any real or perceived conflicts of interest.
- An independent auditor is appointed to scrutinise and review expert’s assessment/design report and makes findings/recommendations known to the developer, the responsible authority and other relevant agencies (e.g. Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Country Fire Authority, Environment Protection Authority, Federal Department of the Environment and Energy etc.).
- Once the wind farm is constructed, a different expert (to the assessment expert) is appointed to carry out any required post-construction compliance assessments.
- The post-construction compliance report is then reviewed by a different independent auditor for accuracy and integrity. The auditor makes findings/recommendations known to the developer and responsible authority.
These additional steps and separation of experts and auditors will go a long way to enable strengthened confidence for all stakeholders in the significant decisions being made on the basis of expert reports. The process will also better protect industry from very costly errors and risks of being non-compliant.
After piloting this approach in 2018 for noise assessments at a proposed Victorian wind farm, the Victorian government has formally adopted this framework for all new and modified wind farm planning permits. Other states have implemented, or are considering implementing variations on the above.
In addition to noise assessments, other expert disciplines that lead to material issues in 2018 included aviation safety assessments and vegetation clearing assessments for transportation routes.
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 heavy reliance on assessments provided by experts in wind farm planning and compliance decision-making, qualified experts used for wind farm planning and compliance assessment engagements should be ideally 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. To ensure independence and remove any real or perceived conflicts of interest, the expert organisation (or expert) selected to perform post-construction compliance assessments at a wind farm should be a different expert organisation (or expert) to the one 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, also 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 and/or prescribed standards.
6.2.5. Planning approval processes should carefully take into account the advice of auditors and referral agencies, such as CASA, before deciding on whether to approve a project. Further, designated authorities, such as CASA, Emergency Response, EPAs etc. should be deemed to be statutory referral agencies whereby their advice and recommendations must be adhered to by the responsible planning authority.