Wind and solar farms are typically required to establish a complaint handling procedure, together with supporting systems and processes, to comply with planning permit conditions. It is also common sense that the project is 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. In many cases, limited guidance is provided in permit conditions as to the process, scope, requirements and standards that the complaint handling procedure should adhere to.
While many projects 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 projects (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 projects have adopted the Commissioner’s suggestions, making their complaint handling procedures transparent and available and demonstrating compliance with their processes for complaint handling. However, there are still further opportunities for proponents to ensure they are following their own documented procedures when handling complaints and avoid situations including:
- projects not following their own published procedure for handling complaints
- projects failing to internally escalate the complaint for review when the complaint has not been resolved
- multiple complaints from a resident about the same issue or issues – with no visible action being taken by the proponent to investigate or resolve
- a lack of rigour or process in complaint investigations and poor clarity in correspondence to the complainant
- complaints remaining open when they should have been closed, and
- a lack of clarity regarding next steps in the complaint handling process – leading to numerous complaints that remain unresolved and/or not closed.
There is also a wide range of project complaint handling procedures in place that vary by proponent and project, often resulting in a mix of consistency in the quality and effectiveness of the procedures. Also, project operators may possess varying degrees of complaint handling skills. As such, there continue to be further opportunities to improve the capability of staff and effectiveness of the industry’s complaint handling procedures.
The Commissioner has successfully encouraged a number of developers and operators to voluntarily publish their complaint handling procedures on their project website. Many proponents have now complied with this request. Some 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. Proponents also often seek assistance from the Office on suggestions for handling specific complaints that they may be dealing with.
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, whining gearboxes, lack of greasing of the rotating nacelle causing a screeching noise during the yaw breaking process and lightning strike of a blade tip (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 asset be repaired and the noise emission rectified.
Permit requirements and complaint avenues
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 project. In Victoria, complaints about ‘noise nuisance’ can currently be lodged with local government under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Victoria). Councils should be fully aware of their responsibilities under this Act and ensure they have appropriate documented procedures to receive and handle complaints in the case they are lodged under this legislation. Further, the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018 (Victoria) is expected to come into force in 2021 and may provide additional options for residents to raise complaints about ‘unreasonable noise’ and allege breaches of the general environmental duty that is central to the legislation.
Victoria has also initiated changes to wind farm noise regulation, moving investigative responsibilities from local councils to the state-based Environment Protection Authority, effective 1 July 2021. These new arrangements are similar to the regime that has been in place in New South Wales since 2013. Victoria has also passed legislation to exclude wind farms from the nuisance provisions of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Victoria), effective 1 July 2021. Going forward, community members in Victoria can lodge noise complaints about operating wind farms to the wind farm operator, the EPA, our Office or in pursuit of a breach of compliance legal action in the judicial system.
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 renewable 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 project operators and emergency response agencies, in particular as they relate to ground and aerial firefighting, the ability to direct a rapid shutdown of assets, such as wind turbines, activating aviation safety lighting, and the positioning of turbine blades during the shutdown to minimise the obstacle’s interference with aircraft (the preferred position being a ‘Y’ shape, with one blade aligned with the turbine tower, also known as the ‘rabbit ear’ position).
Not all turbine manufacturers or specific turbine models, have the ability to remotely lock the turbine blades into the ideal 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 for planes to fly and drop retardants.
Other potential obstacles to aerial firefighting, such as meteorological masts, radio towers and powerlines may also exist around the project site and pilots need to be well aware of this infrastructure. A consistent standard for the visible identification of meteorological masts should be considered and adopted into planning guidelines and aviation safety assessments.
Turbines equipped with aviation safety lighting should ensure there are procedures in place to quickly activate the lights during a bushfire or fog event to increase transparency of those obstacles to pilots. Ultimately, pilots will need to make their own assessments and decisions about whether it is safe to fly in and amongst a wind farm, based on the weather, smoke, fog, wind conditions and any other relevant considerations or constraints.
7.2.1 Planning permit conditions for wind and solar farms should stipulate that the complaint handling procedures should support all types of complaints raised about the project 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 project’s website.
The website should include a toll-free number and an email address to contact the project 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 that the endorsed complaint handling procedure be followed and complied with by the proponent. 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 enact and audit a project’s complaint handling activities and complaints register to monitor compliance with the endorsed procedures and the planning permit conditions.
7.2.5 The complaint handling procedure and the project 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 environmental impacts, such as damage to a turbine caused by external events such as lightning strike or mechanical failure resulting in unacceptable noise emissions. The project operator should respond immediately, on-site, to assess, address and rectify such issues. While objective measures and standards may be in place for assessing matters such as noise emissions, a subjective, reasonableness test should also be applied when assessing environmental conditions, 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 and solar 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 or flood, the project operator should have appropriate controls, protocols and procedures in place, consistent with the emergency response requirements, to ensure the assets can be rapidly shut down. Power network operators should be aware that the wind or solar farm capacity may need to be shut down quickly in the event of an emergency event.
7.2.8 Projects should also work closely with the relevant firefighting (and/or emergency services) agency to review and agree on protocols and procedures to be followed in the event of an emergency.
7.2.9 The project should also use appropriate marking devices to ensure transparency of other aerial obstacles such as meteorological masts, radio towers and powerlines in consultation with the firefighting agency. Material obstacles should require planning permits. If the obstacle is a risk to aviation safety, a referral should be made to CASA and the obstacle should be assessed as part of the overall aviation impact assessment.
7.2.10 Wind turbine design standards should be reviewed in light of their capability to remotely position and lock turbine blades in the event of a bushfire. Developers should strongly consider selecting turbines that conform to this standard going forward. There would also be a strong advantage if turbines were delivered with the capability to install aviation lighting even if this is not a permit requirement or intended for use under normal conditions, as the capacity to quickly and remotely activate safety lighting on turbines may assist greatly in the event of any bushfire or other emergency.
7.2.11 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 (via a code of conduct) that its industry members voluntarily publish their project’s complaint handling procedure and contact details, and that members are properly trained and skilled in effective complaint handling.
7.2.12 Policies and procedures for handling noise and other environmental complaints lodged with government agencies, including local councils, should be in place where the possibility exists for 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 and the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018. Overlapping legislation may well need to be adjusted to avoid unnecessary duplication of process and the prospects of vexatious complaints and litigation.