Thursday 2 February 2012

Renewables from Vestas to suntech plan profit without subsidy
27 Jan 2012

Renewable energy companies are approaching the point where they can generate electricity at a price competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies, the biggest wind and solar manufacturers said.

Suntech Power Co. Chief Executive Officer Zhengrong Shi said solar will reach parity with fossil fuels on electric grids by 2015. Vestas Wind systems A/S expects its turbines to compete without incentives "in the coming years", said Peter Brun, head of governmental relations.

"Wind in some cases already is, or can in coming years, be fully cost-competitive with fossil fuels", Brun said yesterday by e-mail from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "fossil fuel prices will continue to rise, and that increases the competitiveness of new technologies. We are preparing the whole industry for getting off the subsidy-need".

Caught between oversupply and tumbling prices, the companies are reminding governments that their products are taking the biggest share of new power generation and increasingly rivaling oil and gas. That's pushing green growth up the agenda as Germany and Japan close nuclear reactors and President Barack Obama defends U.S, support for renewables.

Renewables Boom
New electricity generation from the wind, sun, waves and biomass drew $187 billion in 2010 compared with $157 billion for added capacity from natural gas, oil and coal, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the first time investment in renewables has exceeded that of fossil fuels.

"Renewables are the energy of the future, and there's been a larger investment in renewable energy than conventional energy", said Steve Sawyer, secretary-general of the Global Wind Energy Council in Brussels, who first attended Davos in the early 1990s as a lobbyist for Greenpeace when clean energy companies were tiny.

Subsidies to renewables totaled $66 billion worldwide in 2010, according to the most recent figures from the International Energy Agency. Incentives must be retained to meet existing targets of diversifying the energy supply, the Paris-based group said. Power from solar panels costs more than triple natural gas, according to levelized cost of energy data from New Energy Finance. Onshore wind is close to parity with coal, and about a quarter more pricey than gas.

'Very Competitive'
Solar power will be "very competitive" within a decade, and in some places, it's already near "grid parity", meaning it can compete without subsidies, Trina Solar Ltd. (TSL) Chief Executive Officer Jifan Gao said in an interview in Davos. He spoke through an interpreter.

"We see costs coming down and manufacturing efficiency being improved all the time", said Gao, whose company is the fifth biggest maker of silicon-based solar panel. "In places like Australia, this year they will reach grid parity; next year Italy will, and in 2014 regions like California".

Gao's comments support those of Suntech Power's Shi, who told Bloomberg television that with government support, the industry has made "tremendous progress", and solar prices have been cut in half in a year. "We believe that by 2015, there will be around 50% of countries where it reaches grid parity", Shi said.

Vestas Aims
Brun at Vestas said that the cost of wind power is "site-specific" and that the technology may reach grid parity in the breeziest areas by 2020. He declined to say where. Governments and the industry should consider re-allocating subsidies to turbines in areas with lower wind speeds, and offshore, where winds are stronger and costs are higher, he said.

With incentives for wind and solar power under threat in the U.S, and the European Union as governments tighten budgets, Davos serves as a forum for industry executives to remind governments of the need to promote renewables as part of the effort to stem climate change, said Tulsi Tanti, chairman of Suzlon Energy Ltd. (SUEL), India's biggest wind turbine maker.

"Davos is the one place the most important decision makers of the world--be it government or business--converge", Tanti said in e-mailed answers to questions. "The most crucial issue this year will be to argue for policy certainty despite the economic environment".

In the U.S, the wind industry is threatened by the loss of a tax credit which expires at the end of this year. Vestas has said it may fire 1,600 U.S, workers if the credit isn't renewed, and Obama in his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 24 urged Congress to "pass clean-energy tax credits". "I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy", Obama said.

Wind power photo contest fights NIMBYism
25 Jan 2012

Shutterbugs--do you revel in the sight of the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm's many wind turbines spinning in the mountains of Southern California? Or perhaps the sun setting behind the offshore turbines of the United Kingdom's Thanet Wind Farm? If so, you could have a shot at €1,000 in goods from Amazon and a shot at having your work shared around the world in celebration of Global Wind Day on June 15. The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has announced a global wind power photography competition, open to one and all, entitled (appropriately enough), "Wind in Mind". Photographers are invited to take that and run with it, giving free rein to their imaginations in showing wind power technology in a new way.

An expert jury will judge the entries, with winners announced shortly after Global Wind Day. The top winner will receive a voucher good for €1,000 at Amazon, while five runners-up will receive a €250 voucher. The overall winning photo will also become part of an online professional photography collection, and be published in renewable energy newspaper 'Recharge' and in the European wind power industry magazine Wind Directions. Additionally, all of the winning pictures will be displayed outdoors in the EU area of Brussels.

Need some inspiration? "I can't think of a better subject for a contemporary photo competition than wind power", said Julian Scola, communication director of the EWEA, organizers of the Global Wind Day alongside the Global Wind Energy Council, in a statement. "wind turbines are an icon: symbols of the fight against climate change, of sustainability, of our modern age. While some people noisily oppose wind turbines, there are many others who love them and find them a graceful addition to our landscape".

The EWEA is a fine organisation to spearhead such a competition, as the European continent, including the UK, plans to pull as much as 15.7% of its total power from wind by 202o. The U.K, is already well on its way towards hitting that mark, as it currently receives 9% of its electricity from renewable sources, much of that from wind, both on land and offshore. But in the US, those who don't consider wind turbines such a graceful addition to the landscape have had a serious impact on the adoption of this renewable energy technology.

Lee Patrick Sullivan of energyNow reports that Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to new energy infrastructure currently spells the demise of about 45% of renewable energy proposals across the country, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. When it comes to offshore wind turbines in the Great Lakes, for example, opponents have claimed that turbines are "unsightly".

Perhaps your photo could help to change the mindset that puts wind turbines in the same category as, say, smoke stacks--and celebrate them, as Scola put it, as icons of a sustainable future. But hurry--the competition is only open until May 6.

Japanese sell more solar power back to utilities
25 Jan 2012

(Reuters)-Japanese small solar panel owners-householders and small businesses-sold 50% more power to utilities last year than in 2010, Reuters calculations based on an official data showed on Wednesday.

Japan is overhauling its energy policy after the Fukushima crisis shattered public confidence in the safety of atomic power, and is set to introduce a new subsidy scheme which covers a wider range of renewable energy power developers to support the budding market for domestically produced power.

Owners sold a total 2,150 GWs to power utilities last year, helped by the government scheme. The data showed Japan's 10 regional power companies spent a total 96 billion yen ($1.2 billion) for surplus solar power from house owners and small businesses last year via a feed-in tariff scheme, which requires them to buy such power. Last year's purchase volume is equivalent to 0.24% of sales from the power companies of some 884,000 GWs a year on average in the three years to March 2011.

In calender 2010, power companies bought 1,400 GWs of such surplus solar power via the same scheme. When a full-fledged scheme applying any electricity from solar, wind, small hydropower, biomass and geothermal power plants is launched in July, the existing one will remain but cover surplus power from solar panel owners of up to 10 kilowatts only

Currently, regional power firms pay 48 yen per kW for surplus electricity from solar panel owners of less than 10 kilowatts and 24 yen for surplus power from owners of 10 to 500 kWs, and allowed to add on the extra costs to all users in the same region evenly. The pricing for the new scheme has not yet been discussed as parliament failed to appoint a panel of experts to decide the scheme's details last year.

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Solar guru receives Australia Day honour
26 Jan 2012

Australia needs to look to Germany if it is to realise the potential of solar cell technology, says an expert who is being honoured today. Professor Martin Green of the University of New South Wales has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his work on photovoltaics. "Germany has been the only country that's had a sensible long-term program in place to promote the use of renewables", says Green.

Some argue solar cells are not a competitive option for reducing carbon emissions, and are limited by the fact that they don't generate energy unless the Sun is shining. But according to Green, the "stars are aligning for conventional roof mounted solar" and it is ripe for a new kick start from governments.

Cheaper technology
Green says the cost of solar cells has come down rapidly in recent years largely due to the expanding manufacturing industry in China. "They're now a third to a quarter of the costs of only a couple of years ago", he says. "It's expected that this [decline in price] will continue over the next decade. The projections are that about 60% further will be taken off the costs over that period".

The German experience Green says the advantage of solar cells is they produce most of their energy in the day when energy use is at its highest. While clouds can cut back solar power production, this can be compensated for by energy from other areas that are sunny-as long as the grid covers a large enough geographic area, he says. Green points to data from Germany where nearly one million (mainly rooftop) solar panels supply the equivalent of a dozen nuclear power plants, or about 40% of the maximum demand in Australia. "When you average across the whole country you get a very predictable daily output", he says.

Balancing generation and use
Green says matching the generation of energy with its use is an old issue that the grid has found ways of accommodating. "You just slightly change perspective when you are generating most of your power during the day time [as you would with a system involving photovoltaics]", he says. Green says current day coal and nuclear power stations push out energy all night, when it's not particularly needed. As a result there is a need to store excess energy produced at night or for incentives to encourage energy use during this time.

"We give away electricity to aluminium smelters at night just to provide a load for the power plants at night", says Green. He says in countries like Japan, Germany and the US, excess energy from conventional power plants is currently used to pump water uphill at night for hydroelectricity. Generation of excess energy from photovoltaic cells during the day could be dealt with in a similar way, says Green. Local storage of energy from photovoltaics in batteries is also starting to occur, he says.

Feed-in tariffs
Green says Australian state-based schemes to promote rooftop solar have been undermined by fixed feed-in tariffs. Instead, a sliding tariff scale of the kind used in Germany, which progressively reduces subsidies to solar power and drives down the cost of solar panels, is more sustainable. "The German scheme has been undoubtedly successful", says Green.

"It has single-handedly driven the world market for both wind and solar products and changed the industry from non-viable to the state it is now where it has the chance of being self-sustaining". He says a carbon tax in Australia will only encourage lowest-cost present day low-emission alternatives. The tax should be complemented by German-style schemes to boost photovoltaics, which are presently at a low stage of development but have the potential to lower costs in the future.

Efficiency and sustainability
Green's research team currently holds the record for highly efficient solar cell technology, which has been commercialised through CSG Solar Pty Ltd, of which he is research director. Green says current silicon cells show 25% efficiency in the lab, although commercially available panels operate at just 14 to 15%. His team is working with several companies to improve this efficiency.

He says the thermodynamic limit of converting sunlight into electricity is 74%, and at this point, the best lab device reaches 36% using cells made from exotic materials. Green says the energy being used to make solar cells is also reducing. "Everything that is being done to reduce the cost of the cells also reduces the energy content", he says.

And he says the industry is moving away from the use of toxic chemicals that require expensive disposal, with pollution from solar cell production becoming the exception. "Of the hundreds of manufacturers in China there have been two of them in the last five years that have been found to be not disposing of the wastes of the processing of the silicon for the cells in an acceptable way".

Wind farms turn neighbours green ... with envy
24 Jan 2012

OPPOSITION to wind farms is based on "mass hysteria" and there is not a shred of evidence globally that wind turbines have adverse health impacts, according to Sydney University Professor of Public Health Simon Chapman.

Professor Chapman undertook a major review of international literature and said there was absolutely no evidence to support the concept of "wind turbine syndrome" that opponents say causes sleeplessness, headaches and high blood pressure. But he said people could worry themselves into being ill. "You can worry yourself sick, of course, that is a well-known phenomenon, you get worried and agitated and have palpitations but the idea the actual turbines cause it, there is no support in the literature at all".

He said research studies showed complaints tended to be from people who did not have turbines on their land and therefore did not derive any income from them. "The literature explicitly identifies the variable of envy. If your neighbour has wind turbines they are getting a minimum of $10,000 per turbine and you start to think it is unfair, you think about relative land values, maybe you don't like the look of them".

He said opposition to wind farms was "hysteria" and people in Europe, where wind farms had been well established for two decades, were perplexed and bemused by the idea wind turbines could have negative health impacts. "A lot of the reviews talk about infrasound which is sub-audible sound you can't hear, making you ill. We get a lot of every day infrasound-the sound of our heartbeat in our chest. It's everywhere. "You've got to take some of these claims with a grain of salt", he said.

Professor Chapman dismissed claims by NSW Landscape Guardians president Humphrey Price-Jones that reports existed that proved adverse impacts from turbines. "That is absolute nonsense", he said. The NSW Government has insisted it will take a "precautionary approach" to wind farm development despite NSW Health Department there is no evidence of adverse health impacts.

NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard, whose office has released draft guidelines on wind farms for public comment, said "the jury is still out on the health impacts from wind farms". "When it comes to people's health-I'll take a precautionary approach every time", Mr Hazzard said. "But in any case my view is consistent with NSW Health's comments to the Department of Planning and Infrastructure that strong wind farm planning guidelines can minimise impacts on human health.

"It also is consistent with the June 2011 Senate inquiry into the social and economic impacts of wind farms, which found there was a need for further studies into wind farm health impacts and that State noise standards should cover low frequency noise. "In addition, the National Health and Medical Research Council is also currently looking at this issue and proposing to issue a public statement later this year", Mr Hazzard said in a statement to The Land.

The shocking truth about wind power
25 Jan 2012

The summer holidays provide an opportunity for many of us in our largely urbanised population to revisit rural landscapes as we travel to visit relatives, go camping or engage in that Aussie summer favourite, a trip to the beach. The encroachment of urban developments and industrial structures on previously bucolic vistas comes as a shock as we pass remembered landscapes suddenly altered by the telltale signs of human existence. A new housing estate, factory, freeway, rail line, mine or power station; all change our natural environment in fundamental and inescapably distinct ways.

We may wistfully recall a sleepier, untouched time and place; but the change is quickly forgotten as we pass, and its impact fades until the next visit. For those who inhabit changing landscapes however, the changes can disrupt one's sense of place and sense of identity, and can lead to feelings sometimes associated with grief and loss. As our steadily growing human population leaves its mark across the globe, with seven billion of us now sprawling out across seven continents, there are few places on Earth now left untouched.

This is having dramatic impacts on the natural environment, but the changes are largely accepted because of the benefits they bring to society (including the trappings of Western lifestyles many of us have come to expect): high speed Internet, road transport infrastructure commensurate with our predilection for cars, and reliable electricity and water supplies. Much of this infrastructure development occurs infrequently, being big ticket items that are so costly that governments shy away from them, and substantial investments therefore only take place every decade or so.

In Australia, this has left us with much ageing and inadequate infrastructure, particularly in the energy and transport sectors. We are likely to see significant changes in terms of infrastructure development to address this in coming decades. As the planning and development of this new infrastructure takes place, it will be important to keep in perspective its purpose and to choose technologies that pose the least environmental risk and are the safest in terms of their impact on human and ecological health.

Part of the impetus in the energy sector is the declining quality of existing infrastructure-our 40-50 year-old coal fired power stations have passed their use-by date, and it is only the cost of their replacement (and the histrionics of their politically powerful owners) that appear to compel governments to award ongoing licences to operate.

There are even more compelling pressures to upgrade our energy infrastructure however; the mining, transportation, and burning of coal for electricity generation poses serious threats to human health and is responsible for hundreds, possibly thousands of avoidable deaths each year from the toxins and pollution it produces. Coal kills; and whether we burn it here or ship it offshore for others to burn, it will lead to loss of life and the development of serious illnesses and human suffering.

Not only does coal pose a health threat, it is the principal villain in driving dangerous climate change worldwide, making its replacement, therefore, one of the big potential wins in cutting national emissions and reducing Australia's very high level of emissions per person.

Gas, too, poses serious risks: given the shift to shallow coal seam gas mining as traditional natural gas reserves diminish, fertile farmland is being lost to industrial wastelands, and underground water tables threatened by the use of mining chemicals untested for human safety. Coupled with the emerging evidence that coal seam gas poses as big a threat to atmospheric pollution as coal (it may have an even higher lifecycle emissions profile than coal), this leaves renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind in the box seat in terms of safety for human health and as climate friendly technologies.

There are powerful vested interests however in preventing the widespread roll out of these technologies and recent activities suggest these interests are promoting anxiety and concern in the community regarding the safety of some renewable energy technology, such as wind power. Often these concerns can be heightened by a sense of disruption with regard to place identity and are understandable human responses to changes in the known environment.

It is important, however, not to confuse these responses with genuine concern for public health and wellbeing, and the community must be careful not to allow those with vested interests to exploit the public's sense of vulnerability around change and lack of access to credible information by promoting fears about the safety of wind power. Recent reviews of the scientific literature demonstrate that there is no credible, peer reviewed scientific evidence that demonstrates a link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts in people living in proximity to them.

A new paper has been developed by a coalition of Australian health groups should assuage community concerns on this topic. The Health and Wind Turbines position paper, released by the Climate and Health Alliance yesterday, finds that while large-scale commercial wind farms have been in operation internationally for many decades, often in close proximity to thousands of people, there is no evidence of any associated increases in ill-health.

Change in our known environment can be challenging. Investing in safe community infrastructure is important for all of us. In making decisions about our future energy supply, we must consider the costs of current forms of electricity generation on climate change and health for all members of the community, including those living in proximity to infrastructure. Fortunately for the community and the climate, wind power offers a safe, reliable, climate-friendly alternative to harmful and high emissions from coal, and is available now at prices we can afford.

Monday 30 January 2012

Wind Capital nets financing for 201 MW Kansas wind project
23 Jan 2012

Wind energy developer Wind Capital Group says it has closed on financing for the 201 MW Post Rock Wind Energy Project, located in central Kansas. The project finance lenders are providing over $350 million in debt facilities to support the construction and operation of the project.

The financing consists of a $293 million construction loan, $63 million in term loan financing and a $20 million letter of credit facility. BayernLB and Rabobank acted as joint bookrunners for the construction loan, along with two other mandated lead arrangers, Nord LB and Union Bank NA. BayernLB and Rabobank also acted as co-bookrunners and mandated lead arrangers for the term loan, and Rabobank provided the letter of credit facility.

Construction on the Post Rock project, which will utilize GE 1.5-82.5 wind turbines, began last year, and the wind farm is scheduled to come online in the second half of this year. Kansas-based electric utility Westar Energy will purchase the power generated by the project under a 20-year power purchase agreement.

Can solar power help shipping go green?
24 Jan 2012

From a distance, the yellow-and-blue ferry docking at the pier resembles the scores of other vessels that hop between Hong Kong's outlying Islands and the peninsula every day. But a closer look as passengers disembark, reveals a grid of gleaming solar panels on the ferry's roof and, instead of the usual throbbing engine noise, there is a barely audible buzz. The Solar Eagle and three similar vessels shuttle golfers to tee off on an 18-hole island course. Together they form the world's first hybrid powered ferry fleet and a commercial proving ground for technology that could transform the future of marine travel.

The technology, similar to that used in hybrid cars, has been developed by an Australian company called Solar Sailor. Electricity created by the solar panels and stored in a battery powers the engine while the vessel comes in and out of the harbour. Once out in the open ocean and a faster clip is required, the diesel kicks in. One of the fleet, the Solar Albatross, sports two sails covered in solar panels that can be raised to harness both the sun and the wind to further reduce reliance on fossil fuel.

Robert Dane, Solar Sailor's founder, says that the technology offers ship owners huge fuel savings and has the potential to be used on all types of vessels from humble ferries and luxury super-yachts to bulk carriers shipping iron ore and navy patrol ships. "I think in 50 to 100 years, all ships will have solar sails", he says. "It just makes so much sense. You're out there on the water and there's so much light bouncing around and there's a lot more energy in the wind than in the sun".

Teething problems
Three of the ferries began operation in 2010 and the Solar Albatross began carrying passengers last year. The solar-sail technology is also in use in two ferries in Shanghai and Sydney, he Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs the golf course on Kau Sai Chau island, says its has seen "significant fuel savings" but was still monitoring the overall performance of the ferries.

Mr Dane says that on the golf course-run, the hybrid technology saves 8% or 17% on the fuel bill, depending on the route taken. However, repair and maintenance costs have been more than anticipated. "The Jockey Club is a new operator so there's a learning curve for them and the new technology", he says. Despite the teething problems, Mr Dane is confident of future sales.

He says he is in the "early stages" of discussions with the operators of Hong Kong's iconic star ferry, which has been shuttling across Victoria Harbour since 1880, about fitting solar panels on one of their vessels. And in Australia, he hopes to clinch deals this year with the operator of a river ferry and install the technology on two ocean research vessels.

There are other solar-powered ships in operation such as the catamaran Turanor PlanetSolar, which is circumnavigating the globe exclusively by harnessing the power of the sun. However, Mr Dane says the technology developed by his company is the most commercially tested. More ambitiously, Mr Dane says the company will soon announce a trial with an Australian mining company to attach a 40m (130ft) tall solar sail to a newly built bulk carrier that will ship iron ore and other raw materials to China.

Solar Sailor is in talks with an Australian mining company about installing a solar sail on a bulk carrier that transports iron ore and other raw materials He likens the sail to a "giant windmill blade" that would be covered in solar panels and fold down into the vessel when it is docking and transferring cargo. By harnessing the wind, the company estimates that the giant sail could shave 20% to 40%, or around A$3m (£2m; $3.1m), off a ship's annual fuel bill when travelling at 16 knots (18mph), with the solar panels contributing an extra 3% to 6% saving.

"The systems were are installing are worth around A$6 million and therefore the return of investment would be a couple of years at the current oil price", he says. "It's not a matter of if we're going to do it, it's a matter of how-right now we are working out the details".

Green oceans
If, as Mr Dane hopes, the technology is adopted more widely, it also has the potential to clean up the shipping industry, which environmental campaigners claim emits more greenhouse gases than commercial aviation. Roughly 50,000 ships carry 90% of the world's trade cargo, and these ships tend to burn a heavily polluting oil known as bunker fuel. "It's like tar, you have to heat it up to make it liquid so it will flow", says Mr Dane. "These incredibly powerful engines run on incredibly cheap but dirty fuel so what we can do in the short-term is to ensure they use less fuel".

The industry has proved hard for governments to regulate as it does not fall into one jurisdiction, however the United Nations International Maritime Organization has recently introduced new regulations on fuel efficiency and sulphur emissions that could drive demand for Solar Sailor's technology. Mr Dane is optimistic about the company's future even though after more than a decade of doing business it has yet to turn a profit.

He says the company will in future focus on areas less affected the global economic downturn such as defence, with plans afoot to use the technology in unmanned ocean vehicles that could replace navy patrol boats. "We know (our technology) works. We know the return on investment but there's been factors outside our control like the economic environment that have inhibited what we are doing", Mr Dane says. "We think we're at a very exciting point with regards to profitability and one of the projects (we're working on) will make us incredibly profitable in 2012".

Beware of misleading claims on wind farms and health
24 Jan 2012

The clean energy industry today urged governments and the broader community to beware of misleading claims about wind farms and health by anti-wind power activists and to reject their calls for extra regulations that would send jobs and investment out of Australia. Clean Energy Council acting Chief Executive Kane Thornton said government documents indicated that NSW Health had repeatedly warned state ministers ahead of the release of recent draft wind planning guidelines that there was no evidence for so-called 'wind turbine syndrome'.

"While people's health should always be the number one priority, the approach taken by governments must be informed by legitimate health experts", Mr Thornton said. "But news reports today demonstrate yet again that statements about the health impacts of wind farms made by anti-wind farm interest groups should be taken with more than a few grains of salt".

This was further borne out in a statement released today by the Climate and Health Alliance, a coalition representing groups such as the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australian Psychological Society, that renewable energy such as wind power provides a safe alternative to fossil fuels. "The medical community has rejected the scare campaign being run by interest groups such as the Waubra Foundation, which was set up and funded by anti-wind power campaigners", Mr Thornton said.

"This group's claims run completely counter to the findings of an opinion poll released by Pacific Hydro last week showing that some 80% of those surveyed in NSW, Victoria and South Australia support wind power, an energy source that now provides power for the equivalent of more than 900,000 Australian homes. "The NSW Government's dismissal of second-rate science about wind farms and health is a warning to Australians about the danger of taking the claims of anti-wind power groups on face value".

Sunday 29 January 2012

Science on wind turbine illness dubious, say experts
24 Jan 2012

FEARS that wind turbines make people sick are ''not scientifically valid'', and the arguments mounted by anti-wind farm campaigners are unconvincing, according to confidential briefings given to the state government by NSW Health.

Documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws show that health officials repeatedly warned ministers last year that there was no evidence for ''wind turbine syndrome'', a collection of ailments including sleeplessness, headaches and high blood pressure that some people believe are caused by the noise of spinning blades.

But the department's advice contrasts with the view of the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, who was responsible for draft guidelines, released in December, that significantly tighten the approvals process.

"I take the view that the jury is still out on the health impacts from wind farms,'' he told the Herald last night. "When it comes to people's health, I'll take a precautionary approach every time.'' Mr Hazzard said his view was consistent with that of NSW Health in that strong planning guidelines minimised any risk. The guidelines include a proviso that anyone living within two km of a proposed turbine can send it through an extra planning process that takes account of health impacts.

NSW Health said in its briefings that the guidelines would minimise any health impacts but was scathing of presentations to the government by anti-wind farm groups, including the Landscape Guardians.

One study by Nina Pierpont, which is central to the claims that wind turbines make people ill, was dismissed as ''not of sufficient scientific rigour'' by NSW Health. ''This 'study' is not a rigorous epidemiological study; it is a case series of 10 families drawn from a wide range of locations,'' according to the ministerial briefing on July 5 last year. ''This work has not been properly peer reviewed. Nor has it been published in the peer-reviewed literature. The findings are not scientifically valid, with major methodological flaws stemming from the poor design of the study".

The documents, obtained under FOI laws by the environment group Friends of the Earth, say existing studies had been examined and no known causal link could be established. The assessment undermines the claims of an anti-wind farm group, the Waubra Foundation, which had been lobbying the government for a moratorium on new wind farms.

"The documents from NSW Health confirm our belief that the foundation has been 'cherry picking' data that supports its allegations about 'wind turbine syndrome' by talking with people who believe they have,.. symptoms,'' said a Friends of the Earth spokesman, Cam Walker. ''This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and is not the basis of good science,.. Yet, as has been noted by a growing number of medical authorities, there is no credible evidence of a causal link between turbines and ill health.'' The president of the NSW Landscape Guardians, Humphrey Price-Jones, claimed to have observed a ''churlish attitude'' among NSW Health officials who had sat through presentations by anti-wind farm groups.

''We find it extremely peculiar that the Department of Health would dismiss, out of hand, anecdotal evidence,'' Mr Price-Jones said. ''The fact that it is anecdotal doesn't mean it should be ignored or cast aside.'' The group believes evidence linking illnesses caused by low-level sound from turbines is mounting and would soon be impossible for the government to ignore. It said a thorough investigation was required.

A landowner near Lake George, Marcia Osborne, said her family had had no medical problems or trouble sleeping from the seven or eight turbines close by. ''Quite the opposite really, they've done nothing but help us,'' she said. ''We are farmers,.. things were pretty tough [during the drought],.. When they asked us if they could put a wind farm on the place it was like a gift from God. We used to curse the wind, now we get paid for the wind.'' The guidelines are on exhibition until March 14.

Radioactive material stolen in Egypt
20 Jan 2012

The theft this week of radioactive material from a nuclear power plant under construction in Egypt has highlighted once again the dangers of nuclear looting in countries undergoing social upheaval.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that the material was taken from a laboratory at the El Dabaa nuclear power plant on the country's Mediterranean coast. "According to the information we have, the items that have gone missing are low-level radioactive sources", says an IAEA spokesperson.

The sources probably have a long half-life, and would have been used to calibrate radiation detectors, says Ronald Chesser, director of the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "They were small check sources, in the microcurie range", says Chesser. "This is pretty low-level stuff, but it still is a concern that they are in unknown hands". Calibration sources typically contain small amounts of an isotope--not enough to cause widespread contamination, but with the potential to trigger public panic if released.

The El Dabaa theft is not unique. In 2003, for example, following the chaos that ensued after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center outside Baghdad was targeted by looters who stole radioactive caesium and cobalt sources. They also dumped some 200 stolen barrels containing yellowcake--processed uranium ore--in the vicinity of the site.

Like the looting of radioactive material at Al Tuwaitha, the theft at El Dabaa was probably one of opportunism, rather than a purposeful targeting of radioactive material, says Chesser. Media reports suggest that the souces were stored in a safe, and Chesser suspects that looters "didn't really want the radioactive material, but simply didn't know what they had. They think if it's in a safe it must be valuable".

El Dabaa had recently been targeted by protesters who are claiming that their land was wrongly taken by the government to make way for the plant. As a result of those protests, the site had been shut down and workers were not in the facility at the time of the theft, according to local news reports.

After years of stop-start efforts, Egypt's nuclear power ambitions are once again in flux. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had pushed hard in recent years to reinvigorate the country's nuclear power ambitions, backing plans to build four nuclear power plants at El Dabaa, including the 1,200- MW facility under construction there. The first plant was scheduled to start producing electricity in 2017, but the new government has not made any statements about its plans for the plant since construction was suspended.

UK 'subsidising nuclear power unlawfully'
20 Jan 2012

Green energy campaigners are attempting to block new nuclear power stations in the UK by complaining to the European Commission that government plans contravene EU competition regulations. They say financial rules for nuclear operators include subsidies that have not been approved by the commission. These include capping of liability for accidents, which they say at least halves the cost of nuclear electricity. The government says it is confident that policies do not provide subsidies. The complaint, by the Energy Fair group, also says that the UK's carbon floor price and feed-in tariffs amount to state aid for the nuclear industry. State coffers would also have to meet cost overruns on nuclear waste disposal, they argue.

Dorte Fouquet of the German legal firm BBH, who drew up the complaint, said that EU energy policy was based on having an open market with a level playing field. "The commission has repeatedly underlined that distortion of the market is to a large extent caused by subsidies to the incumbents in the energy sector", she said. "This complaint aims to shed some light on the recent shift in the energy policy of the United Kingdom where strong signals point to yet another set of subsidies to the nuclear power plant operators". Last year, a committee of UK MPs also said that the government was subsidising nuclear power, despite promises that it would not. It sees the construction of about eight new reactors within a decade as essential for meeting climate change and energy security goals.

Although most of the complaint concerns the UK, some of its ingredients would apply to other EU nations as well, especially the capping of nuclear liability. Estimates prepared for Energy Fair suggest that if operators had to buy insurance at the market rate, that would add at least 14 euro¢ (12p) to the price of one kW-hour ( kW) of electricity-and potentially 20 times that figure. With electricity in the UK retailing around 12p/ kW, that would mean at least a doubling of the price.

Campaigners have repeatedly said down the years that all nuclear programmes are in fact underwritten by the state whether they are government-owned or private, because the clean-up costs from major accidents are enormous and the companies involved are considered "too big to fail". Current UK proposals call for the operator to be liable for the first £1bn of cost from any accident. This is about a seven-fold increase on previous levels, but still a long way below the costs of a disaster such as the one that befell the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan last year.

That has left the plant's owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), facing a bill of multiple billions of dollars and reliant on state support-and perhaps eventual state ownership-to survive. From a uniquely UK perspective, Fair Energy is focussing on elements of the Electricity Market Reform package that the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (Decc) released last year. "The introduction of a carbon price floor is likely to result in huge windfall handouts of around £50m a year to existing nuclear generators", said Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the UK Green Party.

"Despite persistent denials by ministers, it's clear that this is a subsidy by another name, which makes a mockery of the Coalition pledge not to gift public money to this already established industry". A Decc spokesman said the government's policy of no subsidies for nuclear, established in 2010, still stood. "We are confident that our proposals to reform the electricity market to incentivise all low carbon generation are entirely consistent with that policy of no subsidy", he said. The European Commission could take up to 18 months to consider the complaint. A finding in Fair Energy's favour could potentially derail the UK's nuclear expansion plans-and those of other countries.