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'Saudi Arabia of Wind' has uncertain future  

The south coast of Western Australia has extraordinary wind resources and could be a world leader in wind generation, but there are several problems to overcome.

Hot air rises. Much of the air that rises in the Indian Ocean heads south towards Antarctica, returning to the earth’s surface as it gradually cools. The spinning of the earth sends this air towards the Australian coast as westerly winds. One of the first places to feel these winds is the small city of Albany.

It’s a pretty town overlooking a natural harbour on Western Australia’s south coast. Its sandy beaches, green hills and temperate climate make Albany popular with tourists escaping the oppressive summer temperatures in Perth. The town’s website proudly displays a long list of local tourist attractions including a whaling industry museum, the Torndirrup National Park and the local wind farm.

Albany gets about three quarters of its electricity supply from this wind farm, which sits on the harbour’s western coastline. Tourists can walk around the base of the twelve wind turbines, which stand 65 metres tall and have blades nearly half that length. Close up the turbines sound like the passing of a distant aircraft, but with the gentle regularity of ocean waves rolling into shore.

It offers a pleasant walk with stunning views but the wind farm maintains its status as a tourist attraction partially due to its novelty value – there simply aren’t that many wind farms in Western Australia, and this one is the largest. As concern grows over global climate change, however, more turbines are likely to crop up. At least that’s what experts like Dr Ray Wills would like to see happen. He says Western Australia has remarkable wind resources. In fact, he goes as far as calling WA “the Saudi Arabia of wind”.

Ray, who lectures in Earth and Geographical Sciences at UWA and is CEO of the WA Sustainable Energy Association, says that at the moment the state is under-utilising this potential power source.

“We’ve superb resources for wind generation,” he says. “South of Bunbury all the way around our coastline has some world-quality resources in wind and, you know, it’s a shame we’re not actually making more use of it.”

Around the world developed nations are building more wind farms. A new farm has just opened in Quebec, while a Texan billionaire has reportedly proposed a giant facility featuring 2000 turbines. Britain has announced plans to power all British homes by wind within 12 years.

Dr Wills says that Western Australia can easily out-do Britain’s plan, which involves building more offshore wind farms. WA, he says, would be able to power all its homes with cheaper land-based wind farms.

“The problem that the Brits have is they don’t have the quality of resources that we do,” says Dr Wills.

Traditionally power generators have avoided building wind farms inland. Wind quality gets worse the further from the coast you go as obstacles such as trees, hills and buildings break up the flow and cause turbulence. However the strong and relatively constant winds in southern parts of Western Australia mean that wind farms can be easily built on land, which is far cheaper than building offshore.

One man taking advantage of this is Andrew Woodroffe. He plans to erect three turbines on an old sheep farm about 50 km inland from Albany near the town of Mt Barker.

“When we first approached the Shire [for approval] they were actually quite surprised,” he says.

It’s a site he’s chosen carefully. While admitting that the quality of wind is nowhere near as good as on the coast, he has been monitoring the site using an old radio tower and is confident there will be enough wind to make the project worthwhile. They’ll use smaller turbines than the Albany farm – the blades will be between 13 and 18 metres shorter in diameter, and will be 800kw machines as opposed to the 1800kw ones at Albany.

It’s about 260m above sea level and, importantly, it’s got its own electricity substation.

Andrew is most encouraged by the support he’s received from both the town shire and the local community. Early in 2006 a six-week public consultation period attracted 50 submissions, all of which were positive. It is a good sign – not all wind farm proposals are so well received.

The small town of Denmark, half an hour west of Albany, had a reputation until recently for being a hippie haven in this largely conservative state. A boom in house prices has changed this, but the town retains much of its alternative nature. The main street features little alcoves which house shops selling crystals and natural remedies, a wholefoods store, an Environment Centre and several cafes.

It’s at one of these cafes that I meet up with Craig Chappelle. Craig is happy to be called an old hippie. He first arrived in Denmark over twenty years ago, and quickly joined the campaign to save the local old growth forests. These days he owns some farmland but makes most of his income through his graphic design business. Sporting a silver blonde beard, his hair is tied back beneath a frayed and faded blue cap which perfectly matches his paint splattered work shirt.

Craig’s sitting at the table with Trevor Thornton. The two make an unlikely team. Trevor runs the local hardware store, is a member of the Liberal Party, and says that in the battle over old growth forests he would have been more likely to drive a bulldozer than stand in front of one.

They are both members of Denmark Community Windfarm Inc. (DCW), a not-for-profit group proposing a new wind farm for the coastal community. The group hopes to get the proposal to the point of approval, whereafter a specially formed private company would construct and operate it. It’s a proposal that has met strong opposition.

Colin Payne is from a group called the South Coast Landscape Guardians. They say the two proposed turbines will have an unnecessary visual impact on the spectacular coastal views the region is famous for. He puts the group’s objections very succinctly.

“It’s an industrial facility,” says Colin. “We don’t think it should be in an A-Class reserve on the coastal headland.”

The proposed site offers spectacular views across the bay and over the parts of the township. Of course this means that these places will, if the plan goes ahead, have the two turbines in view. It’s this fact which is infuriating those who value the aesthetics of this wild, windswept coastline.

The South Coast Landscape Guardians are pinning their hopes of stopping the farm on a code of conduct for wind farm developments being developed by the Federal Government. It’s a process that started when Campbell was environment minister in the former Liberal Government. Campbell intervened to stop the construction of the Bald Hills wind farm in Victoria because of concerns it would adversely impact on an endangered parrot. Since then both Malcolm Turnbull and now Labor’s ex-rock star Peter Garret have spent time in the ministry. It’s expected that the Labor Government will release the finished code of conduct by July this year.

Colin Payne says that his group is not against wind farms but that “you’ve just got to get them in the right place”.

“Our main push is for places like Jerramungup – they’re as windy as Albany,” he says. Jerramungup is a 240 k drive north east of Denmark.

Craig Chappelle dismisses the Guardians as “a bunch of surfers” protecting their local beach. He says that DCW are waiting on final word from the state government.

“Ultimately it has to go through both houses of parliament because it’s an A-Class reserve that this has to be excised from,” says Craig. “It won’t happen unless the excision’s been approved.”

He’s scathing of the time that it has taken for the necessary studies to take place. He says they’ve been waiting to hear the results of Western Power’s access study and a grant from The Sustainable Energy Development Office for several months, after being told by both that the information would be given to them within weeks.

If the wind farm is to go ahead then it will most probably be at least 2010 before the first power flows from the turbines. Despite the vocal opposition to the project, Craig claims that financial pressures, not community dissent, may stop construction. The plan relies on raising two million dollars from the local community, and turbines are becoming more expensive all the time.

The high cost of turbines may also thwart the planned expansion of the Albany wind farm. Peter Winner from Verve Energy says that the company is continuing with it’s preparations for the project, including conducting surveys of the flora and fauna at the proposed site. However, the finances will have to make sense for the expansion to go ahead, and with demand globally for wind turbines out-pacing supply, the price of completing the expansion may just make the project unviable. Peter says the price of turbines has “gone through the roof”.

As the cost of a turbine grows, so does the wait-time for their delivery. Andrew Woodroffe says that he’s glad the Mt Barker project is using smaller turbines, as the wait time for some of the larger models has blown out to two years.

Despite all the problems and challenges associated with this renewable resource, Dr Ray Wills says that it would be a relatively simple matter to power all Western Australian homes with wind power.

“We could have done it last year, we could easily do it next year – it’s just a matter of wanting to,” he says. To set up the turbines would “probably cost us 3-4 billion dollars”.

Ray says now is the time for WA to make these decisions, before Western Power starts a “massive rebuilding” of the ageing electricity network. There are opportunities for large scale inland farms in places such as Jerramungup, but they’d have to far exceed the current Denmark or Mt Barker proposals in terms of scale. Currently the area has no power lines so any farm would have to produce enough power to warrant a large investment in infrastructure.

Ray says that there is no doubt that wind turbines will become more prevalent in the Western Australian landscape in the years to come, and he’s hopeful that the state’s investment in renewable resources doesn’t end there.

“We’re not only just the Saudi Arabia of Wind, but we’re also the Saudi Arabia of waves, we’re absolutely the Middle East of solar energy,” he says excitedly. “There are so energy resources from renewable sources in WA that it’s mind-boggling.”

By Simon Brown

ABC South Coast WA

1 February 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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