When the wind power men came knocking on Charlie Arnott’s door, the biodynamic farmer from Boorowa on the southwest slopes of NSW invited them in with an open mind.
“My initial response was it was green, renewable and I would have a look at it,” he says. But Arnott quickly changed his mind. “This wind industry is not green at all. The only thing green about it is the colour of the money.”
Arnott, a descendant of the biscuit family, refused the offer to put wind turbines on the 2000ha property he has farmed for more than 40 years. Instead, he has become one of a vocal group that is taking the wind from the sails of what has long been considered the biggest hope for Australia’s large-scale renewable energy future.
Wind had been expected to make up 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the nation’s renewable energy load under the federal government’s mandatory target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020. But Victoria’s decision this week to put strict controls on where wind farm developments can be built is a big blow for big wind.
South Australia, the most advanced wind development state, responded to the Victorian decision with the announcement on Wednesday of a big new development that is, in reality, at the early planning stages.
But all eyes are on NSW, where the O’Farrell Coalition government is undertaking a review that may put restrictions on wind farm developments similar to those in Victoria. If it does, the wind industry is starting to run out of options.
And without a breakthrough in solar or other technologies, the federal government’s 2020 renewable energy target is looking that much more difficult, and expensive, to achieve.
According to Beyond Zero Emissions executive director Matthew Wright, Victoria’s actions will simply delay the shift from a 19th-century fossil fuel-based economy to the 21st-century renewable powered economy.
But not everyone agrees.
Wind turbines may well present a good photo opportunity for a prime minister wanting to appear green. They also may be popular in the broader community, with approval ratings of 80 per cent according to wind industry polling. But they have certainly alienated vocal groups of rural residents who don’t want to live anywhere near them. Some fear health effects, others are concerned about reduced property values and many simply don’t like their appearance in an otherwise unspoiled rural landscape.
As in many other countries across the world, wind farm developments in Australia have become a case study in what happens when ideology and a passion for green development take precedence over proper community consultation and due planning process.
Victoria’s decision to scale back wind farm developments delivers on an election promise and underscores the extent to which poor planning and lax community consultation have seen the industry squander its social licence.
The new regulations in Victoria change the dynamics of wind farm development in that state.
Individual landholders within 2km of a proposed wind farm now have an effective right of veto. Developers will have to get their written consent for a project to proceed.
In addition, all national and state parks have been declared no-go zones for wind farms, as well as the Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Bellarine Peninsula, Great Ocean Road region, the Macedon and McHarg ranges, and Bass Coast.
The Coalition government has also ruled wind farms will not be permitted within 5km of regional growth areas, as specified in the Regional Victoria Settlement Framework. “It is important that while wind energy develops, it does not do so to the detriment of rural and regional Victorians,” Victoria’s Planning Minister Matthew Guy says.
The wind industry has reacted to the Victorian decision with a mixture of resignation and subtle warning. Raising the spectre of sovereign risk, the industry is keen to send the message to NSW that following Victoria’s lead would entail economic risk.
“The NSW decision is the big question,” says Russell Marsh, policy director for the Clean Energy Council, which represents the renewables industry. “We know they are developing their own guidelines for wind development and expect that might mean a tightening of some regulations.”
The industry does not expect NSW to go as far as Victoria in legislating a 2km setback, however. “We would hope that NSW will look at what has happened in Victoria and think quite hard about whether they do want to restrict wind farm development in the same way Victoria has done,” Marsh says.
“Companies are now saying there is quite a lot of political risk in investment in Victoria and we hope NSW will take heed of some of those messages.”
And without wind, Marsh says, the cost of meeting the federal government’s renewable energy target will increase because wind is the cheapest renewable energy.
The task of sorting out wind farm developments in NSW has fallen to Planning Minister Brad Hazzard, who says the Coalition government has inherited a planning debacle from its predecessor.
Wind farm proponents may not yet have built many wind projects in NSW but they certainly have cut a swath of discontent and split rural communities along the Great Dividing Range.
Some people believe wind farm developments will bring economic opportunity and employment. Sporting groups have welcomed the injection of funds that wind companies have brought.
But Hazzard says there is no dispute that “there is a high level of concern by people who live nearby proposed developments. People have been beating a path to my door since I became a minister four months ago.”
Unlike in Victoria and SA, there are relatively few operating wind farms in NSW. But 19 projects have been approved, many under the controversial Part 3A planning regulations that gave the planning minister unilateral powers to make a decision. Another 19 projects are now frozen in the application pipeline until new guidelines are decided.
“We are determined to get guidelines that work for individual communities,” Hazzard says. “My feeling is we may end up with a more flexible approach than I understand to be the Victorian approach. There has to be a balance struck between getting investment and infrastructure in NSW and addressing our 2020 renewable energy target obligation.
“That has to be balanced and very sensibly approached, reflecting community concerns about the impact in local areas,” he says. “All that was ignored, sadly, by state Labor for 16 years and we have been left with the task of sorting it out, and we will.”
Hazzard is getting no shortage of advice. Wind industry representatives reportedly have been demanding he tell them what he is going to do to “fix the problem”.
This has been interpreted as a show of commercial arrogance.
“It seems [in] the culture of some of the overseas companies, community consultation is not very strong or considered not to be particularly important,” Hazzard says. “For 16 years under Labor it does not seem to have mattered either. Now we are in a new era; there is a new government.”
Hazzard is being bombarded with pleas for action from the other side as well, with the list of complaints against wind farm developments long and varied.
It includes the effect of noise on health and lifestyle, the danger posed by turbine blades breaking up and the survival of the endangered superb parrot.
One vocal wind farm opponent is high-profile company liquidator Tony Hodgson, who is demanding that Premier Barry O’Farrell take personal responsibility. Hodgson says the wind developments waved through under Labor’s Part 3A regime represent a potential investment of about $10.3 billion, more than three times the scale of Sydney’s Barangaroo harbourfront project.
“Simple fairness and good governance would suggest that even if the Part 3A system is to be retained for the 19 pre-election applications, the guidelines need to be updated and reinforced in relation to public-safety setbacks and precautionary health and infrasound noise effects,” Hodgson argues. In essence, he believes the approval process has been compromised.
Arnott claims to have witnessed the high-handed nature of wind farm negotiations first hand. He was one of the first people offered the supposedly lucrative opportunity to host turbines on his property, but he declined after getting his lawyers to analyse the contracts. According to Arnott’s legal advice, the contracts were one-sided and created significant obligations for the landowner for up to 37 years, with very few obligations on the other side.
The contracts placed restrictions on the whole of the land, including selling and subdividing. Any verbal agreements made by the wind farm proponents that were not in the documents were expressly excluded. And no mention was made of the number of turbines that would be built.
Nor were there any funds put aside to remove the 140m-high turbines at the end of their life.
Today, Arnott is determined to stop the Rugby wind farm, a joint proposal by Windlab Developments and Indian wind company Suzlon, from going ahead.
He has fallen out with neighbours with whom he had enjoyed good relations for decades. He has issued two of his five neighbours with “letters of notice”, warning they will be sued if they agree to host wind turbines on their properties.
Under the present proposal the closest wind turbine will be 1.3km from Arnott’s house, with another 11 turbines proposed within a kilometre of that.
Arnott says he wants a moratorium on all NSW wind farm developments so health studies can be carried out. He also wants an investigation into the planning process and an independent environmental assessment of the proposals.
According to Sam McGuiness of the Boorowa District Landscape Guardians, the problem is the government has spent too long listening to the wrong advice.
“If you are going to lie about the impact and what the effects are, you are going to come unstuck,” he says. “You just have to be honest about the noise problems.”
He says it is unreasonable to expect the departments that made the problems in the first place to have carriage of trying to fix them.
“I am a farmer, and if we have a problem, we get stuck in and get it sorted,” he says. “We have got a big enough land mass in Australia that we just have to put them where they are not going to be an issue.”