December 15, 2011

Gas good but wind causes eruptions at volcano site

Jason Murphy, Financial Review, 14 December 2011

By the foot of an extinct volcano in Victoria’s western districts, the town of Mortlake is at the cutting edge of the new energy boom.

This sheep country township ticks both boxes for Australia’s energy future as spelled out by Energy Minister Martin Ferguson yesterday.

“Our demand for energy is going to be basically met to a large extent by wind and gas,” Ferguson says.

Mortlake hosts a brand-new gas-powered electricity plant. The plant is the first of its kind in Victoria and can provide 550 megawatts. The region also has about 20 wind farms pencilled in.

While the volcano remains dormant, some of the development has created eruptions of anger.

The $640 million Origin Energy gas plant was built to meet peak demand – a key issue in the draft white paper released yesterday.

A summer surge in use of air conditioning drives peak electricity demand. The state risks blackouts without generation to meet the peak.

Origin chose the site just west of Mortlake for access to a high voltage transmission line. Gas is piped in from Origin’s reserves in Bass Strait.

The development process began in 2004, and construction began in 2009. The construction phase employed up to 370 people and has proved a local economic windfall.

Moyne Shire mayor Jim Doukas believes the gas plant has been a boon for Mortlake. The council’s only real concern is about the continuing dividend it gets. “When you sit down and compare it to other industries they don’t pay anywhere near as much rates as they should,” Doukas says.

The plant provides peak power facility, but, under state rules, Origin gets a discount on its rates when it operates at below capacity.

“Being a peak power plant they don’t need to produce a lot to make a lot of money,” Doukas says.

If the gas plant is broadly welcomed, the mayor is much less positive about the “cumbersome, highly expensive” wind farms approved by former state planning minister Justin Madden “There’s been a lot of downsides when it comes to wind farms,” he says. “We are very nervous.”

Eight wind farms containing 350 turbines are approved for the shire, according to the state government.

Mayor Doukas calls Madden a “bloody idiot,” explaining that the area is attractive for wind farms because of the proximity to the big transmission line that runs past the town “Wind farms are all trying to get in underneath because they don’t want to spend to connect. If the government was doing their job they’d say ‘go to buggery. Get out in the middle of nowhere’,” Doukas says.

One wind farm east of Mortlake was quashed due to fears over for local brolga (a native bird) populations.

South of Mortlake, Spanish company Acciona is pushing ahead with a 51-turbine development. It offers local landholders a rumoured $10,000 a year to host the structures – up to 140 metres tall – on their land.

Since the wind farm was approved the new government has cracked down on wind farm development, doubling the minimum set-back from residences to two kilometres and introducing other restrictions.

A recent federal Senate inquiry argued noise measurements were preferable to strict setback rules, as individual circumstances could affect how noise travels. Acciona spokeswoman Tricia Kent says noise modelling done for the development cannot be released.

“The estimated $200 million investment in the Mortlake South Wind Farm will provide more than 100 construction jobs and 14 ongoing jobs for the local and regional community,” Kent says.

The Mortlake south development will put five l.5-megawatt wind turbines within two kilometres of Shelley McDonald’s house.

“It’s very stressful” she says. “If it was a piggery or anything you could just plant trees.”

McDonald built a new house three years ago to accommodate her husband Colin, who has had a stroke. She did not know about plans to build the wind farm. “I was hoping Col and I could live here for the rest of our lives,” McDonald says. She is concerned noise will disrupt his already fragile health and they will have to move.

A National Health and Medical Research Council study from 2010 found no published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects, but in nearby Waubra, some residents are convinced noise from the recently built wind farm is making them sick.

Real estate agents have told Colin McDonald moving because of fears about the wind farm will damage the value of the house. “I’m just unbelievably stressed all the time thinking about what effect it may have. If it does go ahead our asset will be worth nothing and what do we do?”

McDonald jokes she has been scanning the horizon for brolgas that might prevent the wind farm going ahead.

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