The rocky hills of the great divide south-west of Heathcote in central Victoria are picturesque and, for the most part, unnoticed. The McHarg Ranges have no heritage listing, house no threatened species and rate not a mention on the Tourism Victoria website. As far as officialdom is concerned, they barely exist at all.
But what they do have is wind.
And it is this rapidly moving air that has created friction between clean energy developers and a small but well-connected group of locals. These include Lady Marigold Southey, a one time lieutenant governor of Victoria, stalwart of the Baillieu/Myer family and owner of an 800-hectare farm and vineyard near the one-store hamlet of Tooborac. Lady Southey is also Premier Ted Baillieu’s second cousin and an active opponent of a proposal for an 80-turbine wind farmin the area.
In 2010, she embarked on a letter writing campaign to the management and board members of Transfield, the construction company behind the proposal. Her confidential letters, seen by The Saturday Age, were polite, but warned of a possible ‘‘drawn out and acrimonious conflict’’ if her concerns were not addressed.
The following November, the Coalition returned from the political wilderness with a promise of strict new wind farm regulations, Australia’s toughest. They included an effective right of veto for individuals living within two kilometres of proposed turbines, a ban on turbines within five kilometres of 21 regional centres, and ‘‘no-go’’ zones including the Great Ocean Road, Mornington Peninsula, Wilsons Promontory, the entire Macedon Ranges shire—and the McHarg Ranges.
Its inclusion had industry leaders and government officials scratching their heads—largely because no one had heard of them. The designation of McHarg Ranges as a ‘‘no-go’’ zone for turbines lies at the heart of a bigger question: what motivated the government to introduce Australia’s toughest wind farm laws, and how did they choose which areas would be excluded?
The Saturday Age does not suggest that Lady Southey has done any more than exercise her right to oppose a development, or that her lobbying was the deciding factor in the ban on turbines neighbouring her property. But the Coalition has been criticised for offering little in the way of explanation for the new rules. It has previously said that while it supports wind energy, it was committed to returning certainty and fairness after the previous Labor government had imposed wind farms on reluctant local communities.
While Planning Minister Matthew Guy delivered it publicly, it is understood in business circles that it is the Premier who has driven both the policy and its implementation. The Coalition’s approach to wind development has raised concerns across business, planning and local government circles. The Australian Industry Group, which represents more than 60,000 businesses across the country, says it is costing the state billions in investment. Victorian group chief Tim Piper says he raised his concerns—primarily about a lack of flexibility—with the government but was told the laws would not be changed.
‘‘We know investment has been lost, and we know there have also been unintended consequences,’’ he says. ‘‘We have companies that have wanted to put up small turbines on industrial plants well away from homes and they have been prevented because of these regulations.’’ Michelle Quigley, SC, one of Victoria’s most senior planning lawyers who has represented several energy companies, says the idea of individual householders having veto over development would have once been anathema to the party of the free market.
‘‘From a political or policy point of view, this amendment seems totally inconsistent with Liberal philosophy,’’ she says. ‘‘It is an arbitrary and prescriptive approach which does not apply to any other use or development of land in Victoria.’’ At a council level, the Mount Alexander Shire has passed a resolution opposing the blanket ban on turbines in its shire, while the Greater Bendigo council has written to the government asking for it to explain its reasoning.
Bendigo Cr Keith Reynard says it sets a dangerous precedent. ‘‘Imagine if the government had to get 100 per cent approval in Parliament for everything it wants to do—the state would be at a standstill,’’ he says.
The idea of a two-kilometre setback from homes gained prominence among wind farm opponents after being advocated by Dr Nina Pierpont, a New York paediatrician convinced that they turbines make people sick. Her 2009 book Wind Turbine Syndrome linked turbines to symptoms including nausea, hypertension, loss of sleep and disturbed thought. She blames the syndrome on infrasound —low-frequency noise inaudible to the human ear.
The existence of wind turbine syndrome is heavily contested. People living near turbines have undoubtedly experienced nasty symptoms; some have felt compelled to leave their homes. But Pierpont’s book has not yet been backed by research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Sceptics say people who report symptoms are overwhelmingly those who do not have turbines on their property, and therefore not making money from them. They say it appears a classic example of the ‘‘nocebo’’ effect—a psychosomatic complaint.
In Australia, the health hazard argument is led by the Waubra Foundation, which formed shortly after Pierpont’s book was published and has championed her work. It now goes much further, warning that turbines pose a health risk as far as 10 kilometres away.
The foundation has Liberal Party links through its creator, Peter Mitchell, the owner of the historic western district property Mawallok. Pete rMitchell’s son once ran for the party, and fellow Waubra Foundation director Michael Wooldridge is a former health minister in the Howard government.
The case for state-imposed setbacks from wind turbines is also made by the Victorian Landscape Guardians, which shares some office holders with the Waubra Foundation and is led by Randall Bell, a Geelong-based solicitor and former National Trust president.
Bell says he has had a running dialogue with Ted Baillieu about wind planning since they first met at a forum on the issue about a decade ago.He says they later attended Landscape Guardians public forums together, including at Tooborac.
”I knew that he knew that the whole thing about wind was a dud,” says Bell of their early chats. ”We were happy to have a politician who would be bothered to listen to our case after being shut out by the Bracks and Brumby government.”
In an interview with The Saturday Age yesterday, Guy said that both the two-kilometre buffer and effective power of veto for individual householders were a world first, and were now being followed or considered in some other states and countries. He confirmed he had seen no definitive medical findings about health impacts and said the buffer was intended to reduce noise and the ”visual” and ”amenity” impacts of turbines.
Of the other major changes in the policy, the introduction of a five-kilometre exclusion zone from the perimeter of 21 regional centres appears more straightforward. Guy says it delivers an election commitment to exclude wind farms in regional population growth corridors; effectively that the paddocks around such centres need to be kept clear for residential development.
The thinking behind the selection of ”no-go” zones – including all national and state parks plus locations of ”high amenity and environmental value” – Wilsons Promontory, the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas, the Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges, Great Ocean Road region, Bass Coast and the Macedon and McHarg ranges – is less clear. Some are iconic tourist sites; others are closely tied to hot beds of wind farm opposition, some with strong Liberal Party links.
They take in the area around Bald Hills, in South Gippsland, the site of the family properties of Michael Wooldridge and community services minister Mary Wooldridge , and former BHP bank chief Don Argus, a major Liberal party backer and personal friend of John Howard.
The Bellarine Peninsula, beloved coast of Randall Bell and the Baillieu family, gets protected. So too does the Mornington Peninsula, where several Liberal party heavyweights either reside or holiday. They include Ted Baillieu, who lists a Red Hill property on his parliamentary register of interests.
Critics of the Coalition policy point to other areas of environmental and aesthetic value – including the southern Grampians and Point Danger, west of Portland – that are not covered.
Opposition planning spokesman Brian Tee says the government’s policy raises questions about the influence of the premier’s affiliations. ”Is Mr Baillieu asking the community to accept that it is mere coincidence that his anti-wind farm policy satisfies the concerns of his family?” he says. ”He must explain whether millions of dollars of investment, hundreds of jobs and the environment have been sacrificed to satisfy his family.”
Guy dismisses suggestions of Liberal links to wind farm bans as ”gratuitous”. He points out that former Labor MPs and powerbrokers also live or holiday in those areas.
At the McHarg Ranges, Lady Southey has been a vocal and active opponent. She is travelling in the UK and is unavailable for comment week. Her son Stephen Shelmerdine acknowledges she has been an important part of the local campaign, though ”only to the extent that she is publicly known figure”. He said he couldn’t account for the inclusion of the ranges as a no-go zone, but that ”it may get back to the quality of the [local] advocacy”.
Guy defended the ban on turbines across the McHarg Ranges, saying the government needed to be decisive and that it was ”basically about tourism”. ”There’s a number of bed and breakfasts through it.”
Paul Dettmann is a sixth-generation Baynton boy. He was not to be a beneficiary of Transfield’s turbines but is a supporter of renewable energy including wind and is committed to neutrality in the local debate. He says generations of family friendships have been damaged by the ruckus over wind that has ”consumed” some people. ”Had the wind farm gone ahead,” he says, ”it would have made some relationships irreparable.”
TV chef and artist Peter Russell-Clarke is one of the few McHarg residents willing to comment publicly. He says the granite boulders of the ranges make them as ”unique as Kakadu’ and deserving of protection, but acknowledges it is not well known. ”It is a good thing for us because we don’t have buses coming in with people spreading beer cans all over the place,” he says.
Industry leaders say that both in opposition and early in government, Guy promised that new rules for wind generation would accommodate the industry in Victoria. ”There was a genuine desire on the minister’s part to get a compromise position that would allow the industry to develop, while giving some local constituents more control,” recalls Andrew Richards, executive manager of wind energy pioneer Pacific Hydro.
Shortly before the 2010 election, Tobi Geiger, the managing director of West Wind Energy, took Guy on a tour of the controversial Waubra wind farm. He says that at the time Guy openly doubted claims about the health impacts of wind farms and listened closely to the industry’s concerns. ”Quite frankly, in the meetings we had with Matthew he was genuinely interested and seemed to have a pragmatic approach,” says Geiger.
He says his meeting with Ted Baillieu was quite different. ”Ted spoke to me like a wind farm objector does – very aggressive; very dismissive,” says Geiger. ”He didn’t listen to anything I said. We always knew Ted would be bad for wind.”
The Premier’s dislike of wind farms has been a matter of public record since at least 2004, when he borrowed from John Wyndham to describe them as ”towering triffids” blighting the landscape.
The Saturday Age understands the Premier’s office had a direct role in the detail of the new rules, including boundaries for the no-go areas. Public servants are not permitted to speak on the record, but officers from the planning department and wider bureaucracy have voiced concern about new rules and the lack of consultation in their formation.
Guy denied he was sidelined by the Premier over regulation of wind farms but acknowledged that the policy he drafted in 2010 was modelled on the 2006 version conceived by Baillieu. ”The Premier and myself have discussed this on a number of occasions.”
Several industry figures believe the level of opposition in Victoria could have been limited if early developments approved under the former Labor government had been better handled.
In particular, they point to the 128-turbine development at Waubra, north-west of Ballarat, which has become the centre of health complaints. Developed by the company Wind Power and later bought by Spanish company Acciona, it is now widely seen to have been badly handled in its early development. Some in the industry say the result was an unnecessarily divided community and poor design. ”There are a couple of houses at Waubra that are surrounded by turbines and I understand why people wouldn’t want to live in them,” one industry figure says. When Acciona took on the wind farm, it bought houses from some concerned local residents.
Baynton resident Paul Dettmann says the McHarg Ranges were also badly handled under Labor, pointing to a lack of ”community engagement” in the first half of last decade. He says the Baillieu government responded with a clamp on wind developments that swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.
”If it could have been done with the support of the community it would have been fantastic, but it’s too late now. The consultation should have been done a decade ago,” Dettmann says.
Recent research by the CSIRO suggests the level of support for wind farms in rural areas from the silent majority was much stronger than reflected in most media coverage.
One of the ironies of the current situation is that the Baillieu government is likely to oversee the largest boom in the industry’s history largely through projects that originated under Labor. Victoria currently has 268 turbines with a capacity of 431 megawatts. Permits have been issued for another 1100 turbines that could be built in this term of government. Not all will be – already, some projects have been judged financially unviable. History suggests others will not be ready to go before their permits lapse, and will have to risk winning new approval under the new tough regulations.
Assuming most of what has been approved is ultimately built, it would increase the amount of wind power in the state to about 30 per cent of the state’s electricity capacity and 20 per cent of all power generation. While South Australia at times gets up to 50 per cent of its energy from wind, it is considered unlikely Victoria could host more wind farms without spending heavily to upgrade and expand the electricity grid.
”We are just concerned about a planning framework that is not merit based and a policy framework that creates an impression that our industry is somehow bad or harmful,” says Andrew Richards of Pacific Hydro. ”We just want to be treated in the same way that all other developers of infrastructure are treated in the planning scheme.”
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