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Winds of change generating a powerful debate over Mt Emerald

Clean, green renewable energy powering 60 per cent of Cairns and the whole of the Tableland shines like the holy grail of electricity generation. Could you live next door to a windfarm? Listen to Windy Hill residents and make up your own mind.

It is a glittering prize that few would turn their backs on.

If it gets the go-ahead, the proposed $550 million Mt Emerald wind farm near Walkamin will also provide a boost for the local economy and is promised to become a drawcard for high-tech tourism on the Tableland.

In addition, there is a separate plan for a $12 million Asia Pacific Energy Innovation Centre where visitors can learn about energy efficiency.

It is estimated that during construction of the wind farm there will be up to 100 people working on site with ongoing employment for 10 to 15.

The innovation centre, featuring a 200-seat restaurant and galleria with 30 display units leased to organisations showcasing energy generation technologies, would provide long-term jobs for 80 to 100 people.

But the Tableland Wind Turbine Action group is alarmed at the prospect of the area’s 70-80 households having 75 turbines nearby, the size of 40-storey buildings whirring day and night.

Their concerns include noise, health, loss of visual amenity, restrictions on aerial spraying, creation of a micro-climate affecting crops, reduced property values and the impact on the ecology of the area.

On this latter point, even the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland and Cairns Far North Environment Centre have questioned the building of the facility at Mt Emerald.

Both organisations – which support renewable energy – say the wind farm is a good concept but is in the wrong place.

Noise and its effect on health are among the main concerns of the 80 to 100 members of the TWTA, some of whom do not live in the area.

Arriga-based TWTA member Lee Schwerdtfeger said about “70 to 80” homes were within 2km of the site and would be subjected to “industrial noise, potentially 24 hours a day which is not consistent with a rural area”.

She said the developers have estimated 11 houses would be affected by the wind turbines.

Ms Schwerdtfeger said the turbines could be a health concern, with a recent Senate inquiry recommending further research into the possible harmful effect of wind turbines on human health.

“We just don’t know what to expect, and that’s one of the problems,” she said.

But developers Ratch (Australia) and partners Port Bajool, who own the 2400ha site, say there have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies indicating damage to health from noise.

They say the wind farm would be designed to keep noise levels below limits set out in Queensland and Australian guidelines.

Their website quotes Doctors for Environment Australia, who say: “A number of allegations have been made in relation to adverse health effects of living near wind turbines which do not appear to be supported by scientific evidence.”

They say renewable sources of energy are good for reducing the threats caused by fossil fuels which they say are “responsible for a significant disease burden in our community”.

The developers are pushing the environmental benefit of producing electricity locally from wind power instead of transmitting it from coal-fired generators in Central Queensland and losing 30-40 per cent of power en route.

John Morris, a Port Bajool director, said the proposed wind farm promised “a reliable source of renewable energy on our doorsteps” that could power about 75,000 homes.

He said it would provide energy security in a crisis, should power lines go down, and the shorter transmission distance to the Cairns market would ease cost pressure on power bills.

Mr Morris said the main transmission lines would run through the property and wherever possible, they had moved the turbines into the plateau to make them less visible.

While some would be visible, he said they had done their “very best to minimise the impact”.

Visitors to the innovation centre, including people wanting to build an energy efficient house, would be able to learn about energy saving appliances and sustainable building materials.

“It is going to be a major drawcard for tourists,” Mr Morris said.

APEIC director, Wendy Morris, said the plan was to bring together consumers and providers of power generation and efficient technologies. She said they were already talking to organisations, including JCU and government departments.

They would also like to work with Cairns Convention Centre to attract energy conferences.

Mr Morris disagreed with the objections made on ecological grounds, saying the pads the turbines were on would take up a tiny percentage of the site.

He said they had received advice that spraying over surrounding farmland would not be dramatically affected.

And he dismissed the claim that wind turbines create a micro-climate causing temperature changes of up to 4C that affected growing conditions.

Mr Morris also offered reassurance about property values. He said Port Bajool were developers of the nearby Springmount Park and Oaky Creek Farms.

“We have got a bigger stake than anyone in surrounding land values and sales and we have complete confidence that it (the wind farm) is not going to affect them,” he said.

Tableland Regional Councillors will weigh up the competing arguments in the next couple of months when they decide on Ratch’s application.

– Additional reporting by Michael Serenc