Islanders have always endured the Roaring 40s, but plans for a giant wind farm to harness the notorious westerlies have split the rusted-together community, before a crucial vote on the issue.
Islanders will begin voting in a postal ballot next Friday on whether the $2 billion wind farm – the southern hemisphere’s largest – should proceed to a full feasibility process.
Despite supporting a yes vote, the island’s mayor, Greg Barratt, said he might never have agreed to consider the plan had he known how it would split the 1560 islanders.
“The amount of nastiness that’s come into the debate has really surprised me,” Mr Barratt said. “I’m quite appalled. I just didn’t contemplate that anything like that would happen because we’ve always been a very close-knit community. We’ve always battled away together at all the issues we face here: expensive freight, the high cost of living. If I had thought what has happened – the split in the community – was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been very keen on the discussion.”
Families are divided and friendships strained amid accusations of scaremongering, dirty tricks and even bribery.
King Island’s location – roughly halfway between Tasmania and Victoria, in the path of the Roaring 40s – makes it one of the country’s best places for wind farms. However, the scale of the TasWind project, proposed by state-owned Hydro Tasmania, has alarmed and angered many.
Each of the 200 turbine towers would reach 150m from base to top blade tip. That is three times the height of the island’s Cape Wickham lighthouse – Australia’s largest – and more than twice the height of Tasmania’s tallest building, Wrest Point Casino.
These giant windmills will be spread over 20 per cent of the island’s low-lying, undeveloped landscape, each visible from a distance of 20km.
The biggest project for Tasmania since Gunns’ pulp mill, it promises a $3 million to $4m annual income stream and infrastructure upgrades for a struggling island economy. However, Hydro, recognising it needs the backing of most islanders to avoid a Gunns-style backlash, has agreed to hold a postal ballot from Friday to determine if the project proceeds to full feasibility.
Hydro, which would seek an equity partner for the project – most likely Chinese firm Shenhua, with which it has links – has promised to walk away if the ballot returns a yes vote of less than 60 per cent. This is despite the fact that the project, using a new undersea cable to export 2400 gigawatt hours of energy to Victoria, could pave the way for a boom in the export of renewable power from Tasmania to the mainland.
The stakes are also high for many islanders. Some will quit the island if there is a yes vote, believing its peaceful character will be destroyed. “If they go to full feasibility, I want to leave,” says Kelly Lancaster.
Ms Lancaster’s dairy farmer husband, Philip, a third-generation islander, also fears the towers’ visual and noise impact will make his home uninhabitable. “Everywhere we look will be wind towers,” he said. “All the benefits they might bring are worth nothing if we can’t live here.”
A little further north on the 64km-long, 26km-wide island, Ms Lancaster’s sister Donna Millwood and her husband, Josh, dismiss such talk as “negative”.
“I think if a wind farm could fit in with King Island, it could be really good for the economy,” Mr Millwood said.
Like his brother-in-law and 12 others, he provides milk to the island’s famous cheese factory.
Unlike Mr Lancaster, Mr Millwood would consider allowing TasWind to site some of its 40-storey towers on his property, believing the rental income could be useful supplementary cash for hard-pressed farmers.
“Landowners will benefit from it and every bit of money we make is spent in the community, so the whole island will benefit,” Mr Millwood said.
Hydro has dangled a number of cash carrots in the face of a community doing it tough after the recent closure of its abattoir, which has forced beef farmers to ship cattle to Tasmania for slaughter, at great cost. Hydro has flagged providing funds to reopen the abattoir and to help kickstart the resurrection of a scheelite mine by providing cheap power, contingent on TasWinds proceeding.
John Brewster, a farm owner who chairs a TasWind community consultative committee, is calling on the company to be more explicit about the abattoir promise – a key issue that could sway the vote.
“It’s ‘mights’ and ‘ifs’ at the moment; it does need to be clarified,” Mr Brewster said.
“And to rely on something, it needs to be more than clarified; it needs to be guaranteed.”
Hydro has relocated TasWind senior project manager Pat Burke to the island to live and play footy among its people and explain the company’s intentions.
The young manager confirms only that Hydro is willing to spend “hundreds of thousands” on progressing an abattoir “solution” if islanders vote to allow the project to proceed to feasibility stage.
There would then be “millions” for the abattoir if the project was constructed. He denies Hydro is bribing locals.
“The community have told us that in order for this project to go ahead there needs to be substantial community benefits,” Mr Burke said. “All we are doing is listening to them.”
The No TasWind Farm Group has formed and raised the ire of some by hiring a Sydney-based public relations firm to help sell its case. The group’s vice-chairman, retired cattle farmer Donald Graham, argues that locals needed help in combating Hydro’s PR machine. Even so, he believes the no case is simple enough.
“It’s just not appropriate in scale for the size of the island, which has a clean, productive, remote and, most of all, uncluttered atmosphere,” Mr Graham said.
In a setback for Hydro, an independent analysis commissioned by the consultative committee concluded that in the long term the island would be $36m a year better off without TasWind.
This finding, by consultants CH2MHILL, is based on the assumption that the project would damage tourism, particularly golf tourism. Two international links golf courses, with accommodation, are in development and CH2MHILL concluded the wind farm would slow tourism growth from 6 per cent a year to 4 per cent.
The report also estimates that up to half the payments Hydro has promised to landowners for housing the towers would flow to corporate farmers based offshore.
Hydro hotly disputes many of the findings, while the backers of the golf developments have mixed views: one backing the consultants’ analysis, another rejecting it.
Mark Jacobson, who works in one of the island’s most iconic industries, kelp harvesting, is urging islanders to allow the project to proceed to full feasibility.
“There are so many negative arguments – fear-based stuff like wind turbine syndrome or land prices or green scams – and when you are bombarded with this all the time it makes people feel negative,” he says.
“I’ve got friends who are convinced that all people are going to think about when they think about King Island is wind turbines; nothing to do with cheese or golf any more. I can’t deny that’s a possibility. But I don’t see how we can know those things if we don’t go to feasibility.”
If the island votes to allow the project to proceed to full feasibility, Hydro is promising a second vote before construction could go ahead.
However, many islanders believe that by then the project would be unstoppable.
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