PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: The tiny community of King Island off the north-west tip of Tasmania has voted to push ahead with plans for the country’s biggest ever wind farm.
A community ballot has revealed 59 per cent support for Hydro Tasmania to conduct a multimillion-dollar feasibility study into a 200 turbine wind farm.
It’s a decision that’s been made against the backdrop of a dwindling population, fewer jobs and closing businesses.
The massive wind farm would generate about 2,400 gigawatt hours of electricity a year, to be sent across Bass Strait by a high voltage underwater cable to the national electricity market.
Hydro Tasmania says it could produce enough electricity to power a quarter of a million households, a huge chunk of the nation’s renewable energy targets.
But as Fiona Breen found out, the issue has divided the community. Friends and even families are no longer talking.
FIONA BREEN, REPORTER: On a wintry Saturday, a sporting battle pitches mate against mate, colleague against colleague and even family against family.
For 1,500 King Islanders, the three-team footy competition stirs sporting passion. Today, it’s Grassy versus North. It’s a tough, close match.
Off the field, another battle has been simmering. Like football, passions have come to the surface.
VOX POP: I’m against. Don’t want any wind farms here to – they’re just ugly, horrible things.
VOX POP II: I think the wind farms are a great idea for the island, even if it just goes to feasibility.
VOX POP III: I don’t want to look at wind towers really, but if it’s going to help out the island, well, we need it.
FIONA BREEN: King Island is in the Roaring 40s. Its rugged coastline is a graveyard of shipwrecks driven ashore by the winds. Calm days are rare and the wind blows at an average speed of 32 kilometres per hour. It’s that consistent wind that Hydro Tasmania wants to harness, using 200 turbines costing $2 billion. The company has spent six months taking the proposal to the local community.
ANDREW CATCHPOLE, HYDRO TASMANIA: We’re taking a very different approach in coming to King Island to have this conversation before doing a feasibility study, a different approach to that taken previously and elsewhere for these kinds of projects.
That is very deliberate to try and understand, and I suppose to demonstrate, that not all wind farm developments are the same. They don’t have to be the same. And so we hope you would see that as a sign of our commitment to continue to work with you to ensure that if this goes ahead that there is an optimum outcome for the community.
FIONA BREEN: The community ballot has now been counted and the result was tight. Nearly 59 per cent supported taking the 200 turbine wind farm proposal to the next stage, but there was only 10 or 11 votes in it.
Hydro Tasmania had always said it needed at least 60 per cent community support for it to go ahead. At an emergency board meeting this week, the company decided it was close enough.
ANDREW CATCHPOLE: Well certainly we’re aware that there are different views in the community and we want to work with all sections of the community going forward about their concerns, as we’ve indicated. But we do feel that the survey result of 59 per cent is a very strong indication of community support to go forward to a feasibility study.
FIONA BREEN: The wind towers will be 150 metres high from the base to the blade tip. That’s three times the height of Australia’s tallest lighthouse, here on the northern tip of King Island.
No Wind campaigners are angry. They say Hydro Tasmania has broken its promise.
MICHAEL YOUD, NO TASWIND FARM: I believe they shouldn’t have done. It was discussed earlier between the TasWind consultant committee and the – and Tas Hydro, the board, in the town hall in the public meeting and that’s the figure that come up, was the 60-40.
And it didn’t quite get there, but – and they’ve chose to override it. So, no, I think it’s disappointing. It’s – you hear of stories that, you know, they’ll promise you the world and we’ll give you this, but nothing’s ever signed or on paper so they back down on other things as well.
FIONA BREEN: The No Wind group is concerned with the visual impact and the effects on health. It’s paid for a number of experts to visit the island.
You’ve brought in a Sydney PR company. That’s fairly drastic.
JIM BENN, NO TASWIND FARM: Yes, too right. It hasn’t been cheap either.
FIONA BREEN: How much is it costing and who’s paying?
JIM BENN: Good question; not going to answer it.
FIONA BREEN: So not up front about how much … ?
JIM BENN: No, not going to tell you how much nor who’s paying for it.
FIONA BREEN: Why is that?
JIM BENN: I don’t plan to. It’s none of your business. I can tell you that the biggest part of this cost has been funded by a family who have representatives who live on this island. That’s all I’m going to say. Push all you like from now on.
FIONA BREEN: The ABC has been told it’s the Smith Family led by Flight Centre co-founder Bill James. They own land on the island. It’s likely the No Wind group will continue its campaign against the project. Hydro Tasmania will now push ahead with a feasibility study. It plans to spend $7 million in the first year.
For some in the community, it’s a chance to get some answers.
VOP POP IV: I think it’s fantastic. I think King Island needs something to help it go ahead and a feasibility study’s the beginning of it.
VOP POP V: I can’t find all the answers that I need to the questions I have about whether it’s going to be a positive thing until we actually do more investigation.
VOP POP VI: Personally I don’t really want the towers to go ahead, but it’s reverse psychology. And if they offer enough, I’ll turn around and run with it because that means there’s going to be employment on our island and people are going to be successful in their businesses because we’re all struggling at the moment and you just don’t like to see that and eventually you find people leave.
FIONA BREEN: For others, it’s a decision that will cause further division in an already polarised community.
JIM BENN: This is an eight or 10-year process from go to whoa. It normally takes eight to 10 years to get this up and running. It’ll stop the island for eight to 10 years – that’s the issue. We’re being told by TasWind we’ll get a vote at each stage, so in another two years’ time there’ll be another vote – that’s what they’ve told us – on whether or not to go ahead after feasibility.
If it doesn’t go through feasibility, if it’s knocked back at that point, then we’ve lost two years. If it does go through, then there’ll be people on the island, for sure, who are still fighting it.
FIONA BREEN: King Island mayor Greg Barrett is happy a feasibility is going ahead. It’s been a tough six months. He’s watched the passions spill over and the community divide.
What’s it been like as mayor of King Island in the past few months?
GREG BARRETT, MAYOR, KING ISLAND: Well it’s progressively got more difficult because the longer this process has gone, the more divided the community has become and it hasn’t been a pleasant place to live, I suppose, lately.
FIONA BREEN: At times he and the council have borne the brunt of public discontent.
GREG BARRETT: If I’d known that this was going to be how it turned out, I mean, as far as splitting community, I wouldn’t have encouraged the discussion to happen, really.
FIONA BREEN: The scale of the project has some islanders worried.
JIM BENN: It’ll fracture our community. There are corporate farms on the island who could well take a lot of the wind towers, and if they do that, they don’t live here, they don’t have to bear with it. And the other thing is, Fiona, if we want to leave the island, if I want to take my wife to Melbourne and back, I’m looking at at least $500 for airfares. We can’t get away from it. We can’t drive away. You know, in South Australia and Victoria, they have another house somewhere else 30 kilometres away where they can go to. We can’t do that. We’re stuck here. So if you don’t like it, you’ll simply have to leave.
FIONA BREEN: King Island farmers could be the big winners. They’ve been hit hard by the abattoir closure and falling milk prices. Some see the rent they’d get from having a turbine on their land literally as a windfall. In other regions, landowners have been paid as much as $10,000 a year. Beef farmers in particular stand to gain.
ROGER CLEMONS, BEEF FARMER: They’ve made an offer to the beef industry here to put money towards an abattoir and continuing trying to get a feasibility study progressed with a prospectus, a business plan. So if we get a business plan paid for and if the wind farm is feasible and it’s built, then they’re going to put millions of dollars into building an abattoir.
FIONA BREEN: JB Swift closed the abattoir suddenly in September last year.
ROGER CLEMONS: We’ve got to ship them live now on a boat. From $10 to get to the abattoirs, it’s now $110, $115. And that’s with freight equalisation. If it wasn’t for freight equalisation we’d be looking at $150 a head. And that’s straight off the bottom line and that’s big cost pressure.
FIONA BREEN: It’s a lot of cattle travelling by truck and ship over a notoriously rough stretch of sea. After six months they’re getting better at it, but live cattle export is unpredictable and a disaster for the bottom line.
So what sort of costs would that be for you each year?
ROGER CLEMONS: Oh, that’s about $70,000. And I know that the largest farm here’s looking at over $500,000.
FIONA BREEN: For third and fourth-generation King Island beef farmers, Roger and Thor Clemons, it’s gently, gently as they round up and load their prime beef onto a truck bound for the ship that will take them to a mainland Tasmanian abattoir.
ROGER CLEMONS: We’re in to low stress stock handling here. We have got to be, to keep our own stress levels down I think. As well as presenting MSA-graded cattle.
FIONA BREEN: Animal stress levels are measured at the abattoir and can also have a downward effect on prices.
ROGER CLEMONS: When the animal’s slaughtered it goes through a process of measuring the size of the eye muscle, the pH level, fat colour, meat colour, various – a few other things and you get enough points, you get into the top groups.
FIONA BREEN: King Island beef producers account for 22 per cent of Tasmania’s cattle herd. On average about 28,000 are processed each year. It’s a tiny proportion of the national herd, but it’s some of the country’s premium beef. Live export is unpredictable and risky for the premium brand.
ROBBIE PAYNE, KI BEEF PRODUCERS GROUP: Ultimately we’d much prefer to have a beast that can be trucked for half an hour for processing rather than have to endure a boat trip, but you have to deal with the hand that you’re dealt and at the moment our option is to prepare as well as we can and make sure that the cattle are loaded correctly, have as little time on the journey and then arrive in as good a manner as we can.
FIONA BREEN: Farmers breathed a sigh of relief recently when a Tasmanian Government-commissioned feasibility study into an island abattoir was positive.
JOHN MARTIN, BEEF FEASIBILITY STUDY: It provides a realistic snapshot of the challenges and the opportunities for King Island. It says that an abattoir is feasible, but it’ll cost $30 million to build an export abattoir and $14 million to operate.
FIONA BREEN: It says a new marketing arm is integral to any new project. JB Swift says it owns the King Island brand, but legally, a regional name cannot be trademarked. One of the biggest issues for any new operator is supply. It was a problem for the former abattoir.
ROGER CLEMONS: If an abattoir’s to work, it needs throughput, so it needs the island commitment. And unfortunately, it probably didn’t happen as well as it could’ve when we did have the abattoir here. There are other factors as well, but that’d be one. If we even re-establish one, that’d still be an issue.
FIONA BREEN: Either way, any abattoir needs investors. The Tasmanian Government has ruled out support. JB Swift, the former operator, has not put its hand up and is refusing to sell their mothballed King Island abattoir. Greenhams, based at Smithton on Tasmania’s north-west coast, is also not interested.
JOHN MARTIN: The interest that’s being garnered at the moment will be forwarded on to the beef producers for their consideration.
FIONA BREEN: So it’s really up to the – it’s hand over to the beef producers?
JOHN MARTIN: Well that’s right. Any potential investor is not going to take any further steps unless they can get some sort of guarantee of supply.
FIONA BREEN: Hydro Tasmania could be the beef industry’s saviour. As the to-ing and fro-ing continues, cattle will still be shipped off island. Beef producers are seeking help with freight.
ROGER CLEMONS: We’re looking for a $60-per-head subsidy or reduction in the freight price itself. We can justify it because anywhere in Tasmania’s $60 or less to get to a processing plant. Yes, it’s a tough one. Bass Strait shipping’s expensive. Yes, it’s being addressed and we’re fairly positive there’s going to be a reasonable outcome.
FIONA BREEN: Beef farmer Michael Youd is hoping for freight relief. Since the abattoir closed, his operation was become a marginal business. Despite his economic difficulties, he’s one of a group of farmers against the wind farm proposal, even though he could stand to gain.
MICHAEL YOUD: I don’t think it’s the answer for King Island, no. I think it could – it would destroy the island. It’ll rip the heart out of the community. It’ll split – divide the community. It’s happening already. I feel very strong that it’ll repair itself if the towers don’t go anywhere, but if the towers do, I think the community will divide.
FIONA BREEN: His anti-wind tower stance has taken a huge personal toll on his own family.
MICHAEL YOUD: My father’s fairly strong in his opinion on it and he did make a statement that he’s doing it for the grandkids and the future grandkids on the island. Well, none of his family want it, none of his grandkids want it. I don’t understand why he’s so strong on it, but I probably shouldn’t talk about that too much.
FIONA BREEN: Patriarch Peter Youd has lived on the island for 47 years. He’s lived through the good times and the bad. He’s worried about the island’s dwindling population and its effect on infrastructure like schools, hospitals and aged care.
PETER YOUD, TASWIND: The year I come here there was 145 dairy farms. Over 40 of those were share farmers. You had a mine that was employing 450 pay packets every week. The island actually boomed because it was double the population what we are now.
The island has changed and I think in some cases, unless – we’ve got a situation now where’s controversy going on with the wind towers and we’ve got a golf course which I fully support. We’ve got to accept the change because I don’t believe the island can keep going with the current population and the current infrastructure like we’ve got.
FIONA BREEN: Michael Youd and many with the No Wind Farm group are pinning their hopes on alternative economic saviours, including two proposed golf links courses. While there’s been an official sod-turning ceremony on one site near Currie, there’s been no real development activity.
An independent economic report commissioned by TasWind suggests King Island will be $36 million better off without the wind farm. It’s basing that scenario on a wind farm having a negative impact on visitors to two international golf links courses, including this one, Ocean Dunes, just north of Currie, which is still seeking investors.
Up north at the Cape Wickham development site, preliminary work has started with some planning applications still pending. It’s unknown if full-scale development will start this year or next.
It’s business as usual for the island’s dairy farmers, producing milk for Lion and its world-renowned dairy products. They’ve also suffered under tough economic conditions in recent years. There’s 12 dairy farms on the island these days, producing 15 million litres of milk a year, about half the amount produced 10 years ago.
TROY SMITH, KI DAIRY FARMERS GROUP: Nearly all gone to beef unfortunately over the years for varying different reasons. Some people have struck financial trouble, some people had labour problems and a lot of contracts haven’t been forwarded on mainly because they basically wanted less milk. So, if they want less milk, farms go out until they get to the level that they want.
FIONA BREEN: Despite tough times, dairy farmers are split on the wind farm development. As a group they’ve decided to stay out of the contentious debate.
TROY SMITH: I think if we had a meeting where I said, “Right, guys, we’ve got to decide are we for it or against it,” I think that would start an argument and that wouldn’t do us any good. You know, I think that a lot of people on the island really need to pull their heads in and just be a bit more considerate of each other’s opinions and just let the process continue and stop being so passionate.
Because, I mean, passion’s a great thing, but I think we’re being a little bit over the top with it at the moment, and if we don’t stick together over here then we’re gonna find things aren’t quite as good as they should be.
MICHAEL YOUD: Some people will move off the island. If it goes ahead and it divides the community, I don’t want to be here.
PETER YOUD: I’ve never seen the island divided like it is at the moment. King Island is probably one of the most beautiful places, was one of the most friendliest places I’ve ever been to. And I still believe you’d go back to that with a bit of common sense.
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