The ACT can boast it is leading the nation in the drive to use solar and wind power to heat and cool our homes.
Not only is the territory government driving this agenda very hard, but residents are paying to install solar arrays on their roofs, even without a subsidy.
The aim of the ambitious program is to draw 90 per cent of Canberra’s power from renewable sources within six years. But while this determination is applauded by experts in the field of renewable energy, it is causing war with some of the national capital’s neighbours.
One complaint is the ACT is ”selfishly” using the region as its source of renewable energy by offering lucrative incentives to build wind farms. That’s because the wind farms surrounding Canberra are in country NSW, including Collector, Crookwell and Bungendore.
This weekend marks the culmination of a vast expansion of the ACT government’s commitment to solar, wind and other renewable energy projects.
It comes at a key time, with projects worth up to $18 billion paralysed by uncertainty over the NSW government’s commitment to the industry as it delays new guidelines for wind farms for two years.
In addition, speculation is growing the clean energy target for 2020 will be reduced. The Abbott government blames the mandated target for renewable energy for driving up electricity prices.
And the federal government will scrap the carbon tax if, after July, the new Senate complies with its demands.
Renewables energy expert Professor Iain MacGill, from the University of NSW, said the ACT Government was playing a key role through the auctions. ”The ACT is the shining light on the hill right now in support of renewables in the face of significant push back from federal and state governments,” he said.
ACT Environment Minister Simon Corbell has made several announcements in past weeks, including confirmation just days ago that he will begin new auctions for renewable energy projects, mostly wind farms.
The 200-megawatt wind auction is expected to abate about 500,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year and generate about a quarter of Canberra’s electricity needs.
This is big news for developers who have approval to erect wind farms in windy areas near Canberra but whose plans have stalled due to lack of funding.
Clearly, the huge structures are expensive but the critical point of Corbell’s deal is offering a guaranteed feed-in tariff for 20 years. The deal will give those projects the guarantee they need to get finance.
Wind is the cheapest technology to deliver power, costing 8¢ or 9¢ per kilowatt hour.
Is there a downside?
Of course, someone has to pay for this ambitious program and Canberra households can expect their power bills to rise. As ActewAGL passes on the costs, the slug to bills will peak at about $4 a household per week, and then fall.
Corbell has already seen the success of auctions for renewable energy. In the first round, more than 40 bids were received for 40 megawatts of solar capacity. Three companies were chosen; the Royalla project near Tuggeranong is expected to be running by the end of the year, and the other two – at Mugga Lane and Royalla – are awaiting development approvals.
Now the government is calling for expressions of interest to find sites for a next-generation solar farm able to produce 50 megawatts of power.
Not everyone is happy about these big expanses of solar panels, and owners of neighbouring sites are arcing up.
The ACT government is choosing the economies of scale of solar farms rather than smaller units on government buildings.
And householders know the benefits of utilising the ”free” energy from the sun. When the generous feed-in tariff was available for household solar systems – paying three times per kilowatt hour for power generated, compared to what the householder pays for mains power – 30 megawatts was installed on roofs. Since the subsidy was halted, and home generators have been paid the same rate as the cost of commercially available power, another 11 megawatts has been bolted to rooftops. We certainly have an appetite for saving money in the long run, and why not, given our climate?
Hence the solar farms. But we are not windy enough to make windmills commercially viable.
But that’s okay, too – long ago boffins with anemometers determined the ridges around villages in the southern tablelands would be ideal to push the huge, slow-turning blades of wind farms.
What does Corbell say to people in areas bordering the ACT where even more wind farms will be built to send power to Canberra?
”What is good for the region is good for the ACT, and vice versa,” he said. ”Large-scale wind projects will deliver jobs into the region, these projects bring permanent jobs into country towns like Goulburn and Collector because they need ongoing maintenance.”
Of course, the NIMBY syndrome is alive and well. In addition, farmers who accept payment for wind farms on their properties – land that includes windy ridges – are incurring the ire of their neighbours in the valleys, who don’t like the masts (and presumably are extremely irked not to be receiving the annual multi-thousand-dollar payments.)
The mayor of Upper Lachlan Shire Council, John Shaw, who lives near Gunning, reflects the turmoil when a farmer signs a contract with a wind farm company. ”There are some people who won’t talk to them because they think they sold out.”
He hasn’t been approached – ”I’m not high enough” – and in any case has doubts.
”I have taken a middle ground but I can see two wind farms, the closest is about eight kilometres away, and that’s close enough for me.
”So you can draw your own conclusions, I guess.”
Angus Taylor, the federal member for Hume, based on Goulburn, is unhappy with the ACT expansion plan. ”To put this in perspective, we have a little over 200 turbines now in my electorate – the plan is to go to 1400” he said.
”A large number of villages that have a ridge here in the tablelands area are at war with themselves at the moment over these things.
”The impact on local communities is incredibly destructive, which is why we won’t see them on Northbourne Avenue.
”Mr Corbell should look at options in the ACT because there is lots of vacant land there.
”If Mr Corbell wants to waste money, that’s up to him.
”He will be paying a huge premium for this electricity and there is a real question as to whether ACT electricity users want to squander their money in this way.
”It’s a much more expensive way to reduce emissions then other alternatives, and it seems that corporate welfare is alive and well in the ACT.”
The NSW Nationals MP for Monaro, John Barilaro, has reportedly called on his government to halt consideration of wind farm developments across NSW until the federal government has reviewed the renewable energy target.
”Until the federal government has developed a response to their review of the Renewable Energy Scheme, it would be irresponsible, a waste of time and resources for the NSW government to be accessing wind farm developments that may not be feasible,” he told The Cooma Express.
There was a different message coming from the O’Farrell government at a meeting in Canberra this week, when NSW parliamentary secretary for renewable energy Rob Stokes congratulated the ACT government for ”bold and innovative” policies on renewable energy. ”From a NSW government perspective, we acknowledge that this provides some wonderful opportunities for jobs and investment in regional parts of NSW that could really do with those opportunities,” he said.
As the meeting discussed establishing a renewable energy hub in the capital region, Stokes said a ”wonderful serendipity” placed many wind projects on the main transmission lines between Melbourne and Sydney – an opportunity ripe for exploitation.
The director of the Energy Change Institute at the ANU, Ken Baldwin, said the Corbell plan was a good example of thinking global, acting local and would deliver a research boost to the ANU with companies expected to fund research and develop partnerships with researchers.
He dismissed concerns about the impact of wind farms on health. A draft report released last month by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak body for health and medical research, found no reliable link between wind farms and people’s health.
Iain MacGill said the ACT had put an excellent offer on the table because it was offering a government-underwritten, 20-year contract.
”In its auctioning approach and support for large and medium scale solar farms, it has really been very innovative and really showing a way forward for state and territory governments that want to make a difference in this space,” he said.
”I think it’s fair to say the ACT is really showing the way on what levels of government can do to engage in this, but it’s not challenge-free for them, it’s not just happy, smiley green electrons, there’s the issue of public acceptance of wind farms.”
MacGill said the nation must work harder to build social consensus around solar and wind farms, such as by directing part of the revenue to community funds or to neighbours of lucky landowners who control windy ridges.
”A key part of building consensus is making sure people benefit, because in the standard wind farm development we’ve seen in Australia the land owner does well and the neighbour just gets to look at the turbine.
” What are the mechanisms we can use in our society to make sure the costs and benefits of this transition can be fairly shared?
That’s incredibly important and that hasn’t always been well managed.”
Corbell is aware of the tensions in villages surrounding Canberra.
He is telling developers that to be successful in the auction their bids would have to show what they were doing to consult with the host communities, and how they would invest in Canberra and partner with Canberra’s researchers. Fully 20 per cent of the score for each bid would go to each of those requirements, pushing them high up the agenda.
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