Bob Brown, one of Australia’s most prominent environmental activists, says he opposes a major windfarm development because its towers will affect Tasmania’s natural beauty and could kill endangered wildlife without any economic benefit for the state.
The former Greens leader said the $1.6bn Robbins Island development could harm migratory and critically endangered birds, and transmission lines to link the plant to a new power cable across Bass Strait would require a path to be cut through the Tarkine and Leven Canyon.
More broadly, Brown said he objected to plans to export clean energy from Tasmania under the government’s “battery of the nation” banner as it would not help the state and there were better solutions to meeting Australia’s electricity needs, such as boosting energy efficiency. He compared the Robbins Island proposal with the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, the contentious hydro project that he successfully led a campaign against in the 1980s.
“It’s got similarities with the Franklin in that it is simply surplus to needs and is a project that is looking to assist outside entities without giving an economic dividend back to Tasmania,” he told Guardian Australia.
The claims are rejected by the developer, UPC Renewables, which wants to build up to 163 turbines on the island off the state’s north-west tip on land owned by wagyu beef farmers the Hammond family. The towers could be up to 270m high from ground to blade tip. At that height, the company would build up to 70 turbines for a capacity of up to 1000 megawatts.
Brown said staff at his Bob Brown Foundation had been contacted by “very anguished” people near the windfarm site concerned about its impact on several bird species including wedge-tailed eagles and the critically endangered swift and orange-bellied parrots. “The proponents of this windfarm have zero idea of the impact on migratory birds,” he said.
While the foundation would not campaign against the windfarm, Brown hoped his intervention, which began with an opinion piece in the Hobart Mercury, would start a public debate about whether it should go ahead. “If it’s a great project the proponents should welcome that,” he said. “It’s a pretty simple exercise in a democracy. People should know about it and they don’t. That’s why I wrote the article.”
UPC Renewables said Brown was wrong to suggest information about the project was not in the public domain. David Pollington, its chief operating officer, said since starting in mid-2017 it had engaged with politicians from all parties and held 14 sessions where local community members could ask questions. He said changes had been made based on feedback from Birdlife Tasmania and other groups. “We have never made any secret of this,” he said.
Pollington said the developers had included several buffer zones to protect the different bird species that could be affected. He said the proposed transmission line path was mostly on forestry and commercial farming land and “nowhere near” the Tarkine, which was generally accepted to start below Arthur River.
“Bob is an intelligent man but he has not seen all the data. It will not be hidden, it will be presented,” he said. “I think [people objecting to the project] will be presently surprised when they look at it. If they see a deficiency in something we’ll be happy for that to be raised.”
Pollington said the project would help reduce power prices in Tasmania as wind energy was cheaper than that from local hydro power and coal-fired electricity imported from Victoria. He said it could create 350 construction jobs and up to 50 full-time operational jobs in a part of the state where opportunities were limited.
He said there was also a greater good in Tasmania, which runs nearly entirely on hydro power but sometimes relies on imported coal electricity, generating excess clean energy to help lower greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. As well as feeding electricity to Victoria, he said it could lead to new clean industries in the state such as hydrogen manufacturing.
Pollington said he was “a bit perplexed” by the suggestion Tasmania should not embrace that. “It’s all a bit Nimby [not in my backyard] in my mind,” he said. “To me, it’s a golden opportunity for Tasmania.”
Brown said he had supported other windfarms in the state, at Granville Harbour and Cattle Hill, but Robbins Island was “a step too far”.
“Windfarms have great positives, they are generating renewable energy, which is helping save the planet from the climate emergency and that’s a very big plus. But they are very diverting to people who have an eye to the natural beauty of Tasmania and its landscape,” he said. “There is no doubt about that.”
The company said a planning application would be lodged with the Circular Head Council and the state Environment Protection Authority in the next four to six weeks. The project will also need federal approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
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