There’s only one road out of the Loongana Valley.
Only wide enough for one vehicle, it winds through dense, green forest and frosty pastures to follow the Leven River inland from Tasmania’s north-west coast.
The closest town is Ulverstone, some 45 minutes drive away on this remote path. It is another 15 minutes to the closest city, Devonport.
The mountains on either side shade the valley into a bitter cold – it’s 10:00am and the mercury has not risen above zero – but none of the locals seem fazed.
“It’s just pristine wilderness … you don’t get it anywhere else,” Rebecca Hosemans says.
Ms Hosemans and her husband Glen moved here about two years ago. She sheds a few tears describing her attachment to the area.
“It’s serene, it’s heaven on earth, basically, that’s what I feel, and I’ll be absolutely heartbroken if they destroy it,” she said.
Like many other residents, Ms Hosemans fears the area will be irreparably tarnished if plans for a new transmission line go ahead.
Energy company UPC Renewables and Tasmania’s energy provider TasNetworks want to build a 170-kilometre-long high-voltage line from West Montagu, in the state’s far north-west, to Staverton, near the tourist town of Sheffield.
The line would be used to export power generated at a proposed wind farm on Robbins Island and at West Montagu – a project that would include up to 158 turbines generating 500 megawatts of power in stage one alone.
That’s enough electricity to power the entire state.
UPC would own and operate the majority of the line, but the 55 kilometre stretch slated to run through the Loongana Valley would be built, owned and operated by TasNetworks.
‘A scar on the landscape’
Len and Pat Doherty have run the Mountain Valley Cabins in the area for almost 40 years.
The once-Melburnians welcome international tour groups to the isolated wilderness to spot wildlife in its natural habitat, particularly the island state’s most famous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil.
“These are the sort of people who will travel the world looking for wildlife … they’ll go somewhere to see a snow leopard, or to Russia to see the Siberian tiger or to Tasmania to see the Tasmanian devil,” Mr Doherty said.
But he fears the line could change all of that. He is concerned construction work will scare off the animals and that the visual impact of the line – which would require the clearing of hundreds of hectares of forest to create a 90 metre easement – will devalue the couple’s business.
“It’s going to make quite a big difference to our business, what customers thoughts are when they get here. We’ve had tour groups coming here for years and years and I don’t know if they’ll keep coming or not.
“It’s an anti-tourism project … It’ll be a scar on the landscape.”
About 2km up the hill from Len and Pat’s cabins is Ben and Brenda Marshall’s property, which looks out onto the area’s much-loved mountain, Black Bluff.
Its presence is powerful for locals, much like kunanyi/Mount Wellington is for Hobartians.
Mr Marshall is spearheading the community opposition to the transmission line and has formed the group SOLVE – Supporting Our Loongana Valley Environment.
He said it had been difficult to get information about the proposal from TasNetworks and the relationship between the state-owned company and residents was “now one of distrust and dislike”.
“We’re utterly fed up with them,” he said.
“Their community consultation is always designed to educate us and to hear our concerns and answer our questions, but what we found in practice is they answer our questions with spin.
“If Tasmanians got something out of it, we’d live with it … but what we’ve found out is there’s nothing in this rotten project for any north-west Tasmanians.”
Embracing renewables to bring down power prices
Two and a half hours’ drive up the coast at Jims Plain, the windy and wet site for up to 31 of the wind farm’s turbines, UPC Renewables chief operating officer Dave Pollington says Tasmanians would benefit directly and indirectly from the project.
He said the company’s modelling showed the project would inject $30 million into the state’s economy.
“There’ll be a reduction in power price for Tasmanians, the second is economic development through construction activity and potential industrial development, and the third thing is potential opening up of other industries within Tasmania,” he said.
This part of Tasmania is well-accustomed to seeing wind turbines dotted across the landscape, with the Woolnorth turbines visible in the distance.
Wading through thick brown mud towards a wind monitoring tower, Mr Pollington said UPC had been in the nearby town of Smithton every four to six weeks to listen to the community.
“We have a drop-in centre, so essentially a large drop-in space with lots of information available. You can get a cup of tea and a biscuit, and we encourage people to come in and talk to us,” he said.
Circular Head Deputy Mayor Norman Berechree said people in his area were broadly supportive.
“The excitement would be the jobs for sure, the jobs coming through and more industry as far as renewable energy,” Cr Berechree said.
“We’ve had renewable energy here for a long time with Woolnorth and we’ve seen it work there.”
It is a project that has been in the works since 2017 and is still a long way off – the turbines at Jims Plain have been given the green light by the Federal Government and will now go into a secondary approval process.
The rest – about 127 turbines slated for Robbins Island, the causeway linking the island to mainland Tasmania, and the transmission line – have not yet gone before any planning authorities.
Mr Pollington said the best case scenario would be to start construction in late 2022 and finish in 2025.
‘We’ve taken feedback on board’: TasNetworks
TasNetworks wants to build and own its part of the transmission line to support a second undersea power cable between Tasmania and Victoria, Marinus Link, which the Tasmanian Government and its energy businesses are keen to see become reality as soon as possible.
There are no clear answers on who would fund the $3.5 billion cable, but that has not stopped work to finalise the placement of the line.
Project Marinus general manager Bess Clark said an updated proposed route for the transmission line would be released in coming weeks.
“We’ve received much feedback from the community about what they like and what they would like to change about our proposed route, we’ve taken that on board,” Ms Clark said.
Despite the frustration expressed by some, she said there were plenty of reasons for Tasmanians to be excited about the transmission line project.
“What it’s doing is helping Tasmania unlock its fantastic renewable energy resources, helping Australia’s clean energy transition, and in doing so it’s unlocking thousands of jobs in Tasmania, particularly north-west Tasmania,” she said.
But for Len Doherty and other Loongana Valley residents, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs.
His message to TasNetworks is simple: “Don’t put the towers here.”
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