A Gippsland wind farm was receiving nearly $12 million in compensation payments for loud, faulty turbines despite denying they were causing a noise disturbance to local farmers, who are now suing the company.
The Supreme Court heard that Infrastructure Capital Group, owners of Bald Hills Wind Farm, received an $11.7 million damages payment from the turbine’s manufacturers due to a gearbox tonality issue.
The manufacturer, Servion, told them about the malfunction in 2017. However, the wind farm continued to operate and under cross-examination Infrastructure Capital Group director James Arthur admitted none of the turbine gearboxes had been repaired or replaced since 2017, in part because the manufacturer became insolvent in 2019.
In the latest of a series of “David versus Goliath” wind farm cases in Victoria, local farmers John Zakula and Noel Uren are requesting damages for noise disturbance and could demand the wind farm be deactivated for at least some of the day. Infrastructure Capital Group disagrees with claims that its turbines have been causing significant disturbance.
Mr Arthur also conceded during cross-examination that his company had not told Mr Zakula and Mr Uren they were receiving compensation payments at the same time as operating the wind farm.
Speaking to The Sunday Age, Mr Zakula describes the sound of the turbines just over a kilometre from his home as “like a roaring train”.
The 64-year-old bought his property in Tarwin Lower in 2011, building his off-grid home from scratch with an organic farm and solar panels.
His bedroom had a window from floor to ceiling. Within a year of Bald Hills opening in 2015 – around the same time he lodged his first complaint to South Gippsland Shire Council – Mr Zakula pulled out the glass and replaced it with bluestone rocks to try and counter the noise.
“I still hear the turbines over everything. Whenever there’s been a few really bad nights in a row, I drive my car down to the beach and sleep in it. Your body feels tight, your head feels in a compressive state. You just have to get out of the place.”
For Mr Uren, who moved to a different property three years ago, it was the unpredictability of the turbine noise that most triggered him.
“It was worse in cold weather and when the wind came from a certain direction. Some days I’d look at the forecast, see cold days and dread the roaring I knew was on the way.”
The duo’s grievances have culminated in a challenge in the state’s highest court that will hear both sides’ final arguments on Tuesday.
The case typifies an increasingly common dispute in Victoria: residents protesting against the installation of noisy wind farms in what is a rapidly expanding sector.
As the Andrews government pursues its emissions reductions targets of 28 to 33 per cent by 2025 and 45 to 50 per cent by 2030, at least 14 of the state’s 34 wind farms have been built since 2015. A further 22 are under construction or awaiting approval.
Similarly to Mr Zakula and Mr Uren, the construction of a 215-turbine, $2 billion wind farm in Golden Plains Shire, west of Melbourne, has been unsuccessfully challenged by local farmer Hamish Cumming on three occasions.
A Supreme Court challenge against a 26-turbine wind farm by 25 residents from Hawkesdale, south-west Victoria, was also unsuccessful in August.
Win or lose, Mr Zakula, represented by Dominica Tannock from DST Legal, hopes his case emboldens others in his situation to question how the industry operates.
“It’s costing us a fortune against these big multinational mobs. I’d like the entire compliance regime to be investigated and reconsidered after this,” he says.
On the second day of the trial, Justice Melinda Richards started by noting her associate received a phone call that morning from Andrew Dyer, the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner and former national wind farm commissioner.
“Mr Dyer apparently wanted to let me know that there is a range of resources on his office’s website and he also offered to speak with me about issues in the case,” she said.
“Needless to say, I will not be consulting the website and I will not be speaking with Mr Dyer.”
Mr Dyer apologised to the court later that week.
After starting the case as a group of 12 last year, Mr Zakula and Mr Uren are the only remaining plaintiffs following mediation and the death of two group members.
Living off-grid, Mr Zakula is keen to dispel any suggestions he or his neighbours are anti-renewables.
“I live down here to enjoy the environment. I haven’t been able to do that for years.”
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